Emma Koenig, 24, has a blog. It's called Fuck! I'm In My Twenties and is full of cutesily hand-drawn musings about the plight of the aimless millennial. This blog is popular enough to have been turned into an Urban Outfitters book and now Koenig is working on a TV pilot. And of course no improbable rise to trendy stardom would be complete without a fawning, way-we-live-now profile in The New York Times, which was published yesterday. Reaction to the piece has been, let's say, mixed. Because of an implied privilege in Koenig's work (mom and dad are gainfully employed, her brother Ezra is in Vampire Weekend), and an abundance of clever cluelessness, the comments section on the Times profile is littered with people calling her a whiner or a spoiled brat, deeming her frivolous and self-obsessed.
This is a common criticism of a particular set of young creative types who tend to blab on about their own lives. Some of that criticism is a bit overblown — young people are young people, and young people like to talk about themselves, that's been true almost always — but a good deal of the backlash does, in some ways, feel merited. Young twentysomethings like Koenig do tend to flit around with a blithe but stubborn assumption that their microcosm is the same thing as the broader world. For all the wishy-washy, noncommittal, unsure stuff they write about, there's a distinct sense of absolutism to their work. They are forcing the world to be small and narrow so they can be its chief interpreters.
Fetishization of youth is certainly nothing new — watching someone do something for the first time is more interesting than watching them do it for the seventh — but doesn't today's idolized or glamorized or simply documented twentysomething seem a special, frequently irritating species all its own? Like the generations before them, these kids are consistently prodding at and testing their boundaries, only it's not taking them as long as it used to. They seem very quickly satisfied with a world of their own creation that they understand. For all the supposed youthful idealism and political openness these kids vaguely espouse, the world of twentysomethings seems to be getting somehow smaller, more specific. There's that same whimsical but detached irony, again and again. The same cloying cultural references, the vaguely smug assertions about how people and places work. They're all insecure but wear that insecurity proudly, like a cape. Though this world they live in is based on a kind of affected wobbliness and uncertainty -- all the glamor of being a noble, dreamy work-in-progress -- it's still a world they've mastered. And have thus deemed The World, for everyone else. Something's happened amidst all the helicopter parenting and participation trophies and unending spools of internet that's made a current crop of post-collegers determined to not go to the mountain, but pull the mountain to them and shape it to their own liking. Or to at least assume, incorrectly, that they've done that.
People got to talking a lot about this general twentysomething problem around the time that HBO's Girls premiered, because it had lots of handy talking points. For example, Lena Dunham's character Hannah insisting she is, "at least a voice. Of a generation." That line is teasing at a particular kind of contemporary youth certainty that one has something to say, and is determined to say it, without really knowing what that something is. Or whom to say it to. But, of course, they now have the big sprawling medium to say it anyway.
Koenig's "Fuck! I'm In My Twenties" is ostensibly for kids, specifically women, her own age. There is a lot of griping and lite philosophizing about relationships, about email, about expectations of early womanhood meeting reality. So it is largely for the people she's standing shoulder-to-shoulder with. But then along come lots of other people, from different demographics, staring at the site with varying degrees of curiousness and disdain. As a reflection of that, it sometimes seems that Koenig isn't exactly writing for her age group, but rather sending things up the ladder, ringing a bell and saying, "Hey this is what things are like down here these days." There's a navel-gazing anthropology to the site that's both arrogant, in its assuredness and thinly masked ambition, and naive.
But look, the fact that kids right out of college are self-deprecatingly romanticizing their lives on the internet for whoever wants to pay attention isn't really the problem. Sure that increasingly loud chatter is, on principle, fairly aggravating, but the true enemy here, the ballet flat-clad villain, is what's actually being said. In Koenig's world of twentiesdom, and on Dunham's lightly parodic but also sincere show, kids are stumbling around with a "aren't I a beautiful, fascinating mess" attitude that prizes self-imposed ennui and quirky angst over anything, well, productive. It's all stumbling for stumbling's sake with the vague but entitled hope of a bestowed reward at the end. The twenties depicted on Koenig's blog are all inward-facing, mannered irony and ineptitude, though a win is ultimately still expected. This kind of thing confirms a creaky "kids today" stereotype that frankly isn't fair.
The implied universality -- the assertion that this is everyone's 20s -- is really what gets Koenig in trouble. And sinks plenty of other young millennials too. Look at many of the headlines on the for twentysomethings, by twentysomethings blog Thought Catalog — "5 Things You Need To Do In Order Survive Your 20s," "Why Are People My Age Having Babies?," "If We Could Be Boring" — and it's clear that this rather small handful of kids is positioning itself as the arbiters of the entire generation. This is maybe owed to the universal arrogance of youth, which is of course nothing new, but the trouble is now we're rewarding it. It's become a trade, a vocation, a field of oblivious yet increasingly lucrative study. Youthful confusion and wondering and wandering are all part of being alive, but we seem to be increasingly indulging it -- especially a particularly cushy subset of it -- in a way that's not doing anyone any good.
To be fair, this might all be oldster crankiness. I'm currently on the final-year victory lap (swan song?) of my twenties and am perhaps finding all this immediate "omg look what's happening now" reportage from the trenches of age 24 -- very niche trenches at that -- to be a bit eye roll-inducing. The fact is, I'm a fairly privileged college graduate who writes on the internet myself, so maybe I am guilty of the same thing, with every self-indulgent Tumblr missive and subtle Twitter brag. (And blog posts calling out an entire generation based on a few indulgent apples.) Maybe the internet has made all of us think our little lives, all listless and uncertain, are fascinating and worth attention and praise. And maybe it's convinced us that, despite all our storybook flailing and I'm-such-a-fabulous-mess-ing, we secretly do have things pretty well covered. Because a small corner of the internet has told us we do. So it's probably not Emma Koenig's fault; the internet has existed in fully-fledged form nearly her entire adolescent life. It's all she knows.
I'm sure she'll someday look back at this point in her life and wonder what all the fuss was about. Was everything really so fraught and silly? And was the world really as small as she made it seem? Fidgeting around with jobs, drinking too much, staying up too late, dribbling on endlessly about sex and romance, thinking you are the center of everything; this is all the stuff of many people's twenties. But there's also working and voting and helping people (I hope) and getting help from people (for sure) and crying and mourning and growing and working some more. That's all perhaps bigger stuff than fits on an Urban Outfitters book table, and likely unsettles many a neatly crafted worldview. But that stuff is all there, for most or at least many twentysomethings, right now. If only we could get someone to talk about it.