Monday, December 17, 2012

Thoreau-Going Twenty-Somethings

The reason I was poking around in Ellen Willis's Don't Think, Smile! was that I've begun reading a new book, Twenty Something: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck? (Hudson Street Press, 2012) by Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig, mother and daughter respectively.  The book grew out of a New York Times Magazine article by Henig Senior, as an attempt to deal with its subject in more depth and with the added perspective a twenty-something co-author could add.  I noticed the book because I'm interested in the perennial problem of adults who complain about the coming generation's fecklessness, irresponsibility, and dependence.  The Henigs promised to survey empirical research as well as interviews of real people, so I let myself form some expectations.

I'm about ninety pages in as I write this, and the book is due at the library today, with a hold on it so I can't renew it.  I may return to it later.  But for now I'm a bit disappointed.  The authors do shoot down stereotypes of the Millennials, as they call them, showing that many of the same complaints were leveled at the Baby Boomers: inability or refusal to commit to a career or a spouse, for example.  And I was amused when it was pointed out that Henry David Thoreau, the bold and free individualist who lived alone in the Walden Woods, nevertheless took his laundry home every week (only a few minutes' walk) for his mother to wash.  But not until just a page ago was it acknowledged that the Boomers, the generation Mother Henig and I share, are the anomaly, not the norm against which to measure twentysomethings now.  For example, the average marriage age in the Fifties and Sixties was low, historically speaking, compared to the Boomers' parents and grandparents.  The number of kids who went to college was also higher than ever before.

Among the most important, and one that the Henigs have so far ignored even though it's relevant to their topic, is that the economic boom after World War II raised expectations for economic mobility and security that were to be dashed in the 1980s and after.  My parents, and I presume Robin Henig's, grew up during the Great Depression and came of age during the War.  (The Depression is not mentioned in the book's index, nor so far have I seen it mentioned in the text.)  The US had long been the richest country in the world, but after the war we became politically dominant too, and unlike most of our competitors we had not been devastated as Europe, Russia, and England were.  As they rebuilt, we flourished, and we did so in a New-Deal environment where the federal government subsidized technology and education, with high marginal Federal income tax rates and regulation of banks and finance to prevent any more economic crises.  The GI bill sent unprecedented numbers of Americans to college, which meant that the universities no longer were the exclusive preserve of old family WASPs, and new civil-rights laws opened new opportunities to white women and to people of color.

What this meant was that my parents believed and hoped that opportunities were there for anyone who wanted them enough to work for them, and that their children could be anything they wanted.  It was no longer necessary to watch every penny, or to grab any job available to keep the wolf from the door.  They wanted their children to have easier and richer and freer lives than they had.  The Henigs are aware of this to some extent, but so far they haven't explored the political and social ramifications of these changes.

Which boil down to this: the Henigs agree with the pundit consensus that twenty-somethings tend to believe that there's no hurry to settle down, they have time to decide on a career and a spouse, the world won't collapse if they take a while to find their course.  This isn't some random fantasy: it's what they learned from their parents, and from the postwar social consensus.  The trouble is that the postwar consensus was falling apart just as the Millennials were being born.  American economic elites had never been happy with the constraints imposed on them after the Great Depression (let alone those of the war, when their ability to make obscene profits was kept under pretty tight rein).  They didn't like workers having job security, or the power to make demands on the owners and managers.  They hated the idea that workers could retire with a government pension, though of course the money for the pension came from their own work.  They preferred that working people should live in constant insecurity, never far from being thrown out on the street.  They couldn't see why the kind of speculation that nearly destroyed the world economy in 1929 should be regulated or forbidden -- on the contrary, there should be more of it.  And why should the lower orders be sent to public universities, where they learned sedition and class-hatred from the Italians and Jews who'd gotten in because of the GI Bill?  They began plotting reaction, which they began to implement during the 1970s.  (See David M. Gordon's Fat and Mean: The Corporate Squeeze of Working Americans and the Myth of "Managerial Downsizing" [Free Press, 1996] for more about this.)

At any rate, by the time today's twentysomethings were coming of age, deregulation had set America's moneymakers free, offshoring (subsidized by the taxpayer) had depleted the American manufacturing base, and kids who wanted a college education were finding it necessary to go into debt to do so.  Thanks to Reagan's policies, unemployment shot up to Great-Depression levels and never really came back down: the "new" jobs that replaced those lost under Reagan were largely less than full time, with fewer or no benefits, and lower wages. (Again, the Henigs haven't paid attention to this particular point as they consider twentysomethings' difficulties in finding good jobs.)  If twentysomethings were ill-prepared for these changes, it was largely because their parents didn't see them coming either.  They had been raised to believe that America was getting better and richer, that the barriers to equal opportunity had come down, and everybody could be whatever they wanted.  To the extent that they'd seen these claims in their own lives, why shouldn't they pass them to their children?  But by the 1990s the conventional wisdom had changed: the post-WWII boom was not the flowering of  the American free-enterprise system but a fleeting illusion, Americans were just going to have to lower their expectations, stop whining, and accept that a diminished life was inevitable.  (That was only most of us who needed to lower our expectations, of course: for the rich, no such adjustments were necessary, or tolerable.)

The Henigs do have an interesting quotation about the rise of student debt that reveals how narrow their focus is:
"It's not like we had a great national debate about whether we wanted to impose huge debts on young people," Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said recently.  "We just woke up and it had happened" [30].
That's right, it fell from the sky like a meteor, without human effort or thought!  True, the changes happened without a "great national debate," but people made them happen.  The Henigs aren't interested in asking who, or why, though both questions seem appropriate.

Ellen Willis is relevant to this because, as an older contemporary of Robin Henig and me, she observed the same changes and wrote about them with an eye to politics and history.  Don't Think, Smile! has a chapter called "Intellectual Work in the Culture of Austerity," which addresses the changes in the economy after the end of the Vietnam War and the rise of Reaganism.  Willis stresses that in this period it was possible to bypass the usual career paths (a big deal in the Fifties, with its Organization Man and Lonely Crowd, not to mention its Rebels Without a Cause) not merely to pasture one's soul but to engage, fully consciously, in intellectual and political work on a shoestring.  You could hardly expect the big organizations of the corporate state to subsidize work which undermines them, but young left intellectuals of Willis's generation didn't expect it to.  Willis's essay describes how she herself moved from freelance writing to regular journalism to the fringes of academia and ultimately to fulltime teaching, always with an eye to supporting the kind of work she wanted to do, which included political activism as well as writing.  She wasn't representative of her generation, but neither on her own account was Robin Henig, who married young, started a family and settled down while pursuing a career.  (Not to put her down: she got her BA at 19 and her Master's a couple of years later.)

The Henigs have so far ignored this political and historical context.  Like student debt, the economy and the job market are just out there, somehow, and their empirical resources have been resolutely apolitical.  They're also often ahistorical: most of the research the Henigs cite, while colorful, studies twentysomethings without a control group.  As I noted before, the Henigs' own basis for comparison is mostly limited to their own generations, aside from an occasional anecdote from Henig Senior's parents.  Twentysomethings are mostly compared to Boomers, not to the generations that came before the Boomers.  Maybe this will change later in the book, which is an engaging read.  I'll try to pick it up again early next year when it returns to the library shelves.