Forever youngish: Why nobody wants to be an adult anymore

Chances are you bumped into this article last week. It was New York Magazine’s April 3rd cover story and its most emailed story of the week. The cover is irresistible: a Brady Bunch-esque grid of 12 photos, all guys, all standing with hands in pockets, all dressed identically — a t-shirt, jeans, a hoodie, and a messenger bag strapped across the chest — all wearing the same indifferent expression. They all look like they could be friends of mine — or even me. But look closer and read the fine print; their names and ages are included. Whoa! The guys range in age from 30-48. Holy Shit! See? Get it? There’s no generational divide anymore. Look at the pictures if you doubt it. Guys who are 48 look and dress the same as guys who are 30. In New York, you don’t have to grow up anymore! Fuck yeah!

Ok, so I was hooked. I devoured the article. And for the first 2-3 pages I was really suckered by the concept. Adam Sternbergh contends that a new generational revolution is occuring, with Generation X-ers rethinking what it means to be a grown-up. The Baby Boomer model of adulthood is being revised completely. I love shit like this. A new breed of grown-up is emerging, he argues, and he coins a term to describe them: Grups. He takes the name from a Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk visits a planet inhabited entirely by kids who call Kirk a Grup. It turns out that all the adults on the planet have been destroyed by a virus which also slows the down the kids' aging process, dooming them to a state of perpetual pre-adolescence. The kids call all grown-ups “Grups.”

Fortunately the article does more than just give a dorky name to an amorphous new generation of people. Sternbergh launches into a useful analysis of the phenomenon of the Grup pattern of pop culture consumption. He writes:

“Once upon a time, pop culture, and in particular pop music, followed a certain reliable pattern: People listened to bands, like the Doobie Brothers or Cream or Steely Dan, that their Frank Sinatra–loving parents absolutely despised. Then these people had kids, and their kids became teens, and they started listening to bands, like the Clash or Elvis Costello or Joy Division, that their Cream-loving parents absolutely despised. And, lo, the Lord looked down and saw that it was good, and on the eighth day, He created the generation gap. And then these Clash-listening kids grew up and had kids of their own, and the next generation of kids started listening to music, like Franz Ferdinand and Interpol and Bloc Party, that you might assume their parents would absolutely despise. Except it doesn’t really work that way anymore. In part, because how can their parents hate Interpol when they sound exactly like Joy Division? And in part, because how can their parents hate Bloc Party when their parents just downloaded Bloc Party and think it’s awesome and totally better than the Bravery! This, of course, is a seismic shift in intergenerational relationships. It means there is no fundamental generation gap anymore. This is unprecedented in human history. And it’s kind of weird.”

Wow. A “seismic shift in intergenerational relationships.” He’s quite persuasive and it’s kind of thrilling to think that we are living through some major change in the way that generations relate to each other. Cool. And it is also weird to think about it. It reminds me of that moment in history about 60 years ago in the post war period in America during that new affluence when the world witnessed the birth of the modern teenager. For the first time in history millions of young adults were not expected to work and they also had disposable incomes, easy mobility, and leisure time. The consumer industries that developed in response to this phenomenon are fundamentally responsible for the pop culture and pop music that exists today. The pop music generation gap as we know it exists because of the modern teen. Wait, did I just say 60 years ago? So what exactly is so “seismic” about a change in a generational music gap that is not even as old as my mom?

And for that matter, has that generational music gap actually disappeared? How many parents are actually downloading Bloc Party? How many parents in America have heard of Bloc Party? For that matter, how many teens have downloaded Bloc Party? I don’t know the answer, but I know it is tiny. And now Sternbergh seems a little less reliable. I’m growing uneasy and suspicious.

So what else defines a Grup, Mr. Sternbergh? Well, of course, wardrobe. Essentially Grups wear ridiculously expensive ripped jeans and three-day scruff. The article refers to multitudes of 30- and 40-year-olds who spend $300-600 on ripped jeans that they have to replace in a few weeks because the distressed jeans are so fragile. Grups have rejected the reigning dogma that as one ages and passes through different phases of life, ones uniform changes as well. It was a Boomer presumption that the final wardrobe destination is to be stuffed into a suit and tie. But Grups, like those Silicon Valley dot-com kids before them, reject the notion. They will wear ripped jeans, t-shirts, and hoodies. “I’ve been wearing the same thing my entire life,” says one 40-year-old. And there is certainly a privileged population in New York who are not bound by a uniform, but for the other 99% of America, even if the idea of a uniform seems antiquated, we will continue to dress in various versions of a uniform because society still expects it. And this is where the rickety nature of the article begins to show itself. Because really it just depicts a very small, privileged, independently wealthy, Tribeca-living, loft-owning segment of New York. And the description of how Grups parent is even more annoying and transparent.

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You can read the article for the full eye-rolling-ridiculousness of the descriptions. But in short, Grups have kids. They love kids. “Grups find kids to be perfect little Mr. Potato Head versions of themselves.” They can dress them in Sonic Youth t-shirts. They are the ultimate accessory. But that’s not all. “Of course, there’s more to Grup parenting than simply molding your kid’s tastes. You must be vigilant that you don’t grow up and become uncool yourself.” Grup dads take their kids on play dates where the dads drink beer, the kids play, and they all listen to new indie bands. The article quotes from the writer of the soon-to-be published Alternadad: The True Story of One Family’s Struggle to Raise a Cool Kid in America. This father of a three-year-old complains: “One guy was telling me his son was really into Wilco. And I was telling him that’s lame. Because Wilco is so over.” Jesus Christ. Shoot him.

The final description of the Grup involves how they think about their careers. Here is where the article totally breaks down and the Grup as nothing more than super-privileged indie-kid becomes clear and the author starts — yawn — celebrating the Grups' career choices as driven by “passion,” because when they don't feel the “passion” they go snowboarding. Even so, amid all the bullshit, I start to like something he says at the end about the way our generation sees work:

“This is where the Grup diverges from the bobo, the yuppie, even the yupster. The Grup does not want a corner office. The Grup does not yearn for a fancy title. The Grup does not want — oh, please, do not ask the Grup to manage — a staff. … A human-resources executive told me recently that there’s a golden rule of HR: To motivate a baby boomer, offer him a bonus. To motivate a Generation-Xer, offer him a day off. The Grup, I think, would go for the day off, too.”

“If the boomer’s icon of success was an empire-building maverick magnate like Ted Turner, the Grup’s model would be Spike Jonze, the 36-year-old Jackass-producing, skateboarding, awesome-indie-movie-directing free agent.”

I like this analysis. There is something that speaks to my own career ambitions or lack thereof. I understand that stuff about not wanting the corner office or a fancy title or a staff. I found that in a recent job interview, one of the most compelling things was the promise of 10 paid holidays, 4 weeks of vacation, and very flexible hours. So I totally get that career part. And I love Spike Jonze. Who doesn’t wish he was Spike Jonze? Shit, Ted Turner wishes he was Spike Jonze. But that’s where this whole flimsy article wavers again. Becaues it’s a pretty shameful strategy to pick those two figures as the competing embodiments of two generations. That kind of rhetorical trickery and manipulation of facts is really what this article relies on to make its case. Grups? Whatever.

It is interesting to observe the real ways in which we relate to the next generation in a manner so different than our parents related to us. And it's interesting to notice how the music we listen to and the way we dress and the way we think about work really is quite different than the previous generation and quite similar to the next. So I appreciate an article that makes me notice that. And if he thinks we stay “younger” in the process, well, that's fine by me. Forever youngish. Why not?

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26 responses to “Forever youngish: Why nobody wants to be an adult anymore”

  1. Loved this. I have to think about my response, esp. since I’ve been thinking about writing about my fear of growing old.

    It also reminded me of this from WFMU’s blog, wherein I first heard the term “teenile,” as in someone who shops like a teenager even though they’re too old for the stuff they consume.

  2. Rachel says:

    I just finished reading Generation Debt by Anya Kamenetz, in which she discusses a similar phenomenon, but from the perspective of the average citizen, not the independently wealthy Tribeca loft-dweller. Americans are taking longer to grow up, but it’s because getting into a decent career and getting out from the proverbial financial hole takes a lot longer than it used to.

    That is to say, most of us are not wearing artfully falling-apart jeans because we spent $300 on them last week, but because they really ARE falling apart because we have to make the payments on our $50,000 of student loans, goddammit, not to mention the credit card minimums, and good jeans are expensive.

    If people in their 30s seem to be expressing themselves disproportionately through appearance and musical taste, it’s because that’s what people do when they can’t afford houses and SUVs and other markers of status. Did Sternbergh devote any time to this far more common breed of “grup”?

  3. About an hour and a half into Trouble’s show on WFMU this morning she plays an Ivy song in honor of the article you cite, Farrell. I guess the article quotes someone who’s in Ivy? Trouble called the article and the magazine “vapid.” Funny coincidence.

    Still thinking about my response, but one thing I think right off is that his math is bad. Would people who grew up on Cream have kids who grow up on the Clash? Maybe if they got pregnant at 15? What about people like us who listened to our parents’ Beatles and Stones *and* the Clash, but only later, in the mid-80s? Doesn’t that say something about the timelessness of rock and roll from 1968 to the present? And shouldn’t we blame that on Boomers?

  4. Trixie Honeycups says:

    Rachel-
    Indeed, Sternbergh did *not* delve into any discussion of the more common, garden variety grup. Farrell and I were incredulous when we followed the article to its vapid endpoint, which actually suggests that there is a “happy ending” to the downtrodden life of an aging hipster who wears $300 jeans and goes snowboarding at the drop of a hat. The article did have some interesting jumping off points for conversation, as Farrell discussed. But it devolved into a ridiculous portrait of a privileged microcosm.
    Trixie

  5. Lane says:

    privileged microcosm

    TRIBECA!

    They who subscribe to that vapid mag and in turn keep those ad rates up! New York magazine is nothing more than the color companion to the New York Observer. The twin peaks of New York’s self obsessive media echo chamber that loves nothing more than itself, from Greenwich to Soho to Southhampton.

  6. the only problem with making Tribeca the scapegoat here is that a huge number of Tribeca parents (people who have kids the same age as my kids) are actually closer to my parents’ age than mine, and believe me, they’re not sitting around downloading the latest indie bands. Some of them do try to project an eternal hipster image, but it’s not the same thing as East Village parents who really are hipsters after all these years. I’m still trying to figure out the average age of the grup parents he’s talking about and the average age of their kids. The whole thing seems to me to be an attempt to write his own narcissism onto the culture at large.

  7. Jeremy Zitter says:

    I loved this post, Farrell. (I’m embarrassed to admit that I actually loved the Sternbergh piece as well). And while I agree that it’s troubling to conflate a tiny, elite, aging-hipster subculture with an entire generation, I still found myself uncomfortably chuckling at some of the obvious truths in the original article (“vapid” though it may be). Perhaps that’s me projecting my own “narcissism onto the culture at large,” which I agree, Bryan, seems to be the impetus behind the article.

    By the way, I still can’t figure out why he chose “grups” as the term for this generation. The grups are the Starship-Enterprise squares (read: old and unhip) who land on this planet of forever-youngs, which seems to contradict how Sternbergh employs the term…

  8. […] An article appeared in New York Magazine recently hailing the death of the generational gap. The idea was sort of interesting at first glance, but withers under a deeper analysis (or, just opening the magazine and taking a cursory read). This article was the topic of an interesting post over on The Great Whatsit (thanks for a nice analysis, Farrell). I thought I’d take some moments to blast it here. […]

  9. G-Lock says:

    Does this in some way explain my unhealthy obsession with Madonna and Lucky Charms??

  10. Farrell says:

    Hey my homies,

    First off, Bryan, yes, the author’s math is totally off. that bothered me too. the way he described the popmusic generation gap relies on generations that exist only about 15 years apart from each other. Is 15 years a generation? And then he offers up a very strange generational geneology. In America how many Steely Dan-listening parents really had Elvis Costello-listening kids? It seems that instead most of those parents had kids who went on to horrify their parents listening to Ozzy and Motley Crue. Satanic shit, not geeky mod rock. Then those parents are now being horrified by their kids who listen to super naughty hip hop. Or something like that. See how easy and fun it is to invent generation gaps?

    Deardear Lane, vapid should never be used to criticize any magazine. Apart from the New Yorker, Harpers, the economist and a handful of others, all magazines are pretty vapid. In fact, magazine = vapid. but isn’t that why we love them? Honestly, i LOVE new york magazine. almost every issue has an article i want to read. if someone gave me a subscription i would be so DE-lighted. seriously. you readers out there, send me a subscription, i’d pee my pants with joy.

    Jeremy, thank you for admiting how much you liked this article. and also, that grup thing. yeah, i hadn’t thought of how illogical it is to use a name like that to describe the ‘cool’ grup generation.

    Rachel, thanks for your ever fresh comments. i think you have contributed more text to the greatwhatsit in your comments alone than i have as an ‘official’ contributor. when are you going to finally just pony up an actual post?

    Trixie, thank you for that heated indignant conversation in the car on sunday that helped me to crystalize all these ideas. Your “hey, let’s write a letter to the magazine” as you know, turned into this blog.

    Brooke, i like your blog rant about this article. i actually looked around on the internet before writing this essay(?) and found that surprisingly there was nothing substantial written about it. now there are two. nice work.

  11. Lane says:

    I’m just getting back from an opening. I live in a New York Magazine article (in the same issue we’re discussing in fact!) If it wern’t for Starbucks I’d have absolutely no grasp on reality.

    I agree that Rachel nailed it.

  12. too bad we didn’t know you were out tonight, lane. we (dave and i) just left a fun laptop/visuals gig somewhere around herald square.

    farrell: lane didn’t introduce the term “vapid” here — trouble did. of course she’s right, but of course you still want a subscription.

    nate: i’m too tired to link this to your konono no. 1 post comments, but damn they sounded nice on my ipod at the end of a subway ride following a laptop gig.

    xo to all. bw

  13. Lane says:

    And that’s Trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with B and that stands for Bubble!

  14. Bacon says:

    For those nearing 40, please try to behave yourselves! That goes for you too Waterman. People who act their age are cool. People who wear hoodies into their late 40s are dorks.

    It’s not just Tribeca. Sociologists have basically concluded that some time ago children yearned to relate to adults and behave like adults. Following the explosion of teen subculture in the late 60’s, adults have increasingly yearned to relate to kids and behave like them. This unfortunate trend will continue.

    As for uniforms, the dot-com bust proved them essential. Exhibit A would of course be Steve Jobs presenting to the world the latest Apple product in jeans and the turtleneck he ostensibly picked up of the bedroom floor that morning. The line between “cool” and “pathetic” is fine indeed.

  15. Bacon says:

    An important follow-up. My girlfriend once told me that after living in Eugene for 11 years, the most punk rock thing she could do was to get a decent paying job. Conformity is the new rebellion.

  16. hey, man. let me enjoy my mid-30s before you have me conforming @ 40.

    i somehow suspect that most of the folks interviewed for the article have decent-paying jobs, so that seems to be beside the point. the most cool thing about growing up for me was the point when i developed a tolerance — even a genuine appreciation for — classic country music.

    as for hoodies on 40-year-olds, i think there’s an east village aesthetic that’s relatively timeless, and i have no problem with lee ranaldo or any other greyheaded post-punk hipster turning up at a show in a black t-shirt, jeans, and a hoodie. personally, i look forward to wearing that uniform to my grave. it’s essentially what i’ve worn since i was 15. i have friends in their mid-40s who dress like this in appropriate situations and they look just fine.

    i *do* however have a problem with an aging hipster wannabe wearing $500 distressed jeans from barneys. that’s just plain a problem. i also have problems with parents who spend $40 on a ramones onesie for their kid who will outgrow it in 2 weeks. if they get it as a gift from some clueless childless friend, sure. but *that*’s where people need to restrain themselves.

  17. Trixie Honeycups says:

    your girlfriend is so right (as usual)… i revel in the nights i get into a lot of trouble and naughtiness with my friends who are phds, professionals, lawyers, physicians, professors, …
    i feel like i am subverting the dominant paradigm right in my own living room.
    punk rock will never die
    trixie

  18. Trixie Honeycups says:

    yeah, i agree with bryan.
    hey, aren’t i supposed to be working?

  19. Lisa Parrish says:

    Bear in mind, Bacon, that being 40 once meant never wearing chunky sneakers with a corduroy jacket, not staying out at a punk shows until 2 a.m., not hanging with the twenty-somethings at the 18th Street Lounge. You may not wear a hoodie, but your soul secretly does.

  20. Matt C says:

    Farrell, I seem to remember getting a late-night, drunken phone message from your better half complaining about your intolerance of today’s youth’s lack of participation at cool shows. Maybe you can “part deux” this piece from the opposite perspective…kids who WANT a generation gap. I’m still traumatized by the time I entered a club and had a girl take one look at me and yell, “Hey Brandi, your DAD’S here!” Ouch.

  21. brooke says:

    The Washington Post had an article in today’s online edition that speaks to Rachel’s observations about how long it takes to ‘grow up’. From the article:

    “Where once youth moved nearly lockstep through the markers of adulthood . . . today the path is much more circuitous and steeped in ambiguity,” an ongoing study by a network of university-based scientists concluded. “Jobs are no longer secure, marriage is delayed, buying a house and gaining an education are expensive, relationships are more tenuous and the connection to community more fractured.”

    Another interesting quote from the article comes from an undergrad who defines adulthood thusly:

    “When I think of adulthood I think of waking up at 7 a.m., having a 9-to-5 job, paying my mortgage and my taxes, being married and taking care of my kids,” he said. But if that’s the understanding, said Ziese, there’s no way he wants to be an adult adult come commencement.

    Get this kid a subscription to NY Mag and a hoodie! Now go out there and be somebody!

  22. bacon says:

    Parrish. My soul may wear a hoodie, but my body does not. That is precisely the point.

  23. Lisa Parrish says:

    Hoodie-phobe.

  24. bacon says:

    Waterman, I admire your defiance.

    A friend told me once he wanted to buy a Miata. I said “you realize that’s a chick car”. “I don’t care…I should be able to drive whatever I want”. My response…”I agree, and I admire your defiance….as long as you still realize you’ll be driving around in a chick car”

  25. ahem … i’ve borrowed your winter coat. and it zips on the wrong side.

  26. […] In a way I suspect that’s how I’ll feel about new Flaming Lips albums from here on out, too, though after half a dozen listens to At War with the Mystics in the last couple weeks, I think it’s better than Yoshimi. Like that one, which my daughters liked more than I did (did someone say something about a disappearing generation gap?), I imagine this album will receive more play around our place over the summer, when late nights with friends turn into early mornings sprawled in recliners on the terrace. It doesn’t have the orchestral grandeur or self-awareness of its greatness that Soft Bulletin had, but it has just the right dose of lazy, melodic, spaced-out epics to help you drift off to sleep. The songs on Mystics feel more fully realized to me than many of the tracks on Yoshimi did, though I realize a lot of critics are complaining to the contrary. What I like most here are the ’70s sounds, new for this band: the combination of faux-flamenco guitar, mild disco beats, choral backing vocals, and electric flute on “The Sound of Failure/It’s Dark … Is It Always This Dark??,” my favorite track, which plays like a lethargic echo of Hall and Oates’ “Say It Isn’t So.” It’s followed seamlessly by “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion,” which could have been a Carpenters tune. The anti-Bush single, “The W.A.N.D. (The Will Always Negates Defeat),” builds on fuzzed-out hard rock guitars and handclaps. Imagine Bacharach attempting an arrangement of Kilroy Was Here and you’ll approximate where this record’s aiming. Thinking of Mystics as a return to ’70s AOR is, I think, essential to getting it: it’s structured to have Sides A and B, the whisper and pop of a turntable’s needle, and I’m willing to bet the break between sides comes right before the space-prog-jam “The Wizard Turns On.” […]