By Jon Grinspan
For years now, we’ve heard the gripes by and about millennials, the offspring of the Great Recession, caught between childhood and adulthood. Their plight seems so very 21st century: the unstable careers, the confusion of technologies, the delayed romance, parenthood and maturity.
Many of the same concerns and challenges faced the children of the industrial revolution, as the booms and busts of America’s wild 19th century tore apart the accepted order.
Each New Year’s, young men and women filled their diaries with worries that seem very familiar today: They found living with their parents “humiliating indeed” and felt “qualified for nothing.” Others moaned: “I am twenty-five and not in love yet.” Gathering over beer or cigars, they complained about how far they were from marriage, how often they switched jobs.
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.
These Americans were born into an earthquake. During the 1800s America’s population exploded from 5 million to 75 million. By 1900, nearly as many people lived in New York City as had lived in the entire country during the Revolution. The nation went from a rural backwater to an industrial behemoth — producing more than Britain, Germany and France combined — but every decade the economy crashed. America saw the kind of wild change we see today in China, and in a new society with little to stabilize it.
For rootless 20-somethings, each national shock felt intimate, rattling their love lives and careers. Many young adults could not accept that their personal struggles were just ripples of a large-scale social dislocation. So each New Year’s, they blamed themselves. In a Jan. 1, 1859, entry in her journal, 19-year-old Mollie Sanford, stuck on a Nebraska homestead in the middle of a recession, castigated herself for not being “any better than I was one year ago.”
Romance worried them above all. Today some fret about the changing institution of marriage, but we are used to such adjustments; 19th-century Americans were blindsided when the average age of marriage rose precipitously, to 26 — a level America didn’t return to until 1990. In a world where life expectancy hovered below age 50, delaying marriage until 26 was revolutionary.
Cities brimmed with bachelors and unmarried ladies in their mid-20s, once a rare sight. In their New Year’s reflections, men and women noted that their parents had had children by their age. One typical Union Army soldier wrote home wondering, “Do you think I will be married before I am thirty?”
This social change brought personal turmoil, especially for young women. Marriage meant love and family, but in a society that discouraged ladies from working, young women were dependent on their husbands. Remaining single meant economic and legal instability, and the perception of childishness. When the mother of one diarist, Emily Gillespie, scolded the Midwestern farm girl by saying, “you are twenty years old and not married yet,” it hardly mattered that Emily was in line with her generation.
While some looked for love, others looked for jobs. Before the modern era, young people found work within family networks, laboring at home or on a farm, pausing for “elevenses” (a late-morning whiskey break) or an afternoon nap. The industrial economy changed that.
The good news was that there were more jobs; the bad news was that they were isolating and temporary. Work now meant small factories or lumber camps or railroad crews of strangers. They were monitored like machines, with pressure to increase productivity replacing the slower pace of preindustrial labor.
For young people this meant chronic instability. A young man might brag about his new job one week and find himself begging for money from his father the next. Frustrated youths worried that their jobs did not reflect their age or ability: One brilliant young speaker complained about working in a cramped Philadelphia boot factory, nailing soles when he should have been climbing a soapbox.
While 19th-century young adults faced many of the anxieties that trouble 23-year-olds today, they found novel solutions. The first was to move. Young men and women were notoriously transient, heading out on “wander years” when life at home seemed stalled. In one Wisconsin county, 90 percent of those present in 1870 were gone by 1880. Most set out with no plan, few connections and a small carpetbag of personal possessions.
Another solution was to find like-minded young adults, to share, as one later put it in his memoir, their “baffling discouragements and buoyant hopes.” Nineteenth-century young people were compulsive joiners. Political movements, literary societies, religious organizations, dancing clubs and even gangs proliferated. The men and women who joined cared about the stated cause, but also craved the community these groups created. They realized that while instability was inevitable, isolation was voluntary.
Today’s young adults are constantly rebuked for not following the life cycle popular in 1960. But a quick look at earlier eras shows just how unusual mid-20th-century young people were. A society in which people married out of high school and held the same job for 50 years is the historical outlier. Some of that era’s achievements were enviable, but they were not the norm.
The anxieties that 19th-century young people poured into their New Year’s diary entries are more common. Americans considered young adulthood the most dangerous part of life, and struggled to find a path to maturity. Those who did best tended to accept change, not to berate themselves for breaking with tradition. Young adults might do the same today. Stop worrying about how they appear from the skewed perspective of the mid-20th century and find a new home, a new stability and a new community in the new year.
— Jon Grinspan, a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, is writing a book on young people and 19th-century American politics. This column originally appeared in the New York Times.