If you’ve read anything about young adults lately, chances are the refrain has gone something like this: young adults are entitled, lazy, self-absorbed, and going broke on avocado toast. Rainesford Stauffer is out to change this tired conversation. Stauffer, a journalist who writes about young adults for The New York Times, Teen Vogue, and numerous other publications, has distilled her years of grassroots reporting into An Ordinary Age, a soulful book exploring the diminishing returns of young adulthood. She insists that popular culture mischaracterizes today’s young adults, who are at the mercy of unprecedented cultural and socioeconomic changes, all of it combining to release this generation into a world without the safety nets their parents and grandparents enjoyed.
In An Ordinary Age, Stauffer provides a meticulous cartography of how outer forces shape young people’s inner lives. From chronic burnout to the loneliness epidemic to the strictures of social media, An Ordinary Age leads with empathy in exploring the myriad challenges facing young adults, while also advocating for a better path forward: one where young people can live authentic lives filled with love, community, and self-knowledge. Stauffer spoke with Esquire about the false mythologies of young adulthood, how capitalism commodified self-care, and how young adults can push back against a broken system.
Esquire: Where did this book begin for you, and how did it take shape over time?
Rainesford Stauffer: The seed of the idea came when I was freelance reporting and talking to a lot of sources who happened to fall into this 20-something age range, particularly people in their early twenties. No matter what we were talking about, the constant drumbeat was, “I need to do everything alone. I need to do it better than I’m doing it right now, and I’m never going to feel good enough.” People articulated that regarding everything from mental health to their dream jobs to how they made their way through social circles.
I was already reading research about shifts in modern young adulthood, which have happened as a result of all kinds of economic circumstances, cultural shifts, and societal shifts. There’s debate over whether emerging adulthood should be considered a new phase of life, but what we know is that the sociological markers of what it means to traditionally enter adulthood has shifted radically over the last fifty years. The modern perception of young adulthood is this idea that everyone is young, wild, and free. We’re supposed to do everything perfectly, but we’re also supposed to be exploring—that’s inherently counterintuitive. Then I looked at my own incredibly messy trajectory as a young adult and realized that not only did these things coexist, but sometimes they stood in total opposition to each other. Clearly it wasn’t just me; this pervasive “never enough-ness” seemed to be affecting everyone.
ESQ: In the book, you refer often to “emerging adulthood,” which isn’t specific to one generation, but rather a gauntlet we all have to pass through. As you put it, “The pressures of finding yourself and building a life aren’t unique to any single generation.” What are the emerging young adults of today up against that their parents or grandparents didn’t experience?
RS: We know that what used to be the five markers of adulthood have been postponed for many people. That’s getting married, having children, finishing school, moving out of your parents’ house, and entering the workforce. These milestones are not functioning the way they did fifteen years ago. Underneath it all is the sensibility that if we were just a little more accomplished, if we worked a little harder, if we were a little more outgoing, if we were a little more extraordinary, everything would turn out okay. In many cases, what I heard articulated in reporting was this trope of young adults wanting to be special, or wanting participation trophies for everything. Really, that specialness just feels like a stand-in for the security and stability we entirely lack. We know that previous generations felt some of the lack, too, but we’ve really eroded the social safety net and basic resources you need to even become an adult.
ESQ: Speaking of participation trophies, so much of writing about young people shares that derision. Supposedly we have no work ethic, or we’re spending all our money on avocado toast. Of course, you know that those statements are a false mythology, but when you sit down at your computer every day to write and report about young people, how do you combat those falsehoods?
RS: I seek to write about young people as if they are just people. I think a lot of how we contextualize any time of life, including the titles we give to generations, glosses over the incredibly nuanced and layered experiences members of those generations are actually having. For example, I think of how many young people I spoke to had stepped into adult roles in terms of work or being a breadwinner for a whole family. Some are parenting or caregiving much earlier than we would expect them to; some far before they turn eighteen. What gets lost in the plot when we lean into these generational stereotypes is that a lot of people are struggling for a lot of different reasons. Some of them are specific to young adulthood. When we approach young people as complex human beings who are impacted by their circumstances, my hope is that we end up with a much deeper story of what life really feels like for them.
ESQ: So much ink has been spilled about how corrosive social media is, but in this book, you take a more nuanced view. You write, “Social media gives young people a sense of agency. They are choosing to share a piece of themselves and their story. Their life is no small deal.” In your conversations with young people, what did you hear about how social media enhanced their lives?
RS: What stood out to me is how layered their perspective of social media is. Young people are often experts in social media, including in the harms it causes. I don’t think anyone is saying, “Instagram has been the best thing in the world for my mental health, and I love being able to compare my life to someone else’s in real time.” But what I loved about what my sources pointed out is that they didn’t necessarily feel like social media was the root cause of their loneliness or self-doubt. In many cases, young people described raising their self-esteem through Instagram and finding people who shared their identities represented there. They found communities. They found opportunities to be fuller versions of themselves than they felt safe being in their so-called real lives.
The conversation about social media and young adults isn’t one that’s inherently positive or negative. What jumped out at me is how conscious everyone I talked to was about what they were posting, and the agency it gave them over how they represented themselves. They knew when they needed to step back from a certain platform or unfollow something they felt was damaging.
ESQ: One of the most radical and deeply felt chapters in the book is the chapter about home. You deconstruct the argument that young people have to move away to show that they’ve made it. What’s so persuasive about that mythology for so many young adults, and how can we counter-program it?
RS: I think in America in particular, there’s this deeply embedded ideal that being upwardly mobile in life, whether that’s in terms of economics or moving forward on a trajectory, means moving away. Being on the move essentially means moving up in the world. That’s something we message to young people without even realizing we’re doing it. A major part of the college conversation, which always seems to leave out things like community college and trade schools, is this idea now is your chance to get out. We know that’s not true for everyone for a variety of reasons, from personal circumstances to financial ones.
There’s this idea that we become our best selves when we separate ourselves from our surroundings. We’re adventuring; we’re seeing new places and doing new things. None of that is inherently bad; it’s just that we completely lack the other side of the messaging, which is about coming of age and becoming ourselves in conjunction with our communities. Letting ourselves be shaped by other people, and hopefully shaping our surroundings a little bit, as well. This has been on my mind since I was seventeen years old, because I truly felt like such a failure, given that I didn’t want to move far away. Hyper-individualism is a big element of the conversations we have with young people about moving and leaving. It’s an idea of becoming yourself on your own as opposed to different questions. How do we become ourselves in a community, in a place we feel rooted, and how do we know ourselves beyond who we are when we’re exploring?
ESQ: What often strikes me about that conversation is the rejoinder, “If you don’t move across the country now, when will you do it?” As if your life and your ability to move are over at thirty.
RS: It’s so bizarre, especially when we know people move for all kinds of reasons. During this pandemic, young adults moving in with parents at record rates was seen as a moral failure rather than an economic side effect, or a choice made for cultural or familial reasons. We really do treat young adulthood like it’s running on a stopwatch and you need to amass every formative experience before you turn thirty. Somehow that manages to devalue life after thirty while also taking away the opportunity to slow down in any capacity during young adulthood.
ESQ: In the chapter about self-care, you write, “It feels as though self-care gives us one more thing to do, promotes the idea that everything is a personal problem we can fix on our own, and encourages a deeply commodified version of self-care that’s not accessible to lots of people.” You go on to quote a source who argues that self-care has an “easy alliance” with an individualistic viewpoint. How did we get to this place where so many of us don’t know how to truly, meaningfully care for and restore ourselves?
RS: I think we’ve been separated from ourselves in a lot of ways. In the introduction to the book, I quote an incredible expert who talks about “structural dispossession,” and how heavily it impacts this time of life, where we’re dispossessing young adults from basic needs. We’re expecting them to emerge into adulthood confident and together, but we’re giving them fewer and fewer resources to do so. That trickles down to self-care, because in many ways, it’s become a band-aid. Self-care is not going to fix chronic mental or physical health issues, particularly if you don’t have health insurance. Buying a bath bomb is not going to change your life if you don’t have a steady job.
These practices, which are good and helpful for some people, can become a situation where the onus is on us to solve problems that aren’t personal, but structural. That came through loud and clear in my conversations with young people; they were exasperated with suggestions. Wellness webinars are not helping. Meditation apps are not solving burnout. We have to look at the material conditions under which we’re expected to perform self-care. Young adults are very away that their problems will not go away because they meditated or used a bath bomb.
ESQ: The source you spoke with argued that self-care is aligned with the conservative viewpoint of hyper-individualism at the expense of everything else. Can you envision any form of self-care that’s more community-based?
RS: I’m still learning so much about this myself. But over the course of the last year or so, I’ve been reading a lot about the concept of collective or community care—the idea that we care for ourselves by caring for our communities. I think mutual aid is obviously a big factor there. In some instances, it’s as simple as reaching out to a neighbor and making sure they have what they need, or them doing the same for you. There are ways people are trying to thrive in spite of structural and systemic barriers. Personally, I think any self-care practice that helps you hop off the hamster wheel of constant productivity is worthwhile. In a lot of cases, that might be doing something by yourself or for yourself. Where that line of thought can go awry is when we expect self-care to solve all our problems, when in fact we need a living wage, medical attention, and other people.
ESQ: This makes me think of your chapter about spirituality, in which you explain how millennials derive spiritual meaning in non-traditional places. Maybe that’s part of the equation, too. If volunteering or taking spin classes is how you make meaning and find peace, maybe that’s where you can find communal care.
RS: There’s so much overlap in self-care and spiritual practice. For today’s young people, spirituality is a spectrum that can include astrology, tarot, going to the gym, or attending traditional religious services. I spoke with people who cited instances where they felt safe in community with other people. That really astounded me, because we often think of young adulthood as such an individual time of life. Hearing people cite profound experiences of feeling held or feeling safe in conjunction with their community felt really revelatory to me.
ESQ: Yet building that community and asking for that comfort is so challenging for young people. To be vulnerable, to admit you need someone—it’s tough. But what better self-care is there than calling someone who loves you?
RS: Totally. Because so much of the messaging around self-care is rooted in consumerism and capitalism, we forget that those little things can be versions of taking care of ourselves. A lot of people I spoke to mentioned feeling like it needed to be a grand fix, or they needed to carve out specific time for self-care and self-reflection. If those are the circumstances you’re working in, wonderful—carve out that time. But I think we forget that calling a friend, reaching out when you need help, cooking yourself a really fulfilling meal, going for a walk, getting out from behind your screen—these can be restorative practices.
ESQ: In a related notion, you’ve written a beautiful chapter about loneliness. I was fascinated by a comment from an expert you interviewed, Dr. Meg Jay, who argued that our twenties, second only to old age, is the loneliest chapter of our lives. You go on to highlight a term called “social health.” In what ways are young people in poor social health?
RS: What stood out to me in reporting that chapter was that a lot of us are in poor social health because we think we’re the only ones experiencing loneliness, feeling left out, or feeling left behind. We internalize a dangerous sensation: “Something’s wrong with me. If I really had real friends, I wouldn’t have to reach out to people. They’d be reaching out to me. I’m annoying them if I reach out to them.” When we have that disconnection where we think, “Not only am I the only one, but it’s a problem with me personally, and I should be able handle it alone,” that’s incredibly isolating. When we can’t admit that we feel alone, it saps our opportunities to reach out and improve our social health by connecting with other people. What I was hoping to get to the heart of in that chapter is that, however it manifests for you, loneliness is actually a very ordinary feeling during this time of life when so much is in transition. I wish we were more open about speaking up when we feel it.
ESQ: In the book, you enumerate the myriad ways the pandemic has uniquely impacted young people. How the lives of emerging adults have changed in the past year is very clear, but what’s less clear is how this year will shape their lives in the long-term. What will be the aftershocks of this time for today’s young people in the decades to come?
RS: I don’t think we can know all of them yet. We know some basics, which is that when people graduate into a recession, it can push them into a downward shifted economic trajectory. I do think that will be the case for young people now. The past year has highlighted what young people themselves have known for a long time, which is that young people are deeply impacted by systemic and structural issues, from racism to capitalism to the lack of healthcare, affordable education, and affordable housing.
There’s this false idea that because young people are young, they theoretically have all this time and their whole lives ahead of them—therefore what happens to them doesn’t matter much. They’ll overcome it and bounce back, whether it’s personal, economic, or social. We’re seeing increasingly that young people don’t always bounce back, and we certainly don’t always bounce back into the cookie cutter trajectory of how successful young adulthood is supposed to look. Hopefully in the coming years, we give a bit more grace to how we understand young adulthood. I hope the pandemic increases the very urgent cry that people need resources to build their lives. It’s not something that can happen in a vacuum.
ESQ: What would be the most powerful, systemic changes that could happen to benefit young people?
RS: What I hear from young people themselves, and this certainly isn’t a complete list, is the desire to have a self-directed and supported life. That includes affordable education, cancellation of student debt, raising the living wage, ensuring that everyone has healthcare, and having a sense of safety and belonging in the fabric of our society. Necessary to that is dismantling white supremacy, which we know is the bedrock of this country. This also requires looking at capitalism—racial capitalism, in particular—and how it impacts someone’s opportunities, choices, and lack of resources. What people talked to me about were inherently basic needs, which have been steadily stolen from generation after generation after generation. What’s inspiring to me about the young people I’ve spoken to how they’ve been able to really articulate what they need to materially improve their lives. “These are the things I need to help take care of myself and my community, and I’m not going to settle for someone telling me that I shouldn’t be able to have those things.”
ESQ: Early in the book, you write, “One of the high points of young adulthood is getting to define yourself and your life on your own terms.” What strikes me about emerging adulthood today in this precarious, expensive, white supremacist, late-stage capitalist world is how much is beyond our control. I’m thinking about the young woman you interviewed who bought a house and found her financial life undone when the house flooded. How do young people give themselves that freedom to define their lives and their identities when so often, being young feels like being a punching bag for the vicissitudes of a broken system?
RS: That’s the question. First and foremost, we have to acknowledge that we are impacted by our circumstances. You cannot individually solve your way out of every problem. That’s a pressure I heard articulated from young people over and over again: “If I’d been more prepared. If I’d saved more money. If I’d started working earlier. If I’d done better in school.” Popping the bubble of that pressure demands that we start looking closely at the circumstances and structures in which we’re coming of age. That’s part one: know that policy really does matter, and in a lot of ways, we’re at the mercy of what society looks like.
There’s a renegotiation that happens in young adulthood. For a lot of us, this is the first time we’re able to live on our own. It’s the first foray into having agency and making formative decisions about your life. Within that renegotiation, we have an opportunity to set what values and priorities matter to us. To the extent that we can, giving ourselves the opportunity to look at what matters to us, as opposed to what is supposed to matter to us, and what resources we need to get there versus the ones we have… I think can be a really powerful thing. We’re never going to be able to divorce young adults from their circumstances, but I do think we can slowly start unpacking the falsehoods that weigh on us, saying that if you’d been more extraordinary, life would have turned out differently.
ESQ: The question of “what matters versus what’s supposed to matter”: that feels like a central question of young adulthood. The older you get, the more you realize you don’t care about the things you’re told to care about. If we can set ourselves free earlier, that would be so liberating.
RS: The young people I’ve talked to who are in their early twenties, I can tell you, are much further ahead on that journey than I was in my early twenties. I’m hoping that the more we talk about these shifts in the social fabric of our society, we can ask more questions. We can say, “I understand that capitalism tells me I need to achieve X, Y and Z, but what do I value in myself? What makes my life feel worthy to me when the big stuff, like GPAs or jobs or staying on the so-called right track, fall away? What am I left with, and what do I want to be left with?”
ESQ: What do you hope that young people who see themselves and their experiences reflected in An Ordinary Age take away from the book?
RS: I hope the key takeaway is two things. First, we’re living in a time where it feels like young adulthood has shifted radically in response to economic, social, and cultural changes. It’s not that you’re suddenly behind, or that you’re not doing the right things. It’s that there have been shifts in how we think about young adult life and the resources we have to enter it. Part two is that I hope people who read this book walk away knowing that their ordinary self is valid and worthy and important, as is. I recognize that this can sound twee, because we get a lot of reminders on Instagram to embrace ourselves as we are. But what I hope is different about this reminder is that ordinariness can be a point of reflection on who you are instead of who you want to be—on what matters to you as opposed to what you’ve been told is supposed to matter. I hope we reconsider the idea of “enough.” I think we have a fixation with “enough” in this society, especially in young adulthood—being good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, perfect enough. I hope this book fills the well of enoughness, and gives people permission to exist as they are instead of living for the next best version of themselves.
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