I would venture to guess that members of every generation have felt they are unique, that their experiences are new and are more challenging than those of the generation before them. Like a younger sibling feeling angry at their teenage sister for stirring up trouble at home, for fighting with mom and dad, for acting as though their life is so difficult… and then finding, upon entering those years, that not only was their sister completely justified in her warmongering, but that now the battle is more epic and dire than ever before.
In a conversation between friends a few weeks ago, there occured an intense debate between two members of our generation, youngish twenty-somethings, still students or planning on being students again soon, still searching for something meaningful (and, more importantly, available) to do with our time. A dear friend who I met in graduate school when she needed a yellow dress which with to be Princess Daisy for Halloween (which I was happy to lend – come to think of it, I just lent another friend a dress with which to be Minnie Mouse – perhaps I should consider my style choices a little more carefully), argued that members of our generation, herself included, were having a much more difficult time establishing a career and saving money to put a down payment on a home or to invest in a business than the members of the previous generation, our parents, had. She cited a respected woman in her life who had, without higher education, established herself as a successful businesswoman and had begun this path in her early 20s. My romantic partner argued vehemently that on the contrary, there are many more opportunities available to us than there were to our parents, especially to women. Additionally, our parents grew up in a generation in which children were generally cut off from their parents financially once they hit age 18 and/or left trade school or college. On that point I happen to agree with him; while MOST of the young men and women in this country are still expected to provide for themselves once they are a legal and responsible adult, many are still supported at least partially by familial loans or donations.
The notable point their conversation suggested to me, however, is that most of my friends, colleagues and acquaintances seem somewhat suspended in one sense or another. This feeling of stagnation affects different people in different ways, of course. Many attribute the feeling to the end of their schooling, and start recalling their professors as much more intelligent and stimulating than they had thought them while under their tutelage. Some take jobs in which they feel disappointed and that there is more they could be offering. Some, perhaps the lucky few, found a place they wanted to be and are only now, two or three years out of college, feeling the push (or perhaps the pull?) of unrest and begin to search for something new. I think that the Occupy Wall Street protests embody the principles of those in our generation and others who feel strongly that the American dream promised them has been co-opted by talking heads and heads of corporations.
This post is a musing on the way romantic relationships are lived within this time of “running in neutral.” I use mostly my own personal experience and what I have observed and heard from friends and other people I see often in my life. I see a connection between the frustration and anxiety about our futures and the way many of us choose to conduct our romantic lives. My theory: as often involving cohabitation as not, young men and women are involving themselves in long-term steady, monogamous, sometimes long-distance relationships without engagement or marriage.
Now, of course, some have always chosen to regard marriage as an institution unnecessary in their romantic lives. But I posit that the delay in career choice among members of the upper middle socioeconomic class is a causative factor in the delay in “official” commitment. (That said, I wonder how the next 10 years will play out – will couples who have established a happy working relationship and who hopefully have established separate incomes decide that there is no rush and perhaps no imperative to marry at a higher rate than at other times in our country’s history?) Further, I think that though some scientific studies have shown those who cohabitate when young and then either marry have a higher divorce rate than those who do not live together before marriage, I believe that a comfortable, solid relationship is not only possible but readily observable in my generation today.
If people read this, some could wonder whether I’m not secretly jealous of those who feel that they are on a steady course and that they therefore want to take the monkey-suited leap. It’s true: I am. My friend Patrick just moved to Denver, my birthplace, with the love of his life and now lives with her and their puppy and plans to marry her as soon as he can. My friend Angela fell hard and fast for a lovely man who treats her like a princess and married him as soon as she could plan the wedding and make all the centerpieces. And yes, I’m jealous. But truthfully, I wouldn’t change a thing about my relationship, and what is relevant about that for this post is that I myself fear for my future, fear that I will be too lazy to work 50 hour weeks and save money to put children through college (that’s okay, my partner thinks children should earn their own keep anyway). And that fear allows me to envy and to feel so happy for my married friends and at the same time to know that the type of relationship I have is ideal for where I am in my life.