In 2016, a headline in the New York Times went like this: “Millennials’ Roommates Now More Likely to Be Parents than Partners.” The writer begins with a silly, easy line (“The empty nests are filling up”), and then moves on to the grim new findings: “For the first time in modern history, young adults ages eighteen to thirty-four are more likely to live with a parent than with a romantic partner, according to a new census analysis by the Pew Research Center.” How to interpret this new state of affairs? With plenty of dire assertions: “the grown children’s continued presence in the parental home can signal an inability to take the steps needed to become real adults”; “[This grand shift] violates our cultural sense of how young adults should live their lives.”
Stop me if you’ve heard this all before. The Millennial Think Piece is now a distinctive genre with its own conventions: Pew survey results followed by lazy and overly generalized pronouncement followed by hedging qualification (not all millennials are college-educated) followed by more lazy and overly generalized pronouncements. Millennials show the dangers of helicopter parenting; they illustrate a shift from personhood to selfie-hood; etc.
I’m a millennial, and I’m sick of us. Or, at the very least, I’m sick of what the New York Times and Slate think about us. We need to pay less attention to the grand meaning of millennials and more attention to the experience of millennials. In other words, we need fewer think pieces and more novels.
Three recent books—Greg Jackson’s short-story collection Prodigals and a pair of novels, Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter and Tony Tulathimutte’s Private Citizens—help address this imbalance. All three are debut works by writers in their thirties, and all three successfully address the central questions that any thoughtful young adult must consider: What does it mean to lead a good life? What is the role of work in such a life? Of love? Of community? How are we to meet what Jackson describes as the “implausible hope that someone might…find her and lead her inside, not to a bar, not to any one room, but to the sanctum of shared reality where a mind took its form in another”?
These questions wouldn’t be unfamiliar to characters from a novel by Austen or Dostoevsky. Contrary to what the think pieces might lead you to believe, millennials aren’t monsters incubated in a social-media petri dish, nor are they simply the products of changing cultural and economic circumstance. They are humans confronting the same problems—problems of desire, intimacy, and meaning—that humans of every other generation have confronted.
Of course, all three writers recognize that being a young adult now involves new phenomena. (New phenomena, we might add, that should lead more to sympathy than to censure: for all the talk of millennials’ failure to launch, the past decade hasn’t exactly been a great time to enter the workforce.) Austen’s characters didn’t have to worry about student debt, though they were painfully aware of how financial precarity might shape a life, and Dostoevsky wasn’t tempted by internet pornography—and, given his tendency toward addiction, thank goodness for that. Yet despite these historical and social changes, Jackson, Danler, and Tulathimutte suggest that young people today, both in real life and in fiction, are faced with the same problem that faced Emma Woodhouse in 1815 and Raskolnikov in 1866: how to become a self, with all the obligations that selfhood entails.