For today’s young people, many of the large milestones society considers signs of a healthy adulthood are happening later, including moving out of their parents’ homes, marrying, having kids and leaving college.
In “An Ordinary Age: Finding Your Way in a World That Expects Exceptional,” Appalachian author Rainesford Stauffer suggests this shifting trend is happening not because of anything young millennials and Gen Z are doing, but rather because our culture itself has shifted – especially when you throw a pandemic in the mix.
“What used to be the traditional sociological markers of what it means to be an adult, we know are being postponed or delayed for a lot of reasons,” Stauffer said in an IG Live discussion with 100 Days in Appalachia. “If you look at shifts in the economy and in our culture, these things aren’t delayed adulthood, they’re very rational, even reasonable responses to becoming an adult in the circumstances we’ve got right now.”
“An Ordinary Age,” which was released earlier this month from Harper Perennial, details young adulthood, how it has changed and how young people are navigating the different pressures of what we expect life to be.
Stauffer spoke with 100 Days’ Editorial Assistant Kristen Uppercue about the book, the mental, social and physical impacts of those pressures, and the seemingly ordinary parts of life that turn out to be the most important.
Responses have been edited for clarity. View the full conversation on our Instagram page.
Kristen Uppercue: What led you to want to write a book about this topic?
Rainesford Stauffer: It’s such an interesting question, because I feel like in some ways, it was a really slow burn. I knew that I loved interviewing young people. And I noticed that a lot of the time I was reporting a story, initially I wasn’t even setting out specifically to talk to young people. It so happened that they were people that had really interesting things to say or were doing really interesting work. And over the course of a bunch of freelance reporting, or talking to students, or just kind of being in touch with people who were a little bit younger than me, a little bit older than me – I’m in my 20s – I noticed we were all kind of saying a version of the same thing.
No matter what the conversation was about, there was internal fixation on, “When am I going to be good enough? When am I going to have accomplished enough? Why am I the only one still trying to figure all of this out? What does all of this pressure mean?” And the closer I looked at that I realized, it wasn’t just about work and school, it was about everything from the kinds of communities we have and where we find them, how we transition into adulthood at all in a society that is stripping resources away from everyone, including young adults.
And so I think kind of the intersection of all of those things: figuring out where young adulthood exists in society right now from the systemic and structural perspective, and then from the emotional side of “What does it all mean?” and where’s the space to ask that, I think is kind of what led me to write the book.
KU: So, you write about a lot of the expectations and pressures society places on us as young people, leading to almost a roadmap of what “the best years of our lives” should look like. But as you detail in “An Ordinary Age,” those expectations aren’t feasible for most young people, especially in the middle of a pandemic. What impact does that have on those who feel like they aren’t measuring up to those expectations?
RS: Oh, my gosh, I think it’s a ton – first of all, a ton of pressure, which is that all of us have felt it at some point or another. I also think that when we take young adulthood kind of out of the structures that exist in and we act like these “best years of our lives” are separate from the systemic issues or things happening in our communities, or the structure of our country in which we’re trying to grow up. It takes things like not being able to afford to live on your own and having to move home or losing a job or feeling like you don’t know how to make friends and kind of ingrain yourself in a community.
I think all of that adds up to thinking there’s something wrong with me. It’s like we individualize these failures and think of them as failures, like, “Oh, my God, this is supposed to be the best time of my life. Everyone around me has it together, what on earth am I doing?” When in reality, I think that a lot of the timelines or benchmarks of what it means to enter adulthood and be successful, it’s not that everybody’s behind, it’s that what that means is changed because our economy has changed, our culture has changed. And so I wish we’d get to the point where we started addressing young adulthood in the context that it’s unfolding in instead of acting like we should all just be having the time of our lives and overcoming all of this on our own.
KU: Broadly speaking, when we typically talk about the challenges young people are facing, there’s this narrative that those are because of the individual’s personal choices and not systemic issues. But the first chapter of your book states that things aren’t the same as they used to be. Can you detail the pressures young people are facing today compared to those of previous generations?
RS: I think that first and foremost, what used to be the traditional sociological markers of what it means to be an adult, we know are being postponed or delayed for a lot of reasons. And those used to be getting married, moving out of your parents house, achieving financial security and stability on your own, having kids and kind of making a place for yourself in the world and the workforce. And so now, we contrast that with all these headlines about young people can’t afford to buy homes, and also they’re moving home to their parents’ houses, and that’s a moral failure instead of a logistical choice, or millennials aren’t having children without acknowledging that we have a childcare crisis in this country. If you look at shifts in the economy, and in our culture, these things aren’t delayed adulthood, they’re very rational, even reasonable responses to becoming an adult in the circumstances we’ve got right now.
So, I think that these big changes that are being spun as today’s young people are fundamentally different than the young people 50 or so years ago, is it that the young people have changed or that the circumstances have changed, because one of the things that struck me as so important, or so interesting, when I was going through the research and talking to experts for this book was that the circumstances of young adulthood have changed. But so many of these feelings of being in transition, of being lonely, of feeling like you’re out of place, and you’re kind of in between – those were things that impacted previous generations too, which is why they’re such an important part of this time of development in our lives. It’s just that the structures we’re trying to do all of that really have kind of fundamentally shifted.
KU: You wrote an entire chapter about how young people – and this is probably just true of Americans today in general – spend all of their time working, whether that’s because we feel like we need “to get ahead” for our future goals or for survival. Hobbies have turned to side hustles. Relationships are put on hold. And this perspective exists that says if something isn’t profitable, it’s not worth doing – even if it’s something we enjoy.
But with COVID, we’re seeing this shift into talking about the impacts of that work culture – burnout, negative mental health impacts and negative health impacts in general. Do you think COVID-19 will cause a long-term change in the way we as a generation or we as a country view work?
RS: First of all, I hope so. I look at the labor protests right now and the walkouts that are happening right now, and I think that people who have written on this and covered this have framed it so well. It’s not that we have a labor shortage or a workforce shortage, it’s that people have finally decided, “I can’t put my life on the line and my fate in the hands of my employer for wages that I can’t even afford to live on.” I think that there’s so many fundamental inequities in work and how we think about work – a lot of which really do manifest in young adulthood – that this pandemic has kind of dragged out of it being any sort of secondary conversation, it’s kind of the main event. It’s like, “Oh, work is not working for us as human beings.”
And so what I hope happens is kind of twofold. I hope that we think and start paying more attention to and giving more space for who we are and how we feel and the resources we deserve, regardless of our labor output. I hope that transition happens, where it’s not so focused on, “Well, what are you achieving? And are you working as hard as you could be?” and as you said, “Well, have you turned that into a side hustle? And why are you only working one job instead of two? That’s why you can’t pay off your student loans.” I hope that there’s an inflection point of focusing more on people as people, not people as kind of cogs in the system of capitalism that wants us all to keep working.
I think twofold, something that I heard from young people when I was going back and talking to them about how the pandemic had impacted their lives was that it just wasn’t worth it anymore. Even these jobs that were supposed to be dream jobs that they had majored in in college or they had made tremendous sacrifices in their personal lives to have all of a sudden just didn’t feel as fulfilling as they did at one point.
And so, I hope that in addition to the conversation on inequities in our labor market and how we pay people and treat people, I hope we also get to the point where we can talk honestly with young adults about the fact that your job doesn’t have to be the most important thing about you. And you haven’t failed if you’re not deriving all of your worth or your joy from what you work on.
KU: In “An Ordinary Age,” you write a lot about the ordinary, every day experiences we might take for granted. To close our conversation, can you tell us your favorite ordinary part of the day?
RS: I have started over the past year getting up really early, and I’ve always kind of [been] an early riser, but now I’m up at 5 o’clock and my brain is ready to go. And I sit basically in the dark with a cup of coffee, and I don’t really do anything. I don’t really have a conversation, I don’t even read. I just kind of sit there. And that’s become something ordinary that’s outrageously fulfilling.
I think broader strokes, especially thinking over the past year, I think it’s community. I’ve become so much more interested in what’s happening in the communities I’m lucky enough to be part of than I am anything with me. And I think that that’s been a really incredible pivot point mentally to get to focus more energy on hearing other people’s stories and what resonates with them, and underscoring this idea that we really are all in it together, even when it doesn’t feel like we are.
Watch Rainesford read a short excerpt from the first chapter of “An Ordinary Age” on our Instagram page.
Follow 100 Days in Appalachia (@100daysinappalachia) on Instagram to view more live discussions with people throughout the region. Have someone in mind for a Live Q&A? DM or email us at [email protected] to let us know.
Editor’s note: Rainesford Stauffer is a contributing editor at 100 Days in Appalachia, overseeing the Appalachian Youth Creators project. View the project here.