J.D. Vance begins Hillbilly Elegy, his memoir of growing up poor in the American Midwest, with a confession: ‘I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve accomplished nothing great in my life, certainly nothing that would justify a complete stranger paying money to read about it … I wrote this book because I’ve achieved something quite ordinary, which doesn’t happen to most kids who grow up like me.’ Vance was raised in a ‘hillbilly’ family. According to Vance, hillbillies have a lot to recommend them – they’re patriotic, loyal, family-oriented, ‘the toughest goddamned people on this earth’ – but they’re also pessimistic, isolated, suspicious of outsiders, and, these days, prone to drug abuse and despair. A kid ‘with a grim future’, Vance could have easily ended up dead of an opioid overdose; instead he graduated from Yale Law School, the ‘coolest thing I’ve done’. He attributes his success to old-fashioned self-discipline, which he learned at the feet of his grandmother, Mamaw, and perfected in the marines. Unlike those in his hometown who had kids young, or who were worn down by menial jobs, he fulfilled what he calls the American Dream. By the end of the book, he has a house, a happy marriage, two dogs, a job at a venture capital firm – and distance from his humble origins.
‘Today people look at me, at my job and my Ivy League credentials,’ Vance writes, ‘and assume that I’m some sort of genius, that only a truly extraordinary person could have made it to where I am today.’ Not so. His self-effacement is largely rhetorical: the book, which at times reads like a lightly edited CV, is designed to show his superiority to his working-class peers, as well as his fitness for public office. He describes scholarships won, interviews aced, clerkships granted, all, he reminds us, in spite of the odds. And yet he also continuously deflects attention from himself, often by including social observations and policy recommendations between episodes in his life story. Working as a cashier, he watches welfare recipients work the system by buying and selling packs of soft drinks. These memories lead to a discussion of welfare reform and to speculations about the reasons the American South went Republican. (Race isn’t mentioned in Vance’s gloss on Nixon’s infamous ‘Southern Strategy’.)
These are not well-researched arguments: Vance has 22 footnotes. Hillbilly Elegy was published in the US the summer before Trump was elected. In the aftermath, some liberals, in need of an explanation as to how the impossible came to pass, mistook Vance’s recollections for something like sociology. Memoirists don’t usually aim at sociological significance. A memoir is meant to particularise, to tell the story of a singular life in a way that is, in the language of book clubs, relatable. Vance has done something quite different: he has written a memoir uneasy with the very idea of singularity. He is aware of the constraints politics and economics place on people but still, nonetheless, tries to tell a story of uncommon success.
The tensions between individuality and typicality, between feeling singular and special and feeling constrained and insignificant, are characteristic of life-writing by the millennial generation, those born between 1980 and 2000. The authors of the books discussed here are all (except Alderton) American, all between 25 and 35, though they come from different backgrounds: they are rich and poor, suburban and rural, raised in religious and secular families. More than half of them are white women, and all are acutely aware of the ways their lives have been shaped by race, gender and class. They are aware, too, of their relative privilege, and reflexively check it throughout their books. ‘I am precisely the kind of nice upper-middle-class white girl whose relationship to substances has been treated as benign or pitiable – a cause for concern, or a shrug, rather than a punishment,’ writes Leslie Jamison in The Recovering, a memoir of addiction that doubles as a cultural history of Alcoholics Anonymous. ‘If you are grossed out by “white girl privilege” (who isn’t?), you might want to bail now,’ warns Cat Marnell, the author of How to Murder Your Life, another addiction memoir, but an altogether more desperate and amusing book than Jamison’s. Dolly Alderton, the author of Everything I Know about Love, who has her own problems with binge-drinking and disordered eating habits, seems less aware of her economic privilege, though she’s quick to note how a culture that privileges the couple disadvantages single women like herself. In This Will Be My Undoing, an essay collection with an allusion to intersectionality in its subtitle, Morgan Jerkins argues that skin colour and hair type contribute to a hierarchical system within the black community.
Vance is the lone open conservative in this group. US Millennials lean further left than their baby boomer parents: according to one recent survey, half of them reject capitalism and a third support socialism. Nonetheless, Vance’s unironic investment in family values and his full-throated endorsement of the American Dream, is, tonally, typical. There is little irony in millennial memoirs and even less nihilism. Their authors tend to be earnest, and post-postmodern in their attachment to ‘meaning’. They believe in self-improvement: they preach psychotherapy; they laud temperance; they speak openly about their faith. Most of them go to therapy; Alderton has a chapter called ‘My Therapist Says’. Even Marnell, the most cynical among them, ends her book on a gentle note. We leave her exercising regularly, moderating her amphetamine intake and listening to Louise Hay’s affirmations: ‘I am grateful for my life. Only good lies before me.’ (Hay wrote several bestselling self-help books.) Like many of the authors included here, she occasionally falls to her knees and prays.
So what happens when millenials, so much discussed in the media, speak for themselves? You begin by hearing a lot about university. Attending college has become an expected step at the same time as it has become shockingly expensive and increasingly corporatised. Compared to 1979, the cost of tuition in the US is up nearly 200 per cent at state colleges and nearly 300 per cent at private ones. New facilities and sports coaches (not players) eat up much of the money, while, as in the UK, university administrators receive salaries that most lecturers can only dream of.
And yet students in the US continue to go to college in record numbers, taking out loans that they will spend years, even decades, paying off. Realising that the debt he would incur would be enough to buy a house in his Ohio hometown, Vance joined the marines instead. After his tour of duty, he went to college on the G.I. Bill. Like the welfare recipients he disdains, he too relied on the largesse of the state. For many students, loans aren’t sufficient to cover the expense of an undergraduate degree. Seventy per cent of US students work throughout college, an almost threefold increase since 1960; a quarter work more than twenty hours a week, while a fifth have full-time jobs. While at Ohio State, Vance took two jobs, one for a state senator, another at a local nonprofit. He slept three or four hours a night. A professor encouraged him to focus on his education; Vance ignored him, and ended up in hospital with a staph infection and glandular fever. Incredibly, the lessons he takes from all this are not that higher education is rigged in favour of the rich, or that state-funded universities suffer under austerity, but that hard work will be rewarded and payday lenders are a necessary lifeline.
Students like Vance invest an astounding amount of time, labour and money in their education. This is all the more striking when you consider the necessity yet declining value of a degree: since 2008, unemployment and underemployment rates for recent US graduates have nearly doubled. Long hailed as the engine of social mobility, college no longer fulfills this promise: 38 per cent of students from low-income families will stay poor, even if they graduate. The majority of graduates begin their post-college lives saddled with debt, in jobs or internships that don’t provide enough money to live on. As Malcolm Harris puts it in Kids These Days, ‘for anyone who takes out a student loan – and that’s two-thirds of students – succeeding at contemporary American childhood now means contracting out hours, days, years of their future work to the government, with no way to escape the consequences of what is barely a decision in the first place.’
Harris’s view of the value of higher education is not shared by most of his peers. Alderton might be dismissive of her time at Exeter University – ‘from September 2006 to July 2009 – all I did was drink and shag’ – but young Americans must justify their investment. Jerkins, a graduate of ‘one of the worst high schools in South Jersey’, describes her admission to Princeton as nothing less than an act of God: ‘Getting off Princeton’s waitlist demonstrated more of His glory because it seemed the most impossible outcome,’ she writes. ‘Fourteen hundred names. Fourteen hundred names. There is no amount of maths or science that can rationalise what had transpired.’ She’s not wrong: elite universities in the US are largely inaccessible to those from the middle and working classes – scholarships and financial aid notwithstanding. Roughly a third of undergraduates at Harvard get in because a family member attended before them.
And yet sometimes higher education works as intended: it expands a student’s mind and allows her to leave a past life behind. Tara Westover’s lyrical memoir, Educated, describes the self-estranging process by which she went from being an isolated child of Mormon fundamentalists to a PhD student at Cambridge. Of the books discussed here, hers is the most traditional; it remains tightly focused on an individual life and never takes off into cultural analysis. The reader is left to make her own mind up about the structural forces at play.
It opens with a memory: Westover is standing on an abandoned railway carriage in rural Idaho watching a school bus on the highway below: ‘I am only seven, but I understand that it is this fact, more than any other, that makes my family different: we don’t go to school.’ There are other significant differences: she and most of her siblings don’t have birth certificates; her parents refuse conventional medical care for themselves and their children; her father is convinced the world will end on 1 January 2000 and when he is proved wrong, withdraws. Without a formal education, or exposure to the wider world, Westover can’t recognise that her family’s practices are unusual and dangerous. She has no recourse when an older brother begins terrorising and abusing her.
Education offers Westover first a refuge from family chaos, then a way out. She reads the few (religious) books she finds around the house and develops ‘the patience to read things I could not yet understand’. She never goes to school yet earns a scholarship at Brigham Young University. The scholarship does not cover all her costs. ‘I had a job at the campus creamery, flipping burgers and scooping ice cream. I got by between paydays by neglecting overdue bills and borrowing money … I was broke when I turned 19 at the end of September,’ a month into the academic year. She neglects a broken tooth, then her studies. ‘Curiosity is a luxury reserved for the financially secure,’ she reflects, ‘my mind was absorbed with more immediate concerns, such as the exact balance of my bank account, who I owed and how much, and whether there was anything in my room for ten or twenty dollars.’ With the help of a bishop and a kind friend, she applies for financial aid, and realises that she is now a ‘Commie’, the sort of term her father uses for those who accept help from the state. She uses the money to pay her rent, buy textbooks and get a new Sunday dress: ‘I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money.’
Unlike Vance, who is roughly the same age as Westover and serves as a useful foil, she understands that material conditions limit what one can achieve through hard work. ‘My professors came into focus, suddenly and sharply; it was as if before the grant I’d been looking at them through a blurred lens.’ She begins to learn about historical injustice – she first hears of the Holocaust at a lecture – and the more she understands about mental health, feminism and the history of separatist movements in America, the less inclined she is to visit her family, particularly her father, who believes that studying is unwomanly. She stops going home for the summer. Later, she spends a transformative semester studying abroad in Cambridge and goes on to win a scholarship that takes her back there. One of the first things she does on arrival is to get the immunisations she never received as a child. But Westover also shows the costs of social mobility. A fragile connection with an older sister collapses; she breaks contact with her father; she becomes depressed and begins having panic attacks. One night, she wakes and realises she had been dreaming of home, that her father had ‘built a maze on Buck’s Peak and trapped me inside it’, that he pursued her while she searched for ‘something precious I could never replace’.
Each of these writers links his or her success to some institution. It’s at Princeton that Jerkins, having failed twice to get a place on the undergraduate creative writing programme, feels she developed the determination she needed to pursue a career as a freelance writer. At Yale Law School, Vance is mentored by the law professor, original tiger mother and bestselling author Amy Chua. He also learns how to handle a formal table setting, thus setting himself up for success in corporate America. Jamison’s major achievement – her sobriety – results from her attending regular Alcholics Anonymous meetings, where she comes to accept that she is ‘a woman among women, with nothing extraordinary’ about her. There are boyfriends in her book, but her truest romance is with AA. She is seduced by the organisation’s tough love, and embraces its language along with its ethic. ‘Our stories were valuable because of this redundancy, not despite it,’ she reflects. ‘Originality wasn’t the ideal, and beauty wasn’t the point.’ She ends up writing a choral, collective memoir that interweaves her own story of addiction and recovery with the stories of others, some famous, some not. Her book works ‘like a meeting’ of recovering addicts – reproducing the institution it loves.
Marnell too is keen to belong to an institution – Condé Nast. Her headlong, self-ironising style contrasts sharply with the sincerity of other memoirists, but she becomes earnest when it comes to her corporate family. Her own mother was thin and cold (she kept a scale that read ‘THINNER’), her father volatile and violent, and she grew up in a grand, much photographed house full of expensive, angular furniture and shattered dinner plates. At boarding school, she started abusing Adderall, a drug used to treat attention-deficit disorder.
While still a student, Marnell interned for beauty editor Charlotte, the stepdaughter of Elia Kazan and ‘a mess in the most appealing way possible’. Then she worked for Felicia Milewicz, ‘the last of the old school beauty directors’ and an ‘industry legend’ who ran Glamour magazine for decades. And lastly her boss at Lucky magazine, the ‘legendary beauty director Jean Godfrey-June’, supported her and forgave her, encouraged her to go to rehab, responded to her suffering the way a mother might. Marnell is given to hyperbole – the word ‘insane’ recurs, often as a term of praise – but her worship of her bosses and colleagues seems genuine. It is to them, specifically to Godfrey-June, that she apologises for her bad behaviour while high.
For a generation castigated for its ‘hookup culture’ and its reliance on dating apps, millennials seem remarkably optimistic about long-term relationships. They seem to marry later than previous generations, but that’s because, according to one survey, they feel they aren’t ‘financially ready’ to settle down. Financial precarity can also explain their enthusiasm for marriage: it makes a lot of sense when you need to get on your spouse’s health insurance, or when you need two incomes to buy an apartment in most major cities.
In these memoirs, dating is frequent and frequently disappointing. As we might expect from a former dating columnist, Alderton makes the most out of her misadventures. She includes a series of ‘Bad Date Diaries’ and makes lists of reasons for and against having a boyfriend. Her bad dates pale in comparison to Marnell’s worst encounters, which involve sexual assault and physical abuse (‘I let art-world guys choke me out during unprotected sex,’ she admits early in her memoir). Both writers depict casual sex as more often upsetting than liberating and when Alderton wants to show she’s serious about someone, she waits to have sex. ‘I don’t want to sleep with him because I want to get to know him better,’ she says of a date at university. Later, of her first love, ‘I knew it was serious because I didn’t go to bed with him for two whole months, wanting desperately to get it right.’ Alderton’s writing about relationships reminds me of the books that were published around the same time that people her age started having sex. They were books about the ‘rules’ of courtship and that encouraged women to settle, to marry ‘Mr Good Enough’.
Jerkins also waits to have sex until she is in a serious relationship, a choice partly informed by her religion. When the man she plans to lose her virginity to says he can’t be exclusive – ‘he had to experience some things’ – she breaks up with him. ‘I yearned for love within a committed relationship.’ she says of her younger self. Vance offers his marriage to a fellow law student as the kind of stable relationship his mother never achieved; it is at once an indicator of his social mobility and his psychological health. Jamison and her long-term boyfriend, Dave, fight frequently about his flirtatious behaviour. They live together; they have dinner parties; they share furniture; they go to their friends’ weddings, and are asked when their own will be. Dave, then, is not supposed to be smiling at a female caterer or texting a younger poet. ‘If you’re still getting drunk and flirting with other people in front of your boyfriend, there’s something wrong with your relationship. Or more likely, with you,’ Alderton admonishes in her book’s final pages. Her last chapter includes many of these sorts of edicts: ‘No practical matter is important enough to keep you in the wrong relationship’; ‘integration into each other’s lives should be completely equal’; ‘the perfect man is kind, funny and generous’; ‘get a Brazilian wax if you want a Brazilian wax. If you don’t, don’t. And don’t ever not get one for “the sisterhood”’. The only rules are the ones you make for yourself.
Although millennials are most often compared to baby boomers, the generation with which they’re locked in economic and Oedipal struggle, they might more profitably be compared to the so-called Generation X, those born between 1960 and 1980, more or less. Its members are more likely to display dread, irony and a distrust of institutions. In Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), for example, a woman Eggers is hoping to impress asks how he plans to ‘throw off the shackles’ and ‘inspire millions’ – and he responds by saying he will start a magazine. He and a friend found Might Magazine, the slogan of which is ‘screw those idiots’. The idiots remain unspecified, but they’re probably adults in all the worst ways. For Eggers, the very worst thing you could be is a member of a club you didn’t found yourself.
Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of the depression memoir Prozac Nation (1994), went to Harvard and wrote for Seventeen magazine, but emphasises how ill-suited she was for such places, and how unimpressed she was by what she saw there. ‘I’d spent all my time in high school getting good grades, editing the newspaper and literary magazine, taking dance class, doing whatever else, all because I wanted to go to a great college like Harvard and be transmogrified,’ she writes, sounding like a millennial. ‘But once I actually got there, once I discovered that the air in Cambridge didn’t tingle, once I found it was a place like any other only more so … I think I decided I might as well drug my way through.’ (Marnell, by contrast, gushes over her time at Lucky: ‘I loved everything about my new job.’) Wurtzel alludes to her accomplishments only in passing: ‘Somewhere down the road I managed to pick up the 1986 Rolling Stone College Journalism Award for an essay I wrote about Lou Reed for the Harvard Crimson, and now I have a summer job at the Dallas Morning News as an arts reporter.’ It’s not that Wurtzel doesn’t care, exactly; it’s that success doesn’t make her happier.
Millennial memoirists’ self-worth, by contrast, seems to be measured out in acceptance letters. They merge with the institutions that accept them. Marnell brands herself a ‘Condé Nast dropout’ when her addiction forces her to leave Lucky. At the digital magazine xoJane, she rants about the site’s inferiority to print and refuses to endorse features she thinks are subpar. Her problem isn’t disaffection. It’s that she cares too much about the company that employs her. She’s not the only one. The last essay in Jerkins’s collection is all about her desire to break into prestigious New York magazines.
This isn’t to say that millennials are simply interested in propping up the status quo. On the contrary, they seek to remake these institutions in their own image. Jerkins tells her fellow black women writers that ‘we have the responsibility to bring other black women to the forefront of the culture we’ve helped to create and sustain.’ Jamison discusses the failure of the War on Drugs and the ways that racism pervades rehab programmes and the criminal justice system. Vance would like more kids like him to make it to college, though he sees the obstacles as personal, not structural – and so argues that ‘there is no government that can fix these problems for us.’
Ten years after the economic crash, the gap between good jobs and bad jobs is still growing, and even supposedly good jobs – such as management consulting – are insecure. From 1973 until 2015, productivity in the US increased by 73.4 per cent, while hourly pay rose by just 11.1 per cent. (Harris rightly calls this disjuncture the defining factor of millennial life.) No wonder, then, that young people seek stable jobs when and where they can, and that they aim to improve the place where they work or study rather than abandon these imperfect institutions entirely.
Millennials came to public notice around the same time Barack Obama did. It’s hard to remember the optimism of that historical moment, before the 2013 government shutdown and the fights over Obamacare, before the deportations and drone strikes, before Trump. Many US millennials cast their first vote – for Obama, of course – in the 2008 presidential election, after a campaign which preached hope and promised change. Obama’s biography seems to validate what they had been told at school: trust in meritocracy; adapt to new conditions; seek to understand those different from you; remain undaunted in the face of defeat. And yet, as man or as metonym, he is almost entirely absent from the memoirs here. Only Jerkins gives him sustained attention.
Have these writers already put the Obama years behind them? Like the former president, most of them are still playing nice and hoping that will save them, even as they realise, and then repress, the knowledge that it won’t. (Marnell might be an exception: she’s not especially nice, and she doesn’t anticipate saving anyone, least of all herself.) But others of their generation come to realise that they must leave behind the polite ethos of the Obama era and engage in collective, radical, decidedly uncivil action against those in power. That might mean leaving the memoir behind too.