The millennial generation—whose oldest members are 37, and the youngest 22—has come of age at a strange time. Over the past two decades, huge advances in technology have made the world smaller and noisier; meanwhile, the reach of capitalism has ramped up to such an excruciating degree that almost everything has become a commodity, including our public personas. From the outset, millennials have also found themselves in a vortex of economic insecurity, with many of them entering the job market just as the Great Recession set in.
Today, more millennials live with their parents than previous generations did. We’re marrying later, if we marry; we’re having children later, and fewer of them. It is nearly impossible to own a home without financial help—an inheritance, a down payment from the in-laws. We are killing industries left and right, but that’s because we don’t have the income to sustain them. Many of us have bachelor’s degrees, but also the debt that came from acquiring them.
This swirl of pressures has birthed a distinct millennial sensibility; it has also helped define this generation’s novels, which focus on the experience of economic and creative failure. What happens when you’re ambivalent about the world of commerce around you? What happens when you stop doing what you’re supposed to do? What happens when you do everything you’re supposed to do… and things still don’t work out?
In Weike Wang’s recent debut novel, Chemistry, the narrator abruptly quits her PhD program. “Finally the lab coat comes off,” she tells us. “I place it neatly into the drawer. Then I smash five beakers on the ground. I shout, Beakers are cheap, while the whole lab gathers to watch.” In Anelise Chen’s So Many Olympic Exertions, another novel of academic despair, we find the protagonist, Athena, struggling to complete her dissertation. Instead of working on it, she takes up swimming; after losing her funding, she moves back in with her parents. Even Goodbye, Vitamin, last year’s sleeper hit from Rachel Khong, features a protagonist who, at the end of a failed engagement, moves home to be with her family—home being not merely a place of comfort but, for many millennials, the only place to turn.
Failure, of course, is as common in literature as it is in life. But the challenges that these characters face (and fail to overcome) belong uniquely to their generation, striving as they are under a very different set of social and economic conditions than the ones that helped buoy their parents. And even when they do succeed, they look at those achievements askance, failing to appreciate the lives they’ve fallen into. The luckiest of them live in Brooklyn-like neighborhoods and attend to their passions. Yet economic anxiety sets the scene for their lives, whether in the foreground or as a sinister background hum. Adrift in their careers, their relationships, or both, these millennial protagonists sleepwalk through life, shaken awake only by cataclysmic events outside of their control: a financial crisis, the illness of a parent, or, in the case of Ling Ma’s debut novel, Severance, a global outbreak of disease.