When I was 24 and living in a funky New York City apartment with roommates, roaches and ambitions that were both utterly consuming and utterly unfocused, I was convinced my generation was cursed. It was the early 1990s, and between a recession, the AIDS crisis and the last vestiges of the crack-and-crime epidemic, daily life had a certain apocalyptic quality.
Thanks to baby boomers bottlenecking the middle rungs of the corporate ladder, we'd never move up from our entry-level jobs. Thanks to real estate prices that were skyrocketing even as the rest of the economy suffered, we'd never have decent apartments. At least that's how my friends and I dramatically observed it when we got together to compare student loan debt and complain that we weren't living in that bygone era when apparently all you had to do to get a cool job was show up in the lobby and say something witty.
Now, almost 20 years later, I don't feel quite as sorry for my younger self. And not just because those doomsday scenarios proved untrue — I no longer fetch coffee for a living; I even managed to pay off my crushing debt — but because it's plainly obvious that today's twentysomethings have it far worse.
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A Rutgers University study showed that only 56% of the class of 2010 had found employment by the spring of 2011. They desperately needed those jobs too: If they paid for college with a student loan — and who doesn't? — they owed an average of $25,000. Meanwhile my old roach-infested apartment (I slept in the dining room, by the way) would likely rent for three times as much as we paid.
A new HBO series, "Girls," takes this particular version of youth culture and runs with it. Created by 25-year-old Lena Dunham (she writes, produces, directs and stars), it debuts Sunday, amid a lot of talk about its unprecedented, raw depiction of the young urban female experience we're more used to seeing in high gloss. Dunham plays Hannah Horvath, an aspiring creative type (based on the screener, she's more interested in being the type than in actually creating anything) whose outsized self-confidence seems forever at war with her chronic self-loathing.
This has echoes of "Sex and the City's" Carrie Bradshaw, not least because both are prone to unapologetic casual sex. But whereas Carrie's improbable fabulousness bordered on caricature (the clothes, the career, the apartment, the men!), the fleshy, awkward and seriously cash-strapped Hannah is so real you sometimes can only peer at her through your fingers.
She pitches a fit when her parents cut off her money supply, botches a job interview by telling a rape joke and habitually has humiliating sex that she pretends to enjoy. Her friends are equally unmoored and almost as unglamorous. Tethered to social media, paralyzed by a lifeless economy and slayed daily by the disconnect between what the world's offering and what they grew up believing they should have, the girls of "Girls" do something you almost never see on television: make older folks glad we're not so young anymore.
"You couldn't pay me enough to be 24 again," says a middle-aged female doctor as she screens Hannah for STDs. Most TV gynecological exams are limited to wondrous gazes at fetal ultrasound images. This one puts the indignities front and center: the flimsy gown, the feet in the stirrups, a scale mercilessly registering a weight taken with clothes on.
For just such details, the show is being touted as a watershed in its refusal to objectify women. But what's arguably more radical is its refusal to romanticize youth. Just about everywhere else in the media (and in much of real life), youth is considered the highest form of currency. Dunham, on the other hand, makes sure we note the ways in which it can be a liability.
"I'm not being paid anything," Hannah retorts to the doctor in her characteristic deadpan. It's a zinger, but it also speaks to the ways in which that liability may now be particularly burdensome. Sure, there may still be some paid coffee-fetching jobs here and there, but I'm pretty sure unpaid internships are more the norm. A lucky few might get to sleep in their shared-apartment dining rooms, but a lot more are back at home with mom and dad.
While they're stuck, they might take some comfort in Longfellow. "Youth comes but once in a lifetime," he wrote.
Thank goodness for that.