A Harvard Degree Won’t Buy More than a Sandwich

The New York Times just published a short piece entitled “Generation Limbo: Waiting it Out” by Jennifer S. Lee.  The subject material will be familiar to many cultural observers, but the article underscores the difficulties many twentysomethings are having today in advancing into adulthood.

Lee introduces the group:

Meet the members of what might be called Generation Limbo: highly educated 20-somethings, whose careers are stuck in neutral, coping with dead-end jobs and listless prospects.

And so they wait: for the economy to turn, for good jobs to materialize, for their lucky break. Some do so bitterly, frustrated that their well-mapped careers have gone astray. Others do so anxiously, wondering how they are going to pay their rent, their school loans, their living expenses — sometimes resorting to once-unthinkable government handouts.

One interesting aspect of the article is that many of the college grads profiled are from exceptional schools.  The Ivy League and its colleagues seem to catapult less of their graduates into the Center of the Universe these days:

For Geo Wyeth, 27, who graduated from Yale in 2007, that means adopting a do-it-yourself approach to his career. After college, he worked at an Apple Store in New York as a salesclerk and trainer, while furthering his music career in an experimental rock band. He has observed, he said, a shift among his peers away from the corporate track and toward a more artistic mentality.

“You have to make opportunities happen for yourself, and I think a lot of my classmates weren’t thinking in that way,” he said. “It’s the equivalent of setting up your own lemonade stand.”

There’s much to be said about an insightful, if brief, piece like this.  The cultural ground has shifted beneath our feet.  This is true for at least a segment of the young adult population.  Of course, there are plenty of young overachievers out there who are working hard and advancing fast.  In addition, there have always been folks who, for whatever reason, went to a pressure-cooker school, only to choose a simpler, slower way of life.  I grew up among some of these types in coastal Maine.  In my relatively underpopulated region, there were grads from Dartmouth, MIT, Swarthmore, Bowdoin and many other schools who chose not to work in major city centers.  They wanted a quieter life surrounded by natural beauty, and they got it.

There are some new pieces to the puzzle sketched for us in Lee’s piece, however.  The twentysomething population that fits into the “Generation Limbo” profile is not merely choosing a quieter life, but seems unaware of the personal challenges and societal costs of their aimlessness.  Money is not everything, least of all for a Christian, but it is hugely helpful in providing stability to oneself and one’s family.  Of course, beyond some mere instinct to start a family (which is good!), Christians believe that we fulfill the dominion mandate of Genesis 1 by pursuing procreation.  God designed the natural family and gave this model to us for our growth and flourishing.  Many of the college grads profiled in the piece have little sense or concern for such realities.  What’s more, the social costs of listlessness will be significant over time.  The struggling American economy must bear the weight of able-bodied citizens who are not, for whatever reason, “producing” at a historically adult level.  The money for food stamps, of course, comes from someone, right (or is it created out of thin air)?

We shouldn’t miss, though, that a fair number of these recent grads have come of age in a new world order.  They were not prepared for the adult world by their parents; they were given a promise of complete fulfillment in work and maturity; they jumped through many hoops to achieve, only to find themselves exhausted by the end of their schooling.  The reality of Generation Limbo owes first in my view to moral and spiritual teaching (or the lack thereof), but this phenomenon has emerged with the help of other factors as well.

Pieces like Lee’s remind Christians and churches of the need to invigorate our youth with the biblical vision of Christ-fueled labor aimed at theocentric glory.  The dominion mandate extends into today.  Other visions of maturity and adulthood will falter, eventually, but the biblical depiction of labor as intrinsically good and maturity as God-glorifying are truths far more exciting and purposive than the pursuit of such ends as money, success, or personal fulfillment, none of which can sustain us as an ultimate end.


HT: Ben Domenech’s excellent Transom email list

(Image: Matt Roth for the NYT)

  • http://www.facebook.com/g.mickey.d Guillaume McDowell

    I feel you’ve captured one side of the article, that of our generation’s listless response to the harsh economic reality. On the other hand is the harsh economic reality created in the wake of the Baby Boomers, who keep working because they have not saved enough to be able to retire. The motivated will do better than the unmotivated in any economic environment, and there are many unmotivated out there, but there is also a severe lack of opportunity for people who, a generation ago, would have had many more job prospects than they do today.

  • Carter Wooten

    I agree with Mr. McDowell. While there may be a sense of entitlement and lack of direction among many (not just Generation Limbo), it appears many of those profiled in this piece are not satisfied by their current position but rather are trying to make the best of the situation. There is something to be said for humbling one’s self to take work that is available in the interim while trying to discern a path. Also, I am not sure how you assert their apathy toward a family life. That is just not a focus of the article. With all due respect, parts of this post seem to draw conclusions on issues that can not seen in the article.

  • Brad

    I have to agree with Carter and Guillaume. I didn’t think that this post was an accurate reflection of the NY Times article. My concern is that we read and respond to articles based on what they actually say, instead of reading our own theories and ideas into them. I think we should do that in the name of fairness and truth.

  • http://www.facebook.com/g.mickey.d Guillaume McDowell

    Owen, I wasn’t intending to start a dogpile on your own blog. I was hoping to have you interact further. I agree with the general notion that marriage is too often delayed intentionally by our generation, but it has led to an alarming corollary in young, restless, reformed circles: the idea that marriage is how to fix the problems that plague young men in the church today. Could you interact on that idea perhaps?

  • owenstrachan

    Hi all, thanks for the comments. I won’t apologize for threading my own interpretation of “Generation Limbo” into the post. I don’t think I put words in the mouth of the piece’s author. I quoted at length from the piece, then gave things my own spin. If some disagree, fine.

    Working from a Christian worldview, it seems appropriate to make connections from the Bible, including the matter of marriage and fiscal maturity. In other words, there’s something major missing among many twentysomethings today: the traditional life narrative, in which one, according to Genesis 2:24, launches out on one’s own to create a new family for which one provides provision, protection and leadership. Men initiate this historic pattern, and women respond to men. New families are created, maturity is accelerated, hardships happens, but through it all, stability sets in for both family and the broader society.

    The new narrative is not wholly bad, but it suffers from a lack of biblical direction. Guillaume, you may well be right that the boomers handicapped their children by not saving. I don’t know how widespread that is, but I’m sure it’s a factor for some. I certainly agree that twentysomethings of our day were not prepared, as I said in the piece, for adulthood in the way that past generations were. That accounts for a good part of the “limbo” that the NYT picked up on.

    Marriage, frankly, is not for everyone. But it is for many people. Many folks who should be married–who are not called to singleness–are delaying marriage. This is not a good thing. It leaves men to focus on themselves instead of giving themselves for others; it allows them to delay taking on the role of provider, which is not good for their personal spiritual growth; it leaves women to fend for themselves, living alone, often wanting companionship that they can’t find (because men are hiding out); it hinders society, because economic productivity and familial stability are stifled or not enacted. These are not good developments. I personally believe that rather straighforwardly, even as I tried to make clear in my piece that there are other contributing factors. This situation owes not to monocausality.

    By the way, it’s one thing to have a job you don’t love. Everyone’s there at some point, maybe for a while. It’s another to not follow the biblical narrative. I may have basic worldview disagreements with some commenters or readers. If so, so be it. I’m glad to hear from dissenting voices and genuinely enjoy the give-and-take.

    If a person is living simply in order for ministry purposes, or is called to be single and is thus not pursuing the creation of a new family, that is well and good. Where twentysomethings are listless, confused, isolated, and not following God’s good script for most lives, that’s not well and good. That’s my basic point, one made by jumping off the NYT piece. Honestly, though, I think these themes are staring us in the face.