The Guilted Age

5 years ago


It’s late summer.  The afternoons are still warm, the sun still strong, but with  the promise of autumn in a few golden leaves and swelling berries on the bushes outside my window.  I have just finished a phone call with a friend, and as I hang up, I am struck by the similar contents of our conversations.  Frustration, anxiety, and above all guilt. 

We are recent products of an American state-run university.  We’re both young, barely thirty, and we majored in the humanities, following our talents and our pleasures to the level of Masters’ degrees.  And we’re without fulltime jobs or more than a few months in savings between us.  Our grace periods on students loans are nearing a close, and we’re both beside ourselves with all-consuming emotions.  I sit, watching an August breeze stirring those early-turning leaves outside and I consider the one unifying factor in both our emotional storms.  The guilt we both feel underpins our lives, a shared note.

We feel guilty for not having jobs.  We feel guilty for not having savings.  We feel guilty for not being “practical” and avoiding higher education.  We feel guilty for asking our parents to help.  We even feel guilty for not owning property, having families of our own, or living up to any treasured standard of the American Dream.  We feel guilty when we don’t send out resumes for five hours straight, or spend the weekend networking (for whatever that’s worth), or just for going to a movie or on a date instead of tending to our resumes as if they’re bonsai. 

And it just gets irrational from there, away from practical matters of objectives and work experience.  Maybe the right combination of bullet points and serif font can mean an interview.  Or is the magic combination sans-serif and hyphens?   We feel a nagging sensation of guilt when we should be enjoying our private lives, our creative pursuits, or the occasional blessed idleness necessary for basic mental health.

It is this guilt I want to speak about.  In all the articles, op-eds, and conversations I’ve read about the constellation of financial and social crises plaguing our country in this decade, I have yet to hear much talk about guilt in any widespread fashion. 

Guilt is intensely personal, private by nature.  Look at the common descriptions of people wracked, consumed, devoured, and crushed by this emotion.  These images should be familiar to anyone following national discussion of under or unemployment, or the rapidly building crisis of student loan debt.  Why is no one speaking of the burdens of guilt? 

This is an odd omission.  I’ve seen plenty of blame flung around rightly placed with the theft of American industry, stability, and social mobility.  I’ve seen blame wrongly applied to students, graduates, their families; anywhere imaginable.  I’ve seen pessimism, cynicism, and all the rest.  But I never hear anyone talking about the guilt new graduates feel.  My recent graduation, for example, should have been a joyous time.  It is still an accomplishment.  Generations ago, a woman would not have been able to do what I did, especially if she did not come from a wealthy family.  I have just under a 4.0, I have taught, I have assisted faculty with research, won awards, traveled to conferences (on my own dime) to present personal research.  I’ve done “everything right”.  And now I feel divorced from all those remarkable accomplishments and evidence of my dedication and talent, and the nurturing assistance of so many others.  I have reached the dream that my family held for me.  But I feel like I have done something wrong.  And I cannot be the only one. 

Lest you think this is only navelgazing, let me emphasize that this is common among my friends.  Combined, we have the sleeping troubles, digestion troubles, and sexual troubles  of people twice our ages.  What do we have to feel guilty over?  We all did the “proper thing”.  We went to school, worked, we made ourselves useful.  I suspect that this guilt touches more than my immediate circle.  It’s time to stop and analyze what we are doing as a culture, and what silent baggage our immediate future, our young people and our recent graduates, are carrying.

Guilt is a tricky thing to talk about with any level of practicality.  Taken the wrong way, sharing and analyzing guilt can too easily turn into a form of blame, and avoidance of real, tangible problems nourishing the guilty feelings.  Take, for example, the academic pep talk I received recently:  “Oh, all that anxiety you feel about finding work in your field?  That’s all in your head!  You feel guilty and you’re psyching yourself out!” Never mind the very real nationwide cuts to universities, slashed programs, starved departments, and increased reliance on a sinfully underpaid adjunct contingent. 

I feel bad for not “making it” farther than my parents, for not being more financially stable, for having to delay starting my family, for not owning a home, for still having to do the bill-panic dance each month (which can I put off the longest?).  My rational side can offset each of these with a patient, reasoned explanation of precisely why I am not doing the things my culture deems normal.  In fact, I can successfully undermine the sanctity of each of those markers of middle class American success.  But even as I recognize they are limited and limiting, and in no way mean security, the roots of this dream are deep.

 Aside from the fact that I hold the marketed imago of the middle class “good life” in deep suspicion, I know logically that factors beyond mine or my compatriots’ control have shaped the America we have to live in.  And I rationally know that I have benefitted from sheer dumb luck, certain social advantages, and the tireless efforts of others.  But the guilt remains.  And, as silly as that guilt may seem, I won’t be talked out of it.  It has become useful.

As suffocating as it may be the guilt I and my friends feel is now making us angry.  We can only beat ourselves up for so long before we stop caring about maintaining our guilt.  We may as well get angry.  You may as well get angry, if you’ve been feeling this way.  We all may as well get more defensive of our time and our boundaries and more active in our shared worlds, instead of folding inwards. 

I think of my friend, and myself.  I consider now how much time in our finite lives we have already given to internalizing untenable ideals.  As I watch summer entering its final, bittersweet act, I consider the danger of stagnation.  Things have to change.  We cannot go on like this.



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