Extended adolescence as a life-strategy adopted in the face of outstanding boredom.
By Charles Fain Lehman
Time magazine graced the cover of its July 16, 1990 issue with a portrait of the “twentysomething” generation. Those young adults, Time contributors David Gross and Sophronia Scott wrote, suffered a fundamental malaise. They had “trouble making decisions,” feared marriage and avoided commitment, were disgusted by politics, and demanded constant stimulation.
Gross and Scott’s subjects would later be labeled “Generation X.” But their characterization is in part surprisingly reminiscent of today’s “twentysomethings”: Millennials, now in their late 20s to early 40s. Just like their antecedents, contemporary Millennials—particularly the sort of high socioeconomic status (SES) Millennial likely to be profiled by a magazine—exude purposelessness. Constantly anxious and filled with dread, they are the “burnout generation.”
There are lots of vogue explanations for Millennial ennui. It’s global warming anxiety, those same high-SES Millennials say, or student debt, or life “under capitalism.” Maybe, although Millennials are about as wealthy as their parents, and student debt is concentrated among the best-off of them.
Perhaps, though, Millennials are bored because they are living lives conducive to boredom. They have adopted a strategy for success that works by delay, and for which they pay in boredom. And in consequence, they have extended indefinitely that liminal time between school and the thing that should be giving their post-college lives meaning: family. If Gen Xers were the twentysomething generation, Millennials are more so: perpetually, terminally twentysomethings.
What does it mean for boredom to be a strategy? One way to succeed is to take risks—invest in a new business, e.g. But another way to be successful is to make low-risk bets with slower payoffs: bonds, for example. It’s a safer approach, but it comes with a high time cost, the phenomenal experience of which is boredom.
High-status Millennials have been training in this approach for years. Take, for example, their college experience. One way to think about college is that attendance gives you skills. But another way to think about it is that attendance signals to future employers that you have certain qualities. As economist Bryan Caplan puts it, “a law student with a Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford applies. What do you infer? The applicant is probably brilliant, diligent, and willing to tolerate serious boredom.” The educational treadmill—and more Millennials are on it than any previous generation—is about attaining success not just through brains, but through the ability to be bored.
One way we can identify boredom is by the presence of diversions. It is little surprise that as the college-going population has grown—assimilating people who are less and less equipped to make it through—colleges have become more diversionary. The college’s profit model is students paying for (in part) proof that they are the kind of person who can be bored easily; if they want to add the marginal student, they need to make it easier to be bored. Thus the proliferation of climbing walls, student activity centers, and the “college as camp” mentality.
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