How will the recession affect this optimistic, institution-trusting GenY?

December 7, 2010 | By Barbara Ray

As Not Quite Adults wraps up, I've been working on a new book with Maria Kefalas and her husband Pat Carr--what we're calling Generation-R (for recession)(Thank you Steven Greenhouse). They and a team of sociologists are interviewing young people from the Philadelphia area about their lives. We're curious how a recession as deep as this one is altering their plans, their hopes, their beliefs. More critically, we're wondering, is this a turning point for the country, captured in a generation?

 Although we're just getting into the project, we're already seeing some substantial shifts--and some more predictable stories as well. I always love reading transcripts. It's like reading a novel--you begin to quickly form an image of this person you've never met, and with enough transcripts under your belt coupled with larger surveys and reports, you also begin to piece together an impression of a generation.

The picture of a generation that emerges from projects like this is, to me, a canary in the coal mine of history. If you look carefully, you will see where the country is heading and also where we've been. My husband and I were talking about this topic Saturday as we took a break from our holiday shopping. Over a bowl of clam chowder and a glass of wine, with the first snow falling outside, we talked about how different he is from his oldest brother, who turned 70 this year. His brother grew up when Truman was in office, amid thick conventionalism. My husband, in turn, was born in 1950 and came of age amid the swirl and confusion of the 1960s. The two brothers are night and day in their outlook on life, and it's not hard to see why. Of course there's always that quirky mess of genes and biology that alters our worldview as well, but the moment when biography meets history is duly transforming.

I was struck by this generational "marking" again when listening to an interview with Bruce Springsteen on NPR about his seminal album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. The album, he said, captured the turning point we as a nation--and as a generation--were facing in 1977-78. We were then (as now) at the tail end of a severe recession. We were just emerging from the turmoil and questioning the Vietnam War had wrought. Crime was at an all-time high in cities. The country was in a deep malaise. It was, he said, an end of innocence. Look no farther than music and film of the day, from the rise of punk-rock to Taxi Driver and Chinatown. That era was when my own generation came of age, ushering in the decades of detached irony and cynicism.

In many respects, we're now at a similar turning point. In the interviews I'm reading, I'm hearing the echos of another childlike loss. This time, however, we're awaking from an age of make-believe: Make-believe that I can afford that Coach bag or Rolex. Make-believe I can afford the $500,000 home. Make-believe that I can make coast on a credit card. Make-believe that college is worth it. Make-believe that class and status do not hem us in and shape our destinies.

We are all waking up to a sudden new reality, and young adults are the ones forced to, as they say, make lemonade. At our county fairs when I was growing up, the highlight was always the dunking booth. A big-wig in town would take his seat on the metal bench above a tub of water, and the "little guys" would get to throw a softball at the target, which when hit would trip the seat, sending the big-wig into the bucket of water. The look of utter astonishment at hitting the water--even though the surprise was hardly, well, surprising--never ceased to delight. It is this same stunned astonishment that I hear in the stories of young people.

The roles have been reversed, but the surprise is still the same. Young adults--particularly those from middle-class families--have been dunked by fat cats on Wall Street, and they're popping up, soaked to the bone, momentarily laughing at themselves perhaps, while not quite sure what just happened...yet.

Two things are dawning on them so far. First, the future is no longer as carefree as it once was. As one young woman said, "the future is a little more dimmer now.... I'm thinking more of how am I going to do it, not that I am going to do it....When I was younger and before the recession, it was like, it is going to happen. Now it's, Is it going to happen?"

This is a generation known for its optimism and pragmaticism. This is not the ironic, cynical GenX. Neil Howe, in his book Millenials in the Workplace, finds that Millennials are optimists, conventional rule-followers, trusting of social institutions (esp. government), pressured and directed, and very achievement-oriented. They grew up amid a time of affluence (on paper at least), in a culture that said "you can be anything you want to be," and among families and schools that encouraged them to aim high. And they have. Yet the very characteristics of this generation make me wonder, are they in for a fall? As the woman above said, now I wonder, is it going to happen?"

A second realization for those in the middle and lower-middle-class is that meritocracy is a ruse. One lower-middle-class young woman, who had once believed that if you work hard, you'll succeed, is having second thoughts as she sees coveted internships handed out to those with lower grades but the right connections--often parental connections. Instead of heading to an internship to hone her resume, she is working in a car dealership as a receptionist. That burns, she says.

This "cultural capital"--the networks and insights and insider understanding that elite families have--is cropping up a lot in the interviews as a key advantage that "some kids" have. But this time with a subtle shift. The notion of cultural capital has always been with us, and widely acknowledged. Even in my fairly humble family background, the mantra was always, "it's not what you know, but who you know." But it was said with optimism. What might be changing is the shrinking size of the group that sees that mantra with optimism versus cynicism.

In families of modest yet still comfortable means, "it's who you know" is offered with the belief that they, too, can meet the right people, that they're just one step away from being invited into those circles. It's the belief in the American way, the level playing field, the equal opportunity. Or as my sister-in-law said when I asked her whether it wasn't bothersome that 1% of the country holds 25% of the nation's capital (yes, I was skating into dangerous territory for a Thanksgiving dinner)--"no, that's America. You can become one of that 1%."

Yet the middle-class kids are now beginning to turn that narrative around. They're joining the group lower down the rung in a brutally honest assessment of how things work in the world. It's dawning on them that perhaps it's no longer possible to join the club. Perhaps that's also why they staunchly believe in the Ivy League, even if it means going into deep debt. They have absorbed, often unknowingly, the realization that that extra boost of an Ivy League education on your resume lands you, at least on paper, in the club.

It's far too early to tell if this is a turning point or just the musings of a handful of young adults. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out in future interviews. But it does seem that all the elements are there for another turning point, with darkness once again lurking at the edge of town.