Friday, May 17, 2013

The plight of the not-so-recent college grad

On a recent "Fresh Air," Greta Gerwig told Terry Gross that after college,

There's a grace period where being a mess is charming and interesting, and then I think when you hit around 27 it stops being charming and interesting, and it starts being kind of pathological, and you have to find a new way of life. Otherwise, you're going to be in a place where the rest of your peers have been moving on, and you're stuck.
I was listening to this on a run earlier, and it was like, whoa, I'd better write this down. But then NPR's website saved me the trouble.

Anyway, this strikes me as not only spot-on, but also relevant to two topics familiar to WWPD's three readers. The first is the case against graduate school (defined, for our purposes, as PhD programs in non-STEM fields). When you start, assuming you go soon after college, you will feel more together than many of your peers, or certainly not less. Sure, there will be the ones who went straight into finance or consulting, but then there will be many others who are more or less floundering. And you'll be thinking, huh, I'm 24, I have health insurance and not via my parents, I'm paid to read books, dammit!

And then a year will pass. And another one. And then at a certain point you're the friend lagging behind. All of a sudden, Facebook (where, needless to say, no one is announcing unemployment or underemployment), which has become your principal source for what your cohort is up to, now that you're not actively in touch with most of your non-grad-school friends (although you will rekindle friendships with those who've also gone your route)... all of a sudden, Facebook is telling you that everyone you knew growing up now has a real job, maybe a house, and you? When exactly are you getting that degree we've been hearing about for the past 500 years?

The other reason the quote stuck with me was nothing to do with grad school in particular. Rather, it was that the moment Gerwig describes is, for women, the window of opportunity. The point at which your friends and family switch from telling you not to get distracted by boys, to asking you when you'll find yourself a man. Gerwig doesn't describe it as such - she describes it as the moment when many of your friends start settling down. But it amounts to the same.

While the Recent College Grad is very much a thing (and thanks to "Girls," all the more so), the not-so-recent college grad is also a type in its own right, and a more poignant/pathetic one. When one is still young, but only relative to those who are older. Which, sure, could also be said of 10-year-olds. But what I'm describing - what Gerwig and her colleague/director/boyfriend Noah Baumbach seem to have made a movie about - is the first point at which one has fully exited youth.

And I couldn't help but think about how Gerwig, who's evidently less than a week apart from me in age, is in a relationship with Baumbach, who's 43. Not in terms of anything about Gerwig or Baumbach in particular, but in terms of not-so-recent-college-grad-ness among women more generally. In the "Fresh Air" interview, much is made of how young Gerwig is. And, while I acknowledge that 29 is not elderly, I don't feel all that young. 29 is firmly madame territory. 30 is imminent. While 20 is young, '30 is young' is the kind of thing those who are 30 or thereabouts say to reassure themselves/one another, or that the 40-plus say when being jaded. 29 is only young if being constantly juxtaposed to 43.

So I do kind of suspect that the appeal of being the younger woman is greater at 27-plus than when one is a bit younger, but still definitely an adult. So it's not that there aren't available same-age men, or that those men are all chasing after (let alone snagging!) women who've just that evening turned 18. Nor is it that something miraculous happens to men in their 40s, that they become suddenly better-looking than in their mid-late 20s. (And indeed, I'm really not talking about Gerwig and Baumbach in particular, because he's a famous movie director, which, needless to say, most 43-year-old men are not. That, and one can never say what makes any individual couple tick.) Nor is it necessarily about women this age (alas, my age) wanting to settle down, and not finding men their own age interested in doing so. If anything, it seems more likely that a woman wanting to stay in carefree 'girlfriend' mode is going to match up well with a man who's seeking out a younger woman because the 'younger woman' represents not settling down.


Petey said...

Worth noting that the Tony Scott movie review in the NYTimes is headlined: "If 27 Is Old, How Old Is Grown Up?"

"...also relevant to two topics familiar to WWPD's three readers."

There's a third topic in the movie itself, namely Cheapness Studies.

(And I think you have at least seven readers.)


And off-topic, but we've moved, unnoticed, into a place where it's Greta Gerwig's world, and we just live in it. When Gwyneth dreams, she dreams of Greta Gerwig.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I hadn't seen the NYT review, but so it is! Scott seems to think "Francis Ha" is basically about the same world as "Girls," which is understandable given the overlapping themes, the presence of the same distinctive actor. And I suppose that if an alien from another planet was asked to distinguish between a 24-year-old Dunham alter ego and a 27-year-old Gerwig one, this alien would not see the distinction. Meaning, these are not the two most different things in the world. The whole broke vs. poor, are Young People Today entitled thing is present, it seems, in both.

But there is a big difference - and this is what Gerwig gets at in the interview - between that recent-college-grad phase, when it's acceptable or even encouraged not to have your act together, and the moment when that stops. (Also alluded to, I see, here.) Adulthood keeps getting shifted to an older age, but once it arrives, the demands aren't so different than they ever were. There's more of a thud, though, for women. Whether or not 27 is going to feel old really does depend on one's gender.

And Gerwig's world? I thought it was Dunham's?

Petey said...

"I suppose that if an alien from another planet was asked to distinguish between a 24-year-old Dunham alter ego and a 27-year-old Gerwig one, this alien would not see the distinction ... And Gerwig's world? I thought it was Dunham's?"

In the Plato's Cave scenario, Dunham is the shadow everyone is discussing, but it's Gerwig outside that is the true form of reality.

In the Woody Allen scenario, Dunham is Love and Death, but Gerwig is Stardust Memories.

It's always more impressive to own the dinner party than it is to own the kiddie table. Subtlety and range earn bonus points.

caryatis said...

"There's a grace period where being a mess is charming and interesting, and then I think when you hit around 27 it stops being charming and interesting, and it starts being kind of pathological..."

See, when I read "being a mess" I think drugs, booze, and promiscuity, not grad school.

Re: the younger woman, if you're a late-thirties or early-forties single man looking to date women of your age, most of them have already been married and had children. And that creates a mismatch. Although they may be chronologically the same age, a 40-year-old woman with two kids, a house, and a divorce isn't really at the same life stage as a 40-year-old single man without such baggage.

If you don't want children, or you don't want someone else's children, that's a powerful incentive to date younger women. I suspect this is part of the reason I ended up with an older boyfriend. He didn't want to date the single mothers in his social circle and matched better with me in terms of life stage.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Grad school (in the humanities) isn't the height of mess, thus why one can feel ahead of one's peers for being in grad school while in one's early 20s. But "mess" is relative.

I'm not sure what the numbers are (and have enough I must research today that I'm not about to research this) but I can't imagine there'd be that many more women than men reaching 40 with children. OK, I did the requisite 10 seconds of Googling, and it seems like men and women these days marry at around the same age, and that's well before 40. I could see that there would be more 40-year-old women with custody of their offspring, though.

caryatis said...

Thank you for those ten seconds away from your real research.

I was speaking from the perspective of childless men, the group I happen to know. I suppose the incentives would work the same way for never-married, childless women in that age group, but because of Society or whatever they are less likely to attract younger men than 40 year old men are to attract younger women.

Petey said...

caryatis, (with an assist from Phoebe on the custody issue), is touching on a dynamic I've rather incoherently struggled to express previously...