I really do feel for young people nowadays. I really do.
This might seem off topic, but it isn’t, quite. I have long said the only thing I know about psychology is what I gleaned from literature. But sometimes I think literature is an excellent teacher.
When I was in college, I was sort of amazed in reading novels from the 18th and 19th centuries. I was astonished at the anxiety among the middle and upper classes and the sense of directionlessness so prevalent among the characters.
After all, my own parents went from pretty low on the economic scale to the “petit bourgeoisie”, and that was, to them, entirely sufficient. And so it was to me. I didn’t expect to ever become wealthy, though I realized it was possible. I didn’t expect to marry wealth. I had my chance in graduate school with the “rich girlfriend” (and was she ever!) whom I, myself, rejected because I found her values off-putting. I expected to marry the daughter of a “petit bourgeois” or less, and did so; a nurse, the daughter of a hardware salesman.
Nobody really thought otherwise about their lives, and we all knew what our future lives would be like, more or less. And we knew what the adult world was like. My wife worked very young as a “candy striper” and knew what healthcare was. I did all kinds of work as a kid and as a young man, and knew what it was. I could also see what adults did, and found almost nothing in the adult world off-putting or displeasing. (Well, the super-wealthy girlfriend’s world was not pleasing to me at all, because at that level life was a sort of elegant idleness.)
Getting back to the 18th and 19th Century novels. It was surprising to me when, as a callow youth “up from the country” to learn how utterly stratified English society was in that bygone era and how much people shaped their lives around that class system. If one had class pretensions but little money, one still maintained a sort of threadbare imitation of the life of those more fortunate, and “fortunate marriages” were everything, even among the already wealthy and well-regarded. Legacy hunting was rife, and nobody knew how to do anything else because they were never exposed to anything else.
A couple of decades or so after graduating, I came to realize American society was slowly ossifying into a modern version of the same sort of thing. Yes, there were tremendous opportunities to do well economically and socially, but as with British society of old, nobody knew any kind of life other than the one in which they grew up, but didn’t know how to generate it themselves. “Getting on” is no longer a matter of collecting rent from the croppies or drawing on one’s legacy from a Scottish banker as of old, but of getting out into a world about which one essentially knew nothing, hoping to learn “on the fly” how to “maintain place”.
And weirdly, I recently read that, among college students, it is deemed important to know the level of one’s girlfriend student debts as well as future prospects occupationally. Can we really, then, think we have outgrown “Pride and Prejudice”?
I don’t think people think of it in those terms, but I think the anxiety is little different from what it was 200 years ago when the old Brit Lit novels were written. We did, however, and in this country, have a society that was more or less level and in which young people got very early exposure to what it took to make a life. And I think knowing what life was like fairly early on made all kinds of life more acceptable and the pursuit of it less stressful. I am inclined to think that moment in our history is slipping away.
Thank you for your patience.