Wednesday, December 17, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

Anxious youth, then and now

By
From page A12 | January 05, 2014 |

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.

Comments

comments

Special to The Enterprise

  • Recent Posts

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this newspaper and receive notifications of new articles by email.

  • .

    News

    Supervisors remove Saylor from First 5 Yolo Commission

    By Anne Ternus-Bellamy | From Page: A1

     
    GPAS and test scores up for UCD’s newest undergrads

    By Julia Ann Easley | From Page: A1

     
    Million Cat Challenge aims to rescue shelter felines

    By Pat Bailey | From Page: A1 | Gallery

    Everest visit fulfills judge’s lifelong dream

    By Lauren Keene | From Page: A1 | Gallery

     
    U.S., Cuba seek to normalize relations

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

    Water officials fret over rain’s effects

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A2 | Gallery

     
    Bob Dunning: Not enough hours in the month

    By Bob Dunning | From Page: A2

    Fatal Capay crash leads to driver’s arrest

    By Lauren Keene | From Page: A2

     
    Yolo Crisis Nursery in full swing

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A3

     
    Creative women share food, friendship

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

    Pedal around Davis on weekly bike ride

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

     
    Donate to STEAC at Original Steve’s

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

    Beer and film tour boosts bike group’s coffers

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

     
    Overeaters get support at meetings

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

     
    Fibro Friends will update their journals

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

    Input sought on county’s facility needs

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4

     
    Traditional carols service is Saturday at St. Martin’s

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

    Have coffee with the mayor on Friday

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

     
    Stockings brighten holidays for special kids

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4 | Gallery

    Evening tai chi classes start Jan. 6

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

     
    Name Droppers: Law prof earns peace prize for nonfiction

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5 | Gallery

    Community menorah lighting set Wednesday

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

     
    Latest immunization data shows little improvement locally

    By Anne Ternus-Bellamy | From Page: A5

    School board will vote on repairs, new portables

    By Jeff Hudson | From Page: A6

     
    Study: National monument could boost local economy

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A6

    Round up at the registers for Patwin

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A7

     
    Parent/toddler art and music program offered

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A7

    Libraries will be closed around the holidays

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A7

     
    Cloudy — yet safe — tap water adds to negative health effects

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A7

    Come Worship with Us

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A10

     
    .

    Forum

    This ought to teach her love

    By Creators Syndicate | From Page: B5

     
    Language failed me that night, but not now

    By New York Times News Service | From Page: A8

    Steve Sack cartoon

    By Debbie Davis | From Page: A8

     
    Grand jury function clarified

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A8

    Defying Western academic norms

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A8

     
    Boycotters are our future profs

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A8

    Many thanks to The Avid Reader

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A8

     
    .

    Sports

     
    UCD reveals a challenging softball schedule

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1 | Gallery

    Tumey talks about state of Aggie athletics, where they’re headed

    By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

     
    Davis gets Rio Linda as Curry Invitational starts Thursday

    By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

    Westbrook, Durant lead Thunder past Kings

    By The Associated Press | From Page: B8 | Gallery

     
    Sports briefs: Former Aggie Descalso inks deal with Colorado

    By Staff and wire reports | From Page: B8

    .

    Features

    Some vegetables just can’t be beet

    By Julie Cross | From Page: A9 | Gallery

     
    .

    Arts

    .

    Business

    .

    Obituaries

    Rena Sylvia Smilkstein

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4

     
    .

    Comics

    Comics: Wednesday, December 17, 2014

    By Creator | From Page: B6