Q&A with Robin & Samantha Henig on Today’s Youth: Are the Kids All Right?

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Are today’s young adults struggling for too long, unable to leave the nest after years of helicopter parenting— or are they just reliving the same issues that previously stumped their elders?
New York Times magazine writer Robin Marantz Henig and her daughter Samantha Henig, an editor at the New York Times, try to answer these questions in their new book, 20something: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck? TIME spoke with them recently about the so-called Millennial generation and its discontents.

I was very glad to see that in your book, you consider 20somethings in two ways— one that you title “Same as It Ever Was” and the other “Now Is New.”  Many books and articles on this topic assume everything is unprecedented, but complaints about “these kids today” go back at least to Plato. 

RH: Our primary theme is that the 20s are times of making decisions and there are all sorts of doors that you have to start closing.  I think it’s more interesting in a way that it’s always been like this. It’s so easy to forget when you are in your 50s and 60s what things really were like when you were young.  But yes, these complaints are eternal.

So, what really is different now?

RH: The biggest change now that permeates a lot of aspects of young people’s lives are changes in technology.  There are two kinds: the always-connected internet stuff.  There’s also reproductive technology, which because of its [media ubiquity] is something people are taking for granted.

Young women are not at all feeling the age 30 deadline that my peers did [for having children].  The lack of feeling that pressure pushes back the urgency about accomplishing lots of things, not only marrying and having children, but also [issues] about career and where you want to live.

SH: [Yes]. [And] the way we’re so aware of the various options out there, what all our friends are doing at any given moment because of texts or checking in on Foursquare. There’s a real sense that there’s endless options and it makes it hard to commit to any one thing in terms of what to do on a Friday night or who to date and settle down with. We did feel like there really was a difference there.

What about the impact of the economy and student loans— is that different?

RH: The economy has been a big factor, not only because it’s been hard for new graduates to find work— in the 70s and 80s it was hard to find work as well— but [what’s new] is mostly that the burden of student loans and the proportion of income that you have to spend on housing and paying them back is more oppressive than it has ever been.

SH: It is objectively a lot more expensive to go to college and also more expected that you have at least a bachelor’s degree. That means that a lot of young people are taking on huge debts and coming on to a job market that is not particularly encouraging.

And what experiences are similar to those of the past?

SH: The general angst and angst among young people and the angst that triggers in their parents. That’s something we feel like from both sides. It gets talked about as being the worst its ever been. [But some readers] found comfort that when you look back at what people were saying a generation ago, they were making the same complaints  and feeling the same sense of being a little lost and scared about real adult commitments and it seemed that generation turned out OK.

RH: If you are talking about for the young person’s experience of their own youth or the world looking at young people, both are probably quite similar. There’s a combination of excitement and terror to be at this stage in your life and I think the people observing it from the vantage point of 30 years older are impatient for young people to grow up already and are worried for them.

Also, there is much greater economic inequality…

RH: And the time when you entrench those economic differences is the 20s. The differences between the haves and have-nots becomes crystallized then because some go on to higher degrees and soar and some people can’t.  You hear stories about people getting it together later in their lives, but what happens in your 20s really has such long tail as far as what you are eventually able to achieve.  It’s a much more important crossroad in the forest than has existed for previous generations.

What about FOMO or fear of missing out?  I remember that in my 20s and I always thought it was a very New York thing [where I went to college], because the city has so many options.

SH: I think it makes everyone a little bit flaky because there’s sort of this tendency and it’s accepted to keep your options open for something better. I do think it’s worse in New York because it [suggests] that there’s a better way to be living right now or more generally. ‘Oh gee I thought I had fun watching TV with my best friend this week and now I see what other people did and it sure looks fun having a picnic with your baby.’ And to the people with a baby it looks fun to be young and single.  You can never win.

RH: When I was on the school bus growing up I would think all the fun was in the back when I was in front and I was always aware that the conversation at the other lunch table was better.  Now, because of technology, there is such a huge circle you can be aware of— not just people at the end of the table, but in another [city or country] so I think that does add to a certain frenetic feeling that you don’t want to stay where you are and put the phone away because something better might ping into your feed.

You describe a woman who has what she calls a 2/2/2 plan, which involves precise 2 year intervals for finding someone to marry, being engaged and having a first child during her 20s.  It seems to me like 20somethings now have more of what seem to me to be bizarrely controlling lifeplans— that don’t account for life’s vagaries— than we used to do.

SH: I had friend in middle school who knew exactly where she would go to medical school and [that school] had a blue and red team and she wanted to be on a particular one of those teams And then she didn’t get into the math and science magnet program for high school that she expected to and that was a huge blow as an 8th grader but also it was probably good in the long run to learn at that point that you can’t plan it out quite like that.  I feel like there’s a chance that increasingly people are getting that reality check younger so it doesn’t have to be when you are 31 and can’t get pregnant when you realize life isn’t going to look exactly the way I thought it might.

RH: You can’t necessarily predict everything, but you also can’t meander endlessly.  This is one of the things that bothers me about people  coming up with generational stereotypes.  If you look at all the stereotypes about millenials, they are almost all internally  contradictory.  They are called the entrepreneurial generation, but they are also slackers living in their mothers’ basements.

What advice do you have for 20somethings and their parents?

SH: One piece of advice is just don’t worry too much but it is legitimately a tough time now and it’s a complex time in life because there are these big decisions facing you and if you feel overwhelmed, there’s good cause and it doesn’t speak to failure on your part. We’ve seen previous  generations grapple with the same questions and they came out okay.