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What the D.C. Brunch Says About Young Urban Elite

It’s quite a hangover.

It is the cosmopolitan D.C. crowd’s version of a riot: a horde of young men and women descending Sunday morning onto hundreds of barely differentiated joints to swallow down the same bottomless mimosas and “small plates” fashioned from the week’s leftovers.

It is known as “brunch,” but the refined flavor of that word no longer reflects what it has become. Today it’s about extending the party. Brunch food is hangover food, and brunch is the finale of the quasi-religious weekend trifecta: bar crawl, Tinder hook-up, hungover brunch and hair-of-the-dog Bloody Marys with well vodka.

Of course restaurants don’t advertise it this way. But brunch in D.C. has evolved to be little more than a way for the young urban elite (today’s yuppies) to make their messy weekends look neat, drunkenness hip, and materialistic desires something other than hedonistic. It is a peculiarly coarse, even uncivilized ritual, cloaked in the respectability of Sunday morning.   

Brunch has replaced Sunday worship. The bottomless mimosa is the blood of Christ.

Come worship with us. All are welcome!

This city (I refuse to call it “this town”) is supposed to be a seat of diversity, ever more valued in the era of the “Resistance”; it is anything but. The brunch spots, as noted, are all the same. So are the patrons.

Washington, more than many cities, is home to hordes of young people—of every race and ethnicity to be sure—who watch the same television shows, wear the same clothes, spray the same perfume, bend their necks towards the same few websites on the same little screens, speak with the same clean, clipped, often-too-fast accent, practice the same American religion which glorifies the utterly unattached individual, and live the same aimless life in which overthrowing the President of the United States is a more realistic prospect than getting married and having a family.  

Stand for a few hours on any street corner in D.C.—not in the struggling neighborhoods, but in the gentrified and professional ones—and count on your fingers how many people stand out from the crowd. You’ll still have most of your fingers. Count how many pregnant women, or women with infants, you see. You’ll still have most of your fingers. Once a city of neighborhoods, albeit tough neighborhoods, D.C. is now a top destination for young childless couples and singles, and it has correspondingly become their playground. After decades of population shrinkage, people are pouring into the city, to live in the pastel condo-boxes going up everywhere.   

This is not archetypal, it should be noted, of city life in general. While it is worrisome that city dwellers across the globe have more in common with each other than than they do with their own rural or suburban countrymen, there are cities which challenge us with true diversity: New York, for one. That kind of diversity—living unselfconsciously among people who are different from oneself and each other, but all equally and fully human—teaches tolerance and respect all on its own. Perhaps our young people are so obsessed with the doctrine and jargon of social justice because their everyday lives encapsulate conformity and self-segregation.

This large cohort of unattached, job-seeking post-grads, many edging close to 30, is one result of teaching every mediocre college student to “reach for the stars” and “follow their passion.” It only sets them up for disappointment. How many of our middling journalists and consultants might have been excellent auto mechanics or electricians? (There is nothing whatsoever shameful about working with one’s hands, about producing things rather than writing memos.) And that’s if they even become journalists or consultants—there are thousands more graduates of political science and government relations than there will ever be political scientists and government relations managers. The number of young people, many of them bright and talented in their own way, who struggle into their mid- or late-20s to find decent employment, is truly a crime against American youth.

It is no secret that the lives of many of D.C.’s young people are being lived on borrowed time, and borrowed money. Someone is paying for all those brunches and all those bar tabs, and for the apartments and the unpaid internships that now function as unofficial, short-term jobs (or long-term networking opportunities). It is easy to make jokes about living in your parents’ basement at 40, but this is America’s first generation for which that is a real possibility.

Perhaps Rod Dreher is right to suggest that Washington is “The Imperium,” and to sketch a vision in which life consists of carving out a modest space for oneself and one’s family, far away from the aimless, overheating Rube Goldberg machine of the financialized, post-industrial economy.

Anyone who has tasted this kind of life knows that it is a difficult pleasure. Just as porn destroys intimacy and junk food renders real food bland, the mirage of easy sex, endless international cuisine, and world-changing activism or world-bestriding political power makes it hard to appreciate a harder, grittier, more modest way of life. Some advice for struggling Millennials: Stop going to elite colleges, whose degrees are increasingly expensive, preemptive pink slips. Stop idolizing the DC/NY/SF bubble, as the heartland and the real economy slowly erode away. If that is too much, however, at least stop going to brunch.