Let’s face it, teens today can’t see their futures as easy. On top of their everyday pressures — struggling with new feelings for some peers, maintaining grades, exploring their own interests and increasing individuality — they also have to worry about the economy in ways teens just ten years ago didn’t have to. Back then, summer jobs were available, parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles had more established jobs and secure futures. The economy changed all of that in a blink of an eye, and who can say if that level of prosperity will ever come back? Teens are growing up with more uncertainty than ever before.
That uncertainty is playing out through pop culture in many different ways. In the area of books, you might have heard the term “New Adult”. Liz Burns of A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy has a long list of definitions and links to other posts that can give you a rundown of this increasingly popular publishing trend. To quote Liz:
“So, it seems to me that “New Adult” has characters from 18 to 29. It’s people in a time period that is after the perceived safety and narrowness and intimacy of high school — and by intimacy I mean, having a physical place where everyone goes and shares lunch times and has common experiences of classrooms and lunch times. I say perceived, because that’s not always true.”
Liz has an entire series of posts dedicated to New Adult if you are interested in pursuing this topic in more depth. But many books branded as New Adult portray young adults — I would hesitate to classify the characters as teens, even if some of them are eighteen or nineteen years old — and their struggles, but, based solely on the few NA titles I have read, they are most typically located in a college setting. Where are the reflections of experiences of those young adults who do not have the luxury or option of heading to college right after graduation? Or those who might not want to go to college? Where are the characters that haven’t grown up in some kind of middle class background? People of color are also being left out of the New Adult category.
This problem plays out in another pop culture arena, television. In the popular HBO show, Girls, college graduate Hannah Hovarth is finally facing adulthood after her parents stop paying for her rent and other needs. But what kind of adulthood can she have with few job prospects in a tight job market? There is no doubt that this show examines a type of young adulthood specific to a privileged background.
New Girl, Two Broke Girls, Girls, and Comedy Central’s Workaholics all showcase the sometimes aimless and protracted transition into adulthood that is being tackled by young people today. Again, there are definite holes in whose stories are being told and explored. As much as I love pop culture, it is so easy to forget that what has become popular is often overshadowing the experiences of most people. Such is life viewed through media.
So how does this all relate back to teens? In many ways, these are the types of experiences teens may be facing soon. Having to live with parents for a lot longer, putting off that move to total independence in adulthood, struggling finding a job. These images on the screen and in the books that make their way into libraries share only a small and particular portion of the trials today’s teens are facing. But there’s no doubt that young adulthood is quite different in 2013 than it was in 2003 or 1993.
We’re only seeing the beginning of this emerging trend. The success of Girls is spawning new shows and yes, probably more books in the same vein. But they need to move beyond, much as I hate to say it, the middle class, white, early-twenty-something experience. Where can we find resources for authentic range of new young adult experiences? How can librarians better showcase those to the teens they are serving?
Comment by Liz B — February 21, 2013
First things first –thank you so much for linking to my series of posts about New Adult.
Second, there is a fascinating look at GIRLS versus Showtimes’ SHAMELESS at The Nation:http://www.thenation.com/article/172272/what-girls-and-shameless-teach-us-about-being-broke-and-being-poor# in terms of the socioeconomic status of Hannah versus Fiona, and I wonder, would Fiona’s narrative, in print, qualify for “New Adult” ? Why or why not?
Next, I’m really curious as to the actual readership of the books falling under New Adult (whether or not the pub/author calls it that). Basically, is this really “teen readers” or is it post-teen readers? Is this something to be working on with adult ref staff because the readers are, say, 21? Is it readers who love all the best about YA but are not themselves teens?
My bottom line: I don’t think NA is a good name; I don’t think it should be its own genre/bookshelf; but I do think it’s telling us what certain readers want in books, and for that reason, it’s good to pay attention.
What ‘Girls’ and ‘Shameless’ Teach Us About Being Broke, and Being Poor
Lena Dunham as Hannah in Girls and Emmy Rossum as Fiona in Shameless.
Post-recession, we often blur the distinction between the downwardly mobile and the permanent underclass—especially when wringing our hands over what will become of millennials, many of whom entered the job market just as it was weakest. Here’s an easy way to tell them apart: both are struggling, but the former has a safety net. One has the luxury of moving back home or tapping their college networks for a break; the other faces diminished earning power, a dramatically more precarious job market, and sometimes homelessness—often without any help from parents.
Watching the season premieres of HBO’s Girls and Showtime’sShameless this past Sunday put the contrast in stark relief. The two main characters, Girls’s Hannah and Shameless’s Fiona, are both penniless twentysomething women finding their way through big cities, but they live in completely different worlds. Hannah’s infamous humiliation is that she relied on her professor parents for rent money for years; Fiona’s deadbeat folks have left her to raise her five siblings alone. Hannah struggles to find a job worthy of her college degree; Fiona juggles several gigs at a time, leaving no time to even finish high school. In other words: Hannah is broke. Fiona is poor. And never the twain shall meet?
Maybe not. The funny thing about Hannah and Fiona is that they have pretty much the same job. Hannah works at a coffee shop and Fiona is a cocktail waitress (though that’s just one of Fiona’s many gigs). In context of the modern economy, it’s not hard to picture the two rubbing shoulders. As the service sector grows and the opportunities for the middle-class shrink, young people of all classes find themselves making minimum wage together, and our class distinctions are getting more complicated as a result. Retail and food service are where the post-crash jobs are—the US economy is expected to create 18 million more service sector jobsby the end of the decade—so it’s no surprise that 16 percent of bartenders now have a bachelor’s degree. Meanwhile, the median net worth of householders under 35 fell 37 percent between 2005 and 2010. Youth unemployment is higher than the national average, but of the recent graduates currently employed, 43 percent of them are at jobs that don’t require a four-year college degree.
Still, none of this means we’re in a classless melting pot; each group’s expectations belie their upbringings. Hannah and her friends, all college grads, are indignant about their dwindling job prospects, while Fiona isn’t surprised that her dreams are deferred. Despite her smarts and work ethic, she’s been shoveling shit to put food on the table for years now, sometimes quite literally. In this Sunday’s season premiere, we find out Fiona has scored a job cleaning up sewage for $18 an hour, the holy grail in her working class neighborhood—but she gets laid off by the end of the episode. And unlike Hannah, Fiona is staring down a monster property tax bill and an endless grocery list. It’s still as hard as ever for the working class. While the “privileged poor” are getting a rude awakening, at least they have a buffer.
For the most part, both shows are stuck in the old model of strict class segregation. In Shameless’s universe, you’re either rich and smug or poor and righteous. Hannah mostly interacts with her own kind, and when her free-spirited friend Jessa suggests to her fellow nannies that they all join a union, it’s played for laughs rather than inspiration. But in the real world, the labor movement may indeed benefit from the class mixing that’s already going on. Last year, when I reported on a group of young, mostly educated, mostly white kids trying to organize the sandwich chain Jimmy John’s in the Twin Cities, I spoke with Macalester College professor Peter Rachleff. He compared the organizers to certain Occupy kids who are “entitled,” “aware of their rights,” and have a safety net in case they get fired. I met a young woman who was galvanized by the realization that her middle-class aspirations may end up being pipe dreams. “What are the real dreams that we can actually accomplish? Fucking building a union,” she told me.
Compare this mentality to that of the working class employees I spoke with at Walmart last month, when reporting forThe Nation on the workers who did not join the strikes, many of whom were terrified about retaliation or just happy to be making money at all. These workers are also hanging back from organizing at places like Burger King, Domino’s and Target.
I later discovered that the Jimmy John’s organizers had trouble convincing people like Fiona and the Walmart workers I met—workers with families and health problems and no backup plans—to join a union. But this is slowly changing as major unions like SEIU invest in these fights and workers reach their breaking point. Rachleff predicts that “as these jobs become less transient, people of all socioeconomic classes may be more vested in making it a better experience.” And as the recession’s fever pitch recedes into the past, a larger number of young people will come to terms that they’ll have these jobs for a while. Eventually, both groups may realize they have nothing to lose by working together.