Nathan Heller’s New Yorker essay on young urban people is called “Semi-Charmed Life,” and the subtitle (undoubtedly provided by his editors) is “The twentysomethings are all right.” But is that what the essay says? Here’s how it concludes:
Twentysomething culture is intimate and exclusive on the one hand, and eternal on the other. We tout this stage of life, in retrospect, as free, although we ogle the far shores of adulthood while we’re there. Sometimes those two illusions of the age converge: Nielsen data indicate that the most enthusiastic audience for “Girls” is middle-aged men.
The shock of the twenties is how narrow that window of experience really is, and how inevitable it seems both at the time and afterward. At some point, it is late, too late, and you are standing on the sidewalk outside somewhere very loud. A wind is blowing. It’s the same cool, restless late-night breeze that blew on trampled nineteen-twenties lawns, dazed sixties streets, and anywhere young people gather. Nearby, someone who doesn’t smoke is smoking. An attractive stranger with a lightning laugh jaywalks between cars with a friend, making eye contact before scurrying inside. You’re far from home. It’s quiet. All at once, you have a thrilling sense of nowness, of the sheer potential of a verdant night with all these unmet people in it. For a long time after that, you think you’ll never lose this life, those dreams. But that was, as they say, then.
Heller is obviously going for an evocative ending rather than a conclusion per se — but what is he trying to evoke? Perhaps a sense that unmarried, urban, and financially relatively secure twentysomethings have that the life they’re living won’t last long. But that doesn’t answer any of the questions the essay raises about whether those people are living well.
But maybe that’s because “living well” is not a category Heller has available to him. He meanders from issue to issue, topic to topic, doing little more than listing the various sources of youthful anxiety. Will I find a mate? Will I “fall behind” others of my cohort in wage-earning? (That seems to be a big one, perhaps because that’s the only easily measurable way I can compare myself to others.) Are the political commitments of my generation just borrowed from earlier young cultures?
But Heller never seems to get around to asking what seem to me obvious questions about what ways of life make it worth living, what sorts of acts and orientations help bring about eudaimonia, human flourishing. I get the sense that he’s not even aware that those are questions one might ask.
It’s often said that the current generation of twentysomethings are distinctively narcissistic, but the available evidence strongly suggests that that is not true: any narcissism that has set in to American society set in forty or more years ago, just as Christopher Lasch told us. But if they’re not any more narcissistic than their predecessors, these young people do often seem bereft of a moral vocabulary with which to assess their lives — and, perhaps equally often, they seem to be craving such a vocabulary. For that lack they have no one but their elders to blame.