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BOOK REVIEW: 'Twentysomething': Parents Complaining About the Younger Generation: Deserved or Not?
The truth is -- as Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig write in "Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?" (Hudson Street Press, a member of the Penguin Group, 304 pages, notes, appendix, index, $25.95) -- members of the millennial generation, to a large extent, are acting like their parents, most of whom make up the younger cohort of the Baby Boom generation, born from about 1955 to 1964.
In the summer of 2010, Robin Marantz Henig, the Fiftysomething wife of college professor Jeff Henig, mother of Jessica and Samantha and an award-winning science journalist, wrote a provocative article for the New York Times Magazine titled “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” (Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/22/magazine/22Adulthood-t.html?pagewanted=all). It generated enormous reader response and started a conversation that included both millennials and baby boomers.
Working with her Twentysomething daughter Samantha -- her older daughter Jessica decided that working with her mother wasn't an option -- Robin and Samantha decided to expand the article into a book -- examining aspects of what it means to be young today.
The Henigs ask whether emerging adulthood has truly become a new rite of passage. They examine the latest neuroscience and psychological research, the financial pressures young people face, changing cultural expectations, the aftereffects of "helicopter" parenting, and the changes that have arisen from social media and all things Internet. Most important, they have surveyed more than 120 millennials and baby boomers to give voice to both viewpoints of a conversation that is usually one-sided.
Looking at topics -- including the Twentysomething crossroads, schooling, career choices, love and marriage, having babies or not, brains & body, friendship and parents as co-adults -- Robin and Samantha surveyed the academic studies and the answers to their questionnaires and after weighing the evidence and summarizing it much as a lawyer would do in court, gave each category either a "Now is New" or "Same As It Ever Was" grading. I liked this approach, because it appeals to the bullet point mind-set of Millennials, a mind-set I share with them.
No, I'm not going to reveal the conclusions --- "Now is New" or "Same As It Ever Was" -- for all the chapters, just two of them. I don't want to spoil the reading experience of a book that I think will appeal to both parents and children and I don't think picking the two chapters will spoil that reading experience -- only enhance it and whet the appetite for prospective readers of this book. I picked my chapters at random, sort of...
First, Chapter 3, Career Choices. Surely, circumstances have changed in a global world, with many jobs and careers being outsourced. Surprisingly enough, to me, at least, the authors said Career Choices are "Same As It Ever Was". And don't call me "surely"!
When I said I picked the two chapters at random, I lied. I picked Career Choices in large part because the authors used the example of recent college graduate Scott Nicholson, the subject of a 2010 article in The New York Times. (link: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/07/business/economy/07generation.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0). Scott, 24, had graduated from Colgate two years earlier and had been living with his parents in the Boston suburb of Grafton, MA ever since. (The account of Scott is on Pages 61-62). He'd been sending out resumes and job applications at the rate of four or five a week, seeking a marketing or finance job. He made the news when he was offered a $40,000 a year job as an insurance claims adjuster. He decided it would be a dead-end job and turned it down.
This resonated with me because my first job out of college in the summer of 1961 was insurance adjusting in Chicago and later in northern Indiana. The pay was $5,200 a year -- probably about the same in today's dollars as the $40,000 that came with the job offered to Scott -- and I worked for a prestigious Boston-based company that's celebrating its centennial this year. I had a decent one-bedroom apartment in Lincoln Park for $75 a month and a company car. I had no student debt (those were different times!) and insurance adjusting turned out to be a great learning experience that served me well when I broke into daily journalism in Hammond, Indiana in January 1966.
Scott Nicholson's decision to pass on insurance adjusting, supported by his older brother David, turned out OK, too. He got a job with Forrester Research in Boston, his dream job. While David Nicholson supported his kid brother, most of the 1,457 commentators on the web site where the story appeared didn't. Most were outraged, according to the authors, calling Scott "pathetic," a "big baby," all in all a shameful example of a generation with artificially pumped up self-esteem who think they deserve better than entry-level drudge work.
I'd dispute the claim that insurance adjusting is a drudge job. I was out on the street every day, learning people skills in a way that no college course could teach me. I learned how to detect malingerers who delayed getting back to work long after they should have. (Most of my work involved workers' compensation claims, with a few slip and fall cases). I learned how to interview people and get them to tell me things they wouldn't have done under normal circumstances.
Next, Chapter 2, Schooling. This is a case where things have changed radically, the authors state, and they say schooling falls into the "Now is New" category. My bachelor's degree in English turned out to be an outstanding preparation for a career in writing and reporting -- when I finally got a job on a daily newspaper, but today's Twenty-somethings seem to think that a law degree or a master's in whatever is the key to a great career. Quite often they're thinking wrong. A law degree is great if you want to be a lawyer, but legal training is not necessarily the best background for most jobs.
From the summation (Page 55): "We're impressed by the similarities that keep cropping up between descriptions of Millennials' higher education experiences and contemporaneous description of the Baby Boomers' , in terms of both the goals of education and and the difficulty in finding jobs. But we're more swayed by the way overwhelming college expenses and crushing student debt, combined with the dire economic outlook, color so many decisions of today's young people. Because of that, we think this round goes to the camp of Now is New."
I liked this well-written -- entertaining, even -- exploration of the differences between the worlds of parents and children and believe that reading it will help clear away some of the misinformation that's prevalent today.
About the Authors
Acclaimed science journalist ROBIN MARANTZ HENIG is the author of nine books and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine. In 2010 she received a lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors and a Guggenheim Foundation grant. Her website: http://www.robinhenig.com/
SAMANTHA HENIG is the web editor of the New York Times Magazine. She previously was a writer and editor at The New Yorker, Newweek, and Slate.