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Thursday, January 9, 2014

Woes Of Twenty-Somethings Span The Centuries

Young people at a Civil War reenactment in Michigan. A historian studying youth in 19th century America says young people who fought in the Civil War and young people now share many of the same anxieties. (Wigwam Jones/Flickr)

Young people at a Civil War reenactment in Michigan. A historian studying youth in 19th century America says young people who fought in the Civil War and young people now share many of the same anxieties. (Wigwam Jones/Flickr)

The complaints of twenty-somethings seem all the same:

“I am beginning my twenty-sixth year. I ought to be a man, but I seem to be a long way off from the condition of a man in society.”

It sounds pretty familiar, even if the language is a little antiquated. It was written in 1864 by Union army soldier Oliver Wilcox Norton, in a letter to his sister.

Turns out the worries of twenty-somethings today are pretty much the same as twenty-somethings in the 1800s.

Jon Grinspan, a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, is writing a book on young people and 19th century American politics.

He tells Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti that the social themes that are comparable between the “young Victorians” and Millennials include a quickly-changing economy, more mobility and an older average marriage age.

Grinspan says tumult and insecurity are the historical conditions of American youth.

“If you look at the lives you think of as traditional or normal — this 1950s or 1960s society which you get married straight out of high school, and you get a job, and you hold that job for 50 years — that’s an incredibly unusual way to live one’s life,” Grinspan said. “That’s the historical outlier.”


  • Jon Grinspan, a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution.



It's HERE AND NOW. A young man once wrote: I am beginning my 26th year. I ought to be a man, but I seem to be a long way off from the condition of a man in society. So the writing might be a little formal and unfamiliar, but the uncertainty in the letter ought to be familiar to many 20-somethings today. However, this was written by a young man in 1864.

And Jon Grinspan, a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, says when you look back at the diaries of young Americans in the 1800s, you see that the millennial generation today might have more in common with them, those Americans of the Victorian Age, than they do with their baby boomer parents.

He wrote about it in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, and he joins us now. Jon, you write that in the 1800s the population of the United States boomed from five million to 75 million, and of course there was the Industrial Revolution, which transformed work. How did these two things affect the lives of young people?

JON GRINSPAN: Well, they expressed a lot of anxieties that young people in a changing, moving economy express today. I have one diary entry written by a young man named Charles Plumber(ph), who worked in a boot factory in Philadelphia and in his spare time worked as a street preacher. And he felt that he just couldn't live up to this quickly changing economy.

He wrote: I am qualified for nothing. I know no trade whatever. And one of my greatest lamentations is that I did not at an early period learn some mechanical occupation. And he's just 20 years old, and I think it's striking, this sense that the economy is moving so quickly that he's already feeling out of step with it, barely gotten his first job.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, so all you have to do is change the date and maybe the tone of the language a little bit, but it feels so familiar from what people put on Facebook now.

GRINSPAN: Absolutely. The situations were different. I always have to stop and remind myself that. But when you read their diaries, you know those feelings and those emotions.

CHAKRABARTI: So the very nature of work was radically changing. I mean you've also written how it becomes more isolating and transient even, which also sounds - maybe not the isolating part but the transient nature of work sounds very familiar today.

GRINSPAN: Yeah, and the expectation of efficiency too. Starting in 1800, if you're an agricultural laborer, like most people were to some degree or another, you have a relatively slow and collective job. You know, you do hard work, but you do it over a long seasonal period, and you do it with your friends and your relatives and hired help.

By the end of the century, if you work in a factory or a lumber crew or on a railroad or whatever, your work is nonstop, and it's all about how quickly you can work.

CHAKRABARTI: So all this chronic instability, as you've called it in your article, in the working lives of 20-somethings in the 1800s, I mean did they look around and say, well, it's the structure of our society that's changing, that's causing this? Or did they heap the blame upon themselves?

GRINSPAN: That's what's so tragic about it. I mean, reading these diaries in the 21st century, you see every single person saying these same things and feeling these same emotions, and they blame themselves every time. I think it was largely the culture of the time. I mean, there was still some kind of Calvinist ethos that said you were to blame for your problems.

But constantly in these diaries, they blamed themselves, and you want to put these people in touch. You want to say look at the diaries of other people they're having the same exact anxiety as you are.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Well, let's talk a little bit about another major change that was happening in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and that has to do with matters of the heart. It was fascinating to read in your article how the average age of marriage really jumped in that period.

GRINSPAN: Yeah, the marriage age is shooting up in the 19th century, and it gets to a point that is really comparable with what we saw in maybe 1990 or so. This is a world where the average age of death is around 50. You know, life expectancy is much, much lower. So if you wait until 26 to get married, that's a profound decision in your life that's really going to alter your romantic life and also your relationship with your children.

CHAKRABARTI: And marriage later in life for women was a much bigger deal for financial reasons, for young women in the 19th century, than possibly even today.

GRINSPAN: Absolutely. It's usually the biggest decision a woman makes in her life back then. I mean, they live in a sexist society where their options are very limited, and marriage really determines not just love and family but also economic circumstances and livelihood.

CHAKRABARTI: And so you've got a diary entry to that effect.

GRINSPAN: Yes, this was written by Molly Dorsey(ph). She's 19 years old. She's living in Frontier, Nebraska, and this is December 1857. So it's not a state yet. She's really living way out in the territories. And she writes: I ought to be doing something or making something of myself. I sometimes try to picture out my future. Will I be a happy, beloved wife with a good husband, happy home and small family, or an abused, deserted one with eight or nine small children crying for their daily bread? Or won't I marry at all?

CHAKRABARTI: And that was written in 1857.

GRINSPAN: Yes, exactly.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. The reason why I find this comparison so compelling between the trials and tribulations of 21st-century millennials and those in the 19th century, you actually sort of sum it up very elegantly in your article. You write that the idea that millennials are uniquely stuck is nonsense. Young Victorians grasped for maturity as well, embarrassed by the distance between their lives and society's expectations.

But you know, a lot of people have told millennials, hey, look, you should be aiming for the ideals that maybe your parents or grandparents had: job stability, long-term relationships and the stuff that was just expected in, say, the '50s and '60s.

But you write that actually that expectation is exceptional in American history, that it's the tumult and the insecurity for young people that's more the norm.

GRINSPAN: Oh, absolutely. If you look at the lives we think of as traditional or normal, this idea, this 1950s or 1960s society, which you get married straight out of high school and you get a job and you hold that job for 50 years, that's an incredibly unusual way to live one's life. That's the historical outlier.

CHAKRABARTI: So how did our young Victorians handle it? What did they do to deal with all this instability, radical instability, in fact, that was coming at them in America in the 19th century?

GRINSPAN: Well, they found some solace in each other, in joining groups and organizations of other young people. There are all these young men's blank associations in 19th-century America, young women's blank associations. Any organization that gave people some kind of identity and community was in some way beneficial for them. And I think that's something we could learn from today probably.

CHAKRABARTI: But isn't this exactly the thing that millennials are great at? I mean the world of social media is largely defined by them and how they're using it.

GRINSPAN: Yeah, I think that's true, and I think it's not going to solve your problems. You're not going to resolve any of those anxiety - any of those issues through social media or through joining a young men's whatever club in the 19th century. But it's going to give you some kind of community and lessen the isolation that these structural forces are causing.

So it's not going to solve your problems, but I think it is better than just moping in your diary.

CHAKRABARTI: I see the other really important thing that you note that people in the 19th century did is that they got up and moved, physically.

GRINSPAN: Yeah, absolutely. Mobility was hugely important. Young men and women would go off on what they called a wander year or sometimes a frolic. And they usually wouldn't have a destination. They'd just pack up their things and see what life was like in another state or another city.

If you look at the census returns, there are these cities where - and towns where 90 percent of young men leave every 10 years successively. So there's just huge turnover. And, you know, some of these people's trips don't end up any - leading to anything, and they're not any better off after they've moved, but it does lead to increased options when people relocate like that.

And in fact, young people are a lot less likely to move today than they were even 20, 30 years ago. And there are some people who are concerned that, that kind of sedentary community lifestyle keeps people from finding options.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Jon Grinspan is a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution. He's writing a book about young people and 19th-century American politics. Jon, thank you so much.

GRINSPAN: Well, thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: And millennials listening out there, does any of this ring true to you? Let us know at You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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