With the month of November dedicated to book proposal writing, I am packaging up a rapidly expanding Scrivener file of notes and sketched-out thoughts into a couple of sample chapters that will appeal to a general audience. Like any former academic, I struggle with condensing those thoughts into an elevator pitch, but I’m getting there. I also am thinking through how to write about a book that focuses on a problem without depressing people. Is it possible to write about problems in a way that will appeal to a reader? Do books that focus on problems always offer upbeat solutions?
To answer those questions, I have been visiting the local public library, while it remains open, and picking up random books off their new non-fiction shelf. The idea was to power skim through the table of contents of a dozen books to see how they find a balance between the problem/solution question.
But me? Power skim? Ah no. I keep getting sucked down the rabbit hole of all these books.
One book that captured my attention is Failure to Launch: Why Your Twentysomething Hasn’t Grown Up… And What To Do About It? The problem is right in the title — young people are having trouble moving on with their lives after high school. They’re not finishing college, finding that first job, getting married, and getting the hell out of the house. The author’s solution? Let them fail.
There’s a whole genre of parenting books devoted to the idea that kids are too coddled and unable to survive in the real world. The villain is the dreaded helicopter parent – a trope that keeps on giving. But these books often fail to provide some data to back up their observations. Are kids more likely to be unemployed than the past? How do we know that kids have lower independence levels than in the past? If kids are less likely to have a job, is this because they have poorer adulting skills or has the bar been raised too high? I would love for those books to examine competing alternative hypotheses and rule them out, because I’m boring like that.
Another book that ended up in my stretched out tote bag is Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Peterson. This book grew out of a viral Buzzfeed essay, where Peterson vented that she was so massively overworked that her cooked brain couldn’t handle basic life tasks anymore. Peterson’s work path — academic turned journalist – is similar to mine. I can relate to her workaholic and perfectionist tendencies.
I’m not a big believer in generational studies, so I blipped over the whole millennial v. boomer arguments in her book. (What about Gen-Xers?) Peterson argues that millennials are so tired out and are struggling with basic “adulting,” because the world is more fucked up than it used to be. Instead of pensions, they get 401K plans. Young people today don’t have health insurance. Rather than stable, union-protected jobs, they’ve got the gig economy. She said she wasn’t able to start a family, because she’s been working too hard for too little money. Her solution is just a paragraph in the conclusion – burn it down.
Two books with similar problems — young people are struggling — but they diagnose the causes of the problem differently — well meaning parents v. hyper competitive, cruel society/economy.
Earlier this week, I wrote a blog post about helping Jonah with work stuff — letters of recommendations, resume, internship job boards, and all that. There are more tools than ever before to find a job, but there aren’t a whole lotta of those jobs. It could be a COVID thing, but after spending an hour going through pages and pages of information on his college’s online job board, we didn’t find much available for kids with a liberal arts major.
I’ve been helping Jonah with job chores, because a lot of these tasks aren’t terribly intuitive. He’s also overloaded with five upper level classes right now. He’ll probably have to dig into these tasks in more depth over winter break, even though other parents tells me January is too late to find next summer’s internship. When I was his age, I worked in a friend’s dad’s solenoid valve factory. Things are more complicated than they were in the past.
A few years ago, I wrote a popular article for the Atlantic about how parents have gotten more involved in their kids’ college lives. One parent told me that she had to play a strong role in her daughter’s college life, because things were just too hard today and mistakes were extremely costly. When her daughter didn’t hear from the internship office, Stacy called the school.
“For $65,000 [in full attendance costs], you can bet your sweet ass that I’m calling that school … If your children aren’t getting what they’ve been promised, colleges are going to get that phone call from parents,” Stacy said. “It’s my money. It’s a lot of money. We did try to have her handle it on her own, but when it didn’t work out, I called them.”
Steve and I are trying to find a path between these two viewpoints. After some discussion, we decided to only help Jonah when he asks for help. I mean with two PhDs for parents, we can certainly navigate him through a college campus and school work, but we’re letting him steer his own ship through the rough waters. We’ll come in like the Coast Guard, when he asks for help.
But we also recognize that things are seriously more complicated and competitive than ever before. We’re not giving him “in my day, I figured it out all on my own” speeches (even though it’s true.)
In the end, I take comfort in statistics, as I do so often. Having made it through ¾ of college, Jonah’s highly likely to finish. And then once he’s done, he’ll probably get a job making around $40,000, because that’s what the numbers tell me. $40,000 is a very respectable salary for a first job. He’s a good kid, who has grown into my favorite political debate buddy and the guy who proof reads my essays. The kids may be struggling, but mine is okay.
Besides, if things don’t work out, we always have Plan B, which is to sell everything and to move the entire family to a goat farm in Vermont.