One of the many, sometimes contradictory narratives the media told about millennials in the 2010s was that they were “the perfectionist generation.” In 2018, an op-ed in The Guardian reported that perfectionism was “destroying the mental health” of the millennial generation; that same year, The Chicago Tribune called millennials a generation of “overachievers.” Much of this reporting framed young people’s exacting tendencies as a choice—they care too much about grades, or are spending too much time comparing themselves to others on social media. In her new book, An Ordinary Age, Rainesford Stauffer proposes a different theory: The growing political and economic precarity facing this generation has forced them to strive for perfection, because it often feels like the only guaranteed path toward stability, if not survival.
In An Ordinary Age, Stauffer uses a combination of personal reflections and interviews with “emerging adults”—a term borrowed from Dr. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett to refer to people roughly age 18 to 29—to analyze the particular struggles that young people face today. These include the pressures of social media, building a new home after leaving your hometown, and of course the pressure to be extraordinary. She agrees with many of the mainstream opinions about the existence of millennial overachievers, citing the first study to examine group generational differences in perfectionism, in 2017. That study found that several different types of perfectionism increased between 1989 and 2016, substantiating that young people today do struggle with perfectionism at higher numbers than in previous generations. But rather than claim that this overachieving is a personal or self-inflicted problem, Stauffer understands it as something “structural,” a problem—born out of unprecedented political turmoil, economic instability, and climate chaos—that has rendered even the idea of a future dubious. “The myth is that perfectionism exists because we want to be perfect, just like the myth persists that we’re obsessed with work because we want to achieve,” she writes. “It assumes a level of freedom of choice and financial security that doesn’t exist for a lot of people, and ignores a bitter truth: So broken are things, doing it all perfectly feels like the only shot at things turning out okay.”
Young people don’t want to be exceptional; they have grown up in a world where financial security, higher education, and health care are only available to a special few. But emerging adults should not have to be special to survive—and we should be fighting for a future where emerging adults can feel completely secure in their ordinariness.
Since the onset of the pandemic, Stauffer has published stories speaking to the complex social and emotional issues many young people are facing: the case for killing the “milestone-industrial complex” that exists around the subject of graduation; an argument for why generational conflict harms everyone; a gripping personal essay on the way young people often feel they are not “enough”; and an explainer on how ageism is hurting young people, too. Stauffer is far from the first person to write about the way issues like overwork and over-education are affecting certain young people—notably, Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials dealt with many of the same themes—but Stauffer’s book adds to a growing shelf of timely texts situating the needs of millennials amid the myriad demands of late capitalism. Stauffer’s innovation, and contribution to the debate, is her emphasis on a quality that so often goes ignored: the appeal of being completely ordinary. And as the pandemic has devastated much of our regular work, home, and social routines, emerging adults today are yearning for a sense of stable, normal life as never before.
The strength of Stauffer’s work is in her interviews, which bring firsthand experience to many of the social and emotional struggles she muses about more conceptually. In a chapter about internships and other unpaid labor, a 27-year-old named Harper tells Stauffer that after leaving a harrowing first job, she finally landed her dream job at an advertising agency on Broadway in New York City. She was laid off during the early months of the Covid lockdowns, had to leave the city, and moved back home with her parents. Along with losing her job, Harper noted, she lost her drive and her sense of self. She tells Stauffer, “And for me, it was like, I’m finally becoming this person that I had in my head, who has the life that I want, you know?” Harper’s sentiment, although devastating from one perspective, also illustrates the faulty logic that the standard of “extraordinariness” has placed on young people. Constantly tasked with becoming a better or perfect version of themselves in the future, many are not granted the privilege of going through their lives in naturally occurring stages and figuring things out at their own pace.
Anyone who has spent time on social media knows these platforms are littered with images and stories that idealize hustle and beauty: FaceTune your photo so you look perfect on Instagram; turn your hobby into a side hustle so you can make some extra cash. Though on its surface an encouraging phrase, “self-improvement” often becomes nonsensical, if not oxymoronic, in practice. Who are we improving ourselves for? In her chapter “Finding Your$elf, Commodified,” Stauffer argues that emerging adults are constantly pressured to “optimize,” not for themselves but to meet the evolving demands of capital. Arguing for the importance of self-exploration for young people, Stauffer cites a study showing that leisure—defined as actions marked by free time, combined with the “expectation of preferred experience”—offers context where “emerging adults actively navigate their identity development through exposure to new experiences and relationships, as well as resulting commitments.” This premise is troubling, for so little self-exploration is allowed to them; emerging adults are in fact working longer hours and sleeping less than previous generations, leaving them much less free time. In a culture where self-optimization is a perennial concern, young people are encouraged to “improve” themselves at the expense of really knowing or becoming themselves.
Many of the political and economic conditions that forced emerging adults to strive to be extraordinary were born out of what Stauffer deems a “toxic individualism,” the idea that individuals should be blamed for things like unemployment, the unhoused, or poor mental health, rather than placing the blame on structural and systemic inequities. What Stauffer shows, though, is that this is not an idea tied to any one generation, and if anything, the idea of a generation is perhaps one of the biggest fictions she tries to combat in the book.
Many of the generational pressures placed on emerging adults—whether economic, social, or otherwise—are not stresses that they face alone. Stauffer argues that placing these burdens on a particular group of people is no way to survive as a society. “The generational wars of ‘who has it worse’ seem to mask the fact that the way our society is structured doesn’t seem to be working for most people, regardless of age,” Stauffer writes, and it has gone on “a long time without fundamentally changing to address this.” The battle for the world we want to live in, where education, health care, and social services are accessible to all, can never be won alone; it can only be achieved together, through intergenerational organizing and solidarity. In an ideal future, no one will be plagued with anxieties about individualistic perfection; instead, wanting a better life for yourself and your community will be the most ordinary thing in the world.