In the late ’60s, Joan Didion ventured to San Francisco in search of “social hemorrhaging.” She had an apocalyptic tone and an eye for disaster. She came to the city that was a mecca for kids that wanted to stay lost. She came to write about the rebels, the runaways and the counterculture.
Slumming it with the kids who dealt drugs at the park after performing in their school plays and those who escaped suburbia to hang around as groupies of the Grateful Dead, Didion trailed the delinquents and social outcasts, the ones that exposed the supposed cracks in the veneer of the American dream. For many, LSD was an escape. It allowed them to transcend a society where the social mores were too constraining and the middle class conformity too monotonous and suffocating. When Didion asked the teens why they ran away from home, one responded, “I had chores. If I didn’t finish ironing my shirts for the week, I couldn’t go out for the weekend. It was weird. Wow.”
Didion codified her portrayal of the runaway youth in “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.” Though the essay was steeped in melancholy and intended as an elegy for a past order, it nonetheless depicted a time when young adulthood was characterized by an infectious sense of freedom and carefreeness. As a kid, I was captivated by a similar sense of self-determination and brave individualism I thought would be waiting for me when I reached young adulthood. After all, I was descended from the flower children, and naturally believed that the appetite for radical self-affirmation would be passed on to me like a hand-me-down pair of jeans.
As the last of the millennial cohort reach 18 and are squeezed into institutions of higher education across America, it seems that I, along with my generation, have finally washed up on the shores of adulthood. At Stanford, no less, we find ourselves on the doorstep of the city charged with the legacy of the Beat Generation and the Summer of Love, and yet, I have the distinct sense that being a grown-up is not all that I thought it would be.
My earlier idealization of independence, the slow unwinding of constraints and rules that prevented me from driving, drinking, earning and spending my own money seem to have lost their luster. Instead of excitedly making new mistakes in a period of life that should be reserved for experimentation, I find that, ironically, all I crave is stability.
My thoughts are consumed not by the existential challenges of constructing a self, deciding what kind of person I should be or which moral codes I should adopt. Amid a plummeting real wage, a climate of job insecurity and the undoing of entire industries, my thoughts tend to drift toward more immediate concerns. In “Poor Millennials,” Michael Hobbes writes that “the touchstone experience of millennials, the thing that truly defines us, is not helicopter parenting or unpaid internships or Pokémon Go. It is uncertainty.”
We live not knowing which jobs will be around in the next few years, while being well attuned to the fact that there’s a looming expiration date on the education for which we’ve taken on 300 percent more student debt than our parents received. The future is not something we can simply plan for nowadays. In many ways, we’re rewarded for letting go of plans altogether. Survival in the modern economy requires agility, nimbleness and a readiness to conform to the beat of the markets.
We’ve placed a premium on reaction over strategy or foresight and lost time for critical thought or reflection. It’s not surprising that these tendencies have bled over into our politics, where millennial political views are lambasted as “totally incoherent,” and the entire generation is called out for its general intellectual degradation.
Though it’s impossible to group an entire generation into the same basket, for a majority of us, something about the traditional spirit of rebellion has lost its seductive appeal. “In a reversal of the traditional ideas about childhood, it’s no longer a time to make mistakes; now it’s when bad choices have the biggest impact,” writes Malcolm Harris in “Kids These Days.” “When everyone is searchable and no privacy filter is reliable, kids learn quickly that everything they do goes on their permanent record — resume and rap sheet alike.” Indeed, among young adults, drug usage has dropped, fewer teens are driving, less have had sex, while an increasing portion are finding social media to be the go-to for 21st-century escapism.
Joan Didion starts off her essay, “The center was not holding.” Kids running away from home meant something beneath the surface was profoundly wrong. However, looking over her writing today, I’m unconvinced that society was truly as unstable as she implies. For one, I couldn’t help but notice how all the rebellion, despite the desire to break free from imposing norms, depended on the existence of those norms in the first place. The safety and suburbia somehow sustained that deviance, because there was the assumption that at any point, you could just go back, get a job and set up a comfortable family life. For many, there was no point in worrying about the future; belief in the certainty of the American dream meant comfort and stability was predetermined and assumed. “We’re just gonna let it all happen,” said one runaway. “Everything’s in the future, you can’t pre-plan it. First we get jobs, then a place to live.”
The teen rebels of the ‘60s and ‘70s had every institutional support to catch them after The Grateful Dead tour ended, and they just wanted to go home. For the kids of yesterday’s beatniks, things are different. We don’t have the certainty of a social safety net to let ourselves miss a beat. If we don’t keep treading water, we feel there might not be a bottom to catch us.
Contact Anna-Sofia Lesiv at alesiv ‘at’ stanford.edu.