"I’m giving myself permission to want a thing that I’m apparently not supposed to want."

This is the midweek edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen. Paid Subscribers: If you haven’t activated your invitation to Sidechannel, email me for a new one. This afternoon (4/28) I’ll be chatting with Casey Newton about his recent piece on work culture and all that’s happened at Basecamp — even if you haven’t been following, I think it’ll be a very interesting conversation about how work culture is cultivated and undermined.

This week I’m talking with Rainesford Stauffer — whose new book, An Ordinary Age, challenges so many of the narratives we’ve accumulated (particularly in the United States) about what ‘success’ and ‘coming of age’ should and can mean as a young adult.

I talk a little below about the first time I encountered Rainesford’s writing, but I have been continuously impressed with her commitment to doing something radical: actually talking to younger people about the things that matter to them. She is a tenacious and curious reporter, an exquisite and empathetic writer, and just generous in her thinking. I read everything she puts out and can’t wait to see what she does next. (She feared her answers were too long; nope, no way).

Can you tell us a bit about how you started doing what you’re doing, writing what you’re writing? What’s the formative moment(s) that precipitated or led you to writing about the things you write about now? 

This is such a great question—and an interesting one. I didn’t specifically set out to write about young people; I just found myself having really interesting conversations with people who happened to be in this age range. I’m generally super curious about transitions—in life, in work, in how we think about the world, how we feel, and by what stirs those changes and renegotiations we have within ourselves and society as a whole.

As to how I started writing, it was a trial and error process, and it wasn’t until I really got on Twitter and realized I could follow not just publications, but writers and editors — I felt like I really started learning how everything works. I didn’t major in journalism, and didn’t do editorial internships (and frankly, by the time I realized I should, was already behind the requirements for most of them), so there was an element of googling “what does TK mean” as I went and misguided attempts to make connections and find mentors that I wish I could take back. But I loved hearing about people’s lives and experiences; I loved learning something new every time. When I started freelancing, after every piece, I worried I wouldn’t get to write another one—a feeling that persists, honestly. I just knew I really liked the work and the process.

In terms of this book, the lightbulb moment came over the course of a few months, when I was doing interviews with people in this age range for various pieces. Whatever we were talking about, there was a shared undertone: I’m not doing enough, I don’t feel like enough, I thought I’d have my life more figured out by now.

One of my favorite chapters in the book centers on the idea of “home” — and how many of us internalized a very specific narrative about “growth” and “coming of age” as “getting as far away from home as possible.” How has your own experience — and that of others that you interviewed for the book — shifted that understanding? 

That means a lot because that’s probably my favorite chapter, too. (Am I supposed to have a favorite?) In some ways, that was the chapter that felt like a permission slip: It took writing and reporting that to admit, out loud and to myself, that I wanted to move home. Granted, I’ve been home a lot. But hearing other people echo versions of similar things was a relief: I’m giving myself permission to want a thing that I’m apparently not supposed to want.

The breakthrough for me came when I interviewed a truly incredible expert for that chapter who described the individualism of this narrative—I’m making it on my own, I’m having my own home, I’m venturing out to explore by myself. It aligned with so much of what we tell young adults: Growing up means going it alone. It means figuring yourself out, solo, and living life on your own terms—and that means moving away. I also think it’s implied that moving away means moving “up” in the world, which absolutely ties into class and perceptions of certain cities as the “best places for young people to live”—not dissimilar to how certain colleges are marketed as the best “college experience.” 

What I’ve come to understand is that “coming of age” is something that happens in conjunction with your community, your environment, and your sense of self—it’s not going to happen solely on a backpacking trip involving a significant epiphany by a waterfall. That’s not to say that knowing how you want to live and who you are aren’t important. Of course they are. So is knowing that a location is not the single defining factor in your worth or experience.

You challenge the expectations of “college dropouts” in your work all the time. Some of our casual conversation scripts are so normalized and bad, and I’d love to hear your tips or frustrations for others who have to deal with similar scripts when it comes to personal life decisions. (See especially: moving back in with parents, moving back home, quitting a job, etc etc.) 

I did finish college, but took, at the time, a nontraditional route to get there. The Sparknotes version is I dropped out after my freshman year as a literature major, after spending the heft of my teen years as a dancer who thought she would eventually end up working as a ballet teacher. For a while, I convinced myself that I’d made some entrepreneurial decision to rethink my education. That included leaning hard into the “drop out” label, which people I knew were using in regard to me before I’d even wrapped my head around the fact that I left school. I was (still am) a people pleaser, and had struggled with the idea that I’d failed to do the “right thing.”

In reality, I was depressed but had no language to explain the depression, was working while in school—which felt totally incompatible with school itself (this felt bizarre because I’d worked since I was 15 or so), and was lost. I spent a little over two years out of school, I think, only working. Eventually, I found an online program where you could take academic classes but also submit prior work experience for academic credit, which saved money and time. I had classes with people who were at different ages and phases of life than I was, which I loved. I graduated online as a full-time student while working full-time.

The most common reaction I hear now is: “Ugh, don’t you wish you’d had the traditional college experience?” At the time, it was shame-inducing. Now, I reiterate the same thing: There is no traditional college experience or traditional college student. It assumes we all have the same circumstances. It assumes age should be the guiding factor in everything, including education. 

Personally, I try to watch what I ask people. Like, I straight-up avoid asking graduating seniors where they’re going to college or what they plan to major in. Instead, I ask what they’re looking forward to, or what’s next for them. Sometimes, I wonder if a lot of it comes down to anything that disrupts the master narrative of do these things, in this order, and life will turn out okay. I think most people would say that actually isn’t true in the context of their own lives. It sounds so simple, but I think it’s really valuable to remember that so many of these milestones or markers of being “on track” are deeply rooted in capitalism and our ideas of worthiness—who has done things the “right way.” But there is no single right way when it comes to life choices like leaving or attending school, moving home, or quitting a job. 

People who read this newsletter really like to hear about process. So please tell us about yours with this book — as nitty gritty as you’re willing to go. How did you come up with the proposal and modify it, how did the book change from proposal to execution, how did you accumulate and integrate interviews, what kind of writing software do you use, and what’s your weekly schedule look like? 

The proposal took a solid year to write, and I will forever be indebted to my amazing agent for reading some bad first, second, and forty-fifth drafts. It took me a bit to hone how this semi-abstract idea—ordinariness, pressure to be extraordinary—manifested in concrete examples and narratives. It felt worth exploring because so often these pressures are dismissed as Instagram FOMO or “teenage angst,” when, in reality, it felt like a renegotiation of what “living your best life” means in a society that demands much and offers little resources to do so. 

We actually stayed pretty close to the chapter breakdown between the proposal and final draft. Overall, I think I did over 100 interviews for the book, not all of which made it in there. Most were done via phone, but I also spoke to people via email or via Zoom and a few in-person before COVID hit. I use Otter and Temi to transcribe, but go back over every transcript and edit it for accuracy and to kind of engraine myself in the material. It was important to me to connect with sources from a variety of different backgrounds and locations and circumstances, because while there are shared feelings, certainly, the context in which someone is experiencing something really matters, especially since so much of the discourse around “young people” centers white, upper-middle-class experiences. I also take tons of handwritten notes—I actually think most of the first draft of what would become the chapter on perfectionism was written by hand first, then typed to pull in quotes and material from sources. 

As far as work style and software, I’m still sort of figuring that out. I record using my phone and will definitely be upgrading to a proper recorder in the near future. I worked in Google Docs—a working draft for each chapter, a doc of transcripts per chapter, a doc of research per chapter. I don’t think it was the cleanest way to do it, but it’s the system I was used to working in. Even during fact-checking, we worked out of Google Folders. 

The work schedule question is one I always wish I had a better answer for. I spoke to a college class mid-way through writing it, and the last question was about work life balance. I was writing the book while freelancing, and while working a job that was very much full-time before I was officially bumped up to “full-time.” I got off that Zoom and was in tears because I felt like such a hypocrite: I’m telling them that they are more than their work, and they deserve a full life, and I’m sitting here feeling guilty for not working more? Honestly, I felt terribly conflicted. I realize the privilege within getting to do this work, so complaining about my workload just felt unacceptable.

I’ve been unemployed; I do not take having a job or health insurance lightly. And I certainly don’t take writing a book for granted. It caused a lot of complex feelings about self-worth and labor to pop up.

I still have my day job, so I schedule meetings for that. I schedule interviews for pieces, and block chunks of time on weekends to edit student pieces. But I don’t schedule writing time. I’m more inclined to write well early in the morning, so I stick to that, and I’m very deadline-driven. Now, I have settled into a more balanced life: Reading, going for walks, exercising, playing with the pets, having conversations that have nothing to do with work—I think that is actually the foundation.

I think a lot of our writing has been in conversation, in some way — one of the first times I encountered your work was this piece for the New York Times on the “sterile, efficient” life of the millennial. But I also think there are some significant differences within our larger millennial cohort (in so many ways, but also just where we’re placed, age-wise, within it). What feels unrelatable when you read work by older millennials, and what holds true? 

I think the millennial conversation is so interesting because, as you know, it’s frustrating to see “millennial” used as a synonym for “young person,” and I think the generational stereotyping leaves out so many people whose experiences just don’t track with those tropes. I think what holds true when I read work from older millennials is the precarity element, or maybe a better term is fragility or instability? Jobs felt like something I’d be lucky to have; I still can’t comprehend owning a home. I worry a lot about taking care of my parents. 

I think where my perspective deviates a bit from that narrative is actually how someone I interview in the book phrased it—they’re 21 or 22, so technically Gen Z, I think, but they said they grew up with the pervasive sense that “something is going to boil over eventually.” I never thought my hard work, a college degree, or ambition would be enough, and I am so privileged in so many ways. This “enoughness”—when will any of it be enough?—felt like a defining factor in how I saw the world. 

It’s funny, because listening to my sister (she’s in her early 20s) or sources younger than I am, it feels like they’ve gotten to the heart of all this—the problems are systemic, not individual—so much faster than I did. Their understanding of the world and power structures that impact all this is so much more substantial than what I was comprehending when I was that age. I learn from them.

What has made you feel really pessimistic over the past year — and what has made you feel hopeful? 

Talk of “behindness” made me pessimistic—because, even during a pandemic, international protests for racial justice, countless examples of the impact of climate change, and truly scary statistics on mental health, we’re still centering who is ahead and who is behind in terms of achievement and staying “on track.”  This was obviously bad before, because it is a blatant refusal to acknowledge the role systemic racism, capitalism, white supremacy, and the giant chasm in who gets opportunity, support, and resources play in life. But seeing colleges use “more students made the Dean’s List than ever!” as a counterpoint to students asking for pass/fail, workers being praised for “resilience” for showing up to work sick or having biked 40 miles each way, and kids being forced to sit through entire school days on Zoom like life was business as usual was just...a glaring example that “getting ahead” is still coming before actual support and well-being. I’m not surprised. I’m appalled. 

In terms of hope: people. I have watched communities come together to help each other, individuals reach out and extend a hand and say something as simple as “hey, I’d like to be friends,” people who took time to share knowledge, comfort, and resources. The biggest thing I will take away from writing this book—so much of which did happen during the pandemic—is getting to talk to people about their lives, getting to learn from them. It’s the greatest gift I can fathom. And personally, I find a lot of hope in my family and pets: The pets part might sound silly, but there’s incredible comfort and humor there. And we need that.

Follow Rainesford here and find her book here. She’ll be joining us next week to chat about all of this and more on Sidechannel; stay tuned.

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