The Real World Threw Up All Over Us
How twentysomethings are coping with the recession.
Jennifer is beating herself up for one decision she now regrets—spending $10,000 on her wedding and honeymoon last year. Getting married has also meant a higher tax bill. (Are you listening, Congress?) And, as a couple, Jennifer and her husband aren't eligible for a first-time homebuyer tax credit since she already owns.
I got another e-mail highlighting a love-and-relationship regret, from Heidi, who graduated from college in 2005 and landed a job with an architecture firm. "My employer was fantastic and I thought things were going to be smooth sailing while I worked to become a licensed architect," she writes. But last August, she moved to another city to be near her fiance. She found a not-as-good job. And then she got laid off. That was in November. In the months since, she's wrangled only two job interviews and no offers. Her fiance's company is going through a second round of reorganization, and while he survived the first round, it doesn't look good this time. He has no savings. Her unemployment insurance is running out. Going out with friends makes her feel resentful about the money she no longer has. "I have become more of a hermit and don't like to leave the apartment anymore," she says.
One step down from there, emotionally speaking: Last week I talked to a 26-year-old named Candice who lives in North Carolina. She'd written to say that she can't pay for therapy for her depression anymore because she has no job and absolutely no money. ("I have some spare change that I keep in a change purse in my dresser," she writes.) In August, Candice graduated from James Madison University with a master's degree in English. She is the first person in her immediate family to go to college. She wants to get a Ph.D. in literature and women's studies, to study the works of Margaret Atwood. But she can't afford to. Her parents, meanwhile, are having trouble understanding why she can't find work after months of searching. They're both ill and have to spend heavily for prescription medications. It is all an enormous, hopeless-feeling strain.
Since twentysomethings are often accused of whining, let me say that the e-mails in my inbox don't do that. They are about scrambling to make sense of changed, and reduced, expectations and are not filled with self-pity, or at least not of the maudlin, unjustified sort. Generation Y has a pretty good argument for being the worst off right now. They may not have kids and significant family responsibilities and bills yet. But along with their school debt, they havea lot of loss to contend with as they peer forward into the uncertainty ahead.
Some of them, also, are adjusting to not expecting much from work or ambition. There's a bad side to this: Shala talked about a long wait for a promised promotion, thinking of herself as someone who would "demand fair pay and fairly value my own worth." Now she doesn't want to insist on the title change because she's afraid the company would then have to pay her more—and she'd be more vulnerable to a layoff. Yet there's some good to be fished out of reduced expectations, too. Shannon, who works for AmeriCorps in New York City, wrote about how getting used to a basic lifestyle makes her less, rather than more, worried about what comes next. (It surely helps that she has no college debt.)
Shannon wrote earnestly about her hope that the recession would get us all back on track by encouraging Americans "to better understand or at least admit the interconnectedness of our society." I'm not so sure. But I'm glad there's still a bit of youthful optimism out there.
I got so many great e-mails from Gen Y-ers—you are a hugely articulate bunch of readers!—that I'm going to write another column discussing their decisions about school: whether to go to grad school or stay there, etc. More thoughts and stories about that are welcome. Send them to me at email@example.com. E-mail may be quoted in Slate unless the writer stipulates otherwise. If you want to be quoted anonymously, please let me know.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook or Twitter.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.