the hollowing-out of youth

(Santa Monica, CA)

Raised to study to the test, to volunteer with one eye on college applications and to play the sport with the most scholarship opportunities, Millennials carry that competitive mind-set into the workforce, said Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University in Boston.

“‘They feel like they need to take advantage of every opportunity they have for advancement,” Levine said. “You’re not going to get tied down to someone you just sort of happen to know at this point in your life. It feels like a risk, and there’s a cost for that.”

— Megan Finnerty, “Experts: Young people prioritizing careers over romance,”USA Today (and theArizona Republic), Feb. 14.

I don’t deserve to be cited as an “expert” on the general topic of this Valentine’s Day article (careers taking precedence over romance). In fact, Finnerty had called me to investigate whether young adults are more socially disconnected than their predecessors used to be. Her good reporting on that question was cut at the editorial stage.

But I do think her article covers an important issue. It’s not so much about being too busy or rushed, but rather about delaying activities of intrinsic value until real life begins, which is only after one’s education is complete. Everything one does during adolescence and young adulthood then feels like “preparation.” Thus Lew Friedland and Shauna Morimoto find that many high school students volunteer  for  career purposes. The entire thrust of education reform is ensuring that everyone reaches some kind of finish-line, as measured by test scores, college admission, or a job. No one talks seriously about whether people are having intrinsically valuable experiences for their first third of their lives. And the “hookup culture,to the extent that it exists, may also be a matter of delaying the encumbrances of a romantic relationship until one is fully prepared for life. I trace all those trends not to changes in people’s characters or priorities but to the new economic reality of individual risk/individual reward, in which one is alone to make one’s way in the market.

After a visit to Duke some years ago one which everyone wanted my views of the hookup culture, I thought:

Oh, come with me and be my love,
For Saturday night–that’s enough.
Next week, I’ve got a paper due,
A service gig, an interview too.
“Come with me”: remember, from our course?
(Also a pun, which I’d better not force.)
Yes, I deleted “live”–but you can stay
‘Til ten. Then I’ll work on my résumé.
Slippers and buckles of the finest gold:
One day you’ll have those, and someone to hold.
But I’m by myself now; the market’s tight;
For now, I’ve got to focus, network, fight.
Wait ’til we’re forty, and then maybe
You can be my love and live with me.

[For ease of reference, here’s the Marlowe original and previous replies by Walter Ralegh, C. Day Lewis, William Carlos Williams, and Odgen Nash.]

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.