"I just think the idea of being young and carefree no longer applies to our current reality. I feel old and weary."
|Anne Helen Petersen||Mar 10||38||8|
Do you remember the moment you realized that your ideas were no longer young?
I don’t mean this mournfully — but there’s a certain quality that comes with being in your late teens and twenties, that your eyes are clear, that you’re on the vanguard of something, that your thoughts are not yet weary, and are thus more valuable. You and your peers feel like the center of the societal universe, because, at least in some ways, you are: movies, clothes, make-up, magazines, music so many pop culture items are designed with you, the coveted consumer, in mind; the rest of society just kinda bends towards you.
Is this the way it should be? No, probably not! But I don’t think most of us realized just how much it’s true until it’s no longer the case. Don’t get me wrong; I realize how much of the world is still oriented towards Millennials. But there came a moment in my mid-30s when I realized that I didn’t know what was cool, and hadn’t for some time, and if anyone actually wanted to talk to someone about what was cool, they would go directly to my students, who were more than a decade younger than me — certainly not me.
Back then, I had students — and, in the years to come, my colleagues at BuzzFeed, and the fact that I lived in New York and rode the subway everyday, which is just a generally great way to expose yourself to newness— to keep me immersed not just in the more superficial aspects of newness (slang, memes, GIFs) but also new aesthetics, new frameworks, new approaches to adulthood and the idea of a career, new priorities. Some were actually new, others were pastiches of past newness.
Being in proximity to younger people didn’t make me feel cool, because I wasn’t. But it did help make me feel less distant, bitter, resentful, and alienated towards younger people and the ideas that flow from them. (This can also be the beauty of working with and generally being around people who are older than you). So what do you do when you leave New York and no longer work for BuzzFeed and can’t be around people just generally? You seek out their writing.
It took me a few months to realize that Terry Nguyễn had become one of my favorite writers. It happens the way it often does with a favorite writer: you realize that you immediately click on everything they write. I love Terry’s features for Vox — her piece on how social justice slideshows took over Instagram, on why it’s so difficult to abolish fraternities and sororities, on Connell’s chain — and I really love her newsletter, Gen Yeet, which often creates the feeling of turning your computer on its side and forcing you to tilt your own reading accordingly.
Without Gen Yeet, I wouldn’t know about the concept of Squad Wealth, or been introduced to this immaculate chart. (As Terry put it to me, “that article had an incredible selection of memes and nonsensical charts that make perfect sense the longer you stare at them.”)
So I asked Terry to tell me more about her writing — and she very politely agreed to define yeet. I hope you’ll enjoy, and if you have suggestions for future interviews, just send me a note.
This might be a hard one, but what do you think sets you apart as a writer? How would you describe your general beat?
I cover consumer and internet trends for The Goods at Vox, although the pandemic has led me to be much more of a generalist. I see myself as part of an emerging cohort of writers who are cataloguing the challenges and nuances of young adulthood in the digital era. I don’t think what I write about is exceptional, by any means. The ultimate goal with this reporting is to bring attention to the very real struggles many young people experience, like housing security or unemployment, that have historically been undercovered or written about in a paternalistic way. I also think I capitalized on my identity as a Gen Z reporter very early on, with the creation of Gen Yeet when I was an intern. I’ve tried to move away from that and let the reporting speak for itself, instead of distinguishing myself by age.
Tell us about your newsletter — what thoughts get funneled there? How do you know when something is Gen Yeet content, and how does your voice change between your newsletter writing and the writing you do elsewhere? (Also, for us Olds, please explain ‘Yeet’)
I like to describe Gen Yeet as a catalogue of my after-hour thoughts. I spend a lot of time combing through ideas that emerge from my personal obsessions and observations. Usually, they’re too niche for a reported article at The Goods, so I relegate them to my newsletter! Sometimes, my dispatches lay the groundwork for future assignments, or vice versa. I have a Trello board where I keep messy notes of trending topics, Twitter discourse (from tech and media folks, ugh), and recurring ideas. In the past year, I’ve started publishing more thematically holistic pieces. It’s funny to look back at my archives and see how my interests and writing style have changed; I used to summarize a few memes or TikToks and throw in a line of generational analysis. It’s become much more fulfilling, though, to challenge myself to dig deeper and write longer on big ideas.
I actually write in my about page “No, I won’t explain what ‘yeet’ is,” but I will do so, just this once! It’s an expression that was popularized by a Vine of a girl who’s given an empty soda can, and she exclaims, “This bitch empty. YEET!” before throwing the can down a crowded school hallway. “Yeet” doesn’t mean anything, although it’s generally used in the context of throwing something, like “yeeting” a football.
I feel like COVID is going to leave an imprint on Gen Z in similar ways to the way the Great Recession scarred millennials — it’s early to say, but what are you hearing and thinking about in terms of the way this past year will shape people your age…..depending on race, location, job status, whether or not they were seniors (in high school or college) last year, etc. etc.
I had a sense very early on that Covid-19 would fuck up Gen Z. I don’t think I fully realized the extent of its impact until December, when I reported a feature on unemployed graduates. I managed to source over 200 testimonies from recent graduates of high school, trade school, undergraduate, and master’s programs, who were struggling to find work. The responses overwhelmed and deeply depressed me. Economists have seen this play out with millennials: A delayed entrance into the job market will carry lasting consequences.
Something I haven’t seen discussed often enough is the trauma, anxiety, and general fear that will stick with people after this. I’m not saying young people will or have had it harder. I just think the idea of being young and carefree no longer applies to our current reality. I feel old and weary. I often tell my boyfriend, a millennial, that I worry about the state of the world years from now when I am 30. I’m aware some people have never been granted the privilege to not worry about their survival day in and day out. American pop culture has teased us with this carefree notion of youth — that you should be, like, binge-drinking every other weekend or taking spontaneous international trips. And what’s incredibly maddening for young people is that, during our most formative years, the only thing we can focus on is survival.
You have done a shit-ton of internships and landed what many would think of as a very desirable job coming out of college. What are your general thoughts on hustle and internship culture, particularly when it comes to writing and journalism? What needs to shift moving forward to make all of this [waves hands wildly at internet writing] less of a grind and less white?
The demoralizing thing about journalism is that you can work really fucking hard and still struggle to land a newsroom internship. I’m saying this as an alumni of USC, a very prestigious and expensive (broadcast) journalism program. One summer, I applied to over 100 editorial and communications-adjacent positions. The Washington Post was the only newspaper that offered me a position that year, which changed the trajectory of my career.
I don’t think people realize there are thousands of students vying for the same internship positions, and getting the job still largely depends on who you know and what school you attend. Experience begets more experience, so I can’t imagine how challenging it is for students at state schools or community colleges to break into the industry. Despite the slim odds of success in journalism, rejections still feel personal failure. It’s hard to be optimistic about the future of the media industry *gestures to layoffs*. Regardless, I hope more newsrooms develop initiatives to diversify and develop their intern/fellow class. This includes paying students a living wage and actively working to recruit and retain talent from underrepresented backgrounds.
Two of my favorite pieces of yours from the past year focused on the challenge of combating fake news in Asian American communities and Vietnamese-American embrace of Trumpism. Do you feel like the media is (very slowly) moving away from pan-Asian generalizations? How are you thinking through the relationship between AAPI solidarity and increased cultural specificity and context? (Feel free to take this in any direction — including “not thinking of it in that way at all.”)
I think mainstream media coverage is slowly coming to terms with the political complexity and diversity of many ethnic/racial communities, not just Asian Americans. During the past few election cycles, AAPI reporters have published fantastic, insightful work that gets at the heart of inter-community tensions and material disparities. The term “AAPI” is a very broad political descriptor that lumps together many ethnic groups and identities. Activists and researchers frequently talk about the importance of data disaggregation when it comes to community polls and surveys. Similarly, I think there should be some sort of cultural disaggregation when it comes to reporting on Asian American communities.
What are you excited to think more about in the coming year?
Normal life! I really really hope people party like crazy when it’s safe to do so.I have a theory that people are going to start microdosing to cope with reality. I’m sort of kidding, but I’m very interested in the behavioral changes we’re going to experience and how that’s going to be reflected online.
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