- Elizabeth and her husband in the new novel Want are not the victims of some kind of capitalist plot . . . they are people who made a lot of bad decisions and, frankly, should have known better. Tweet This
- The anxiety, self-destructive behavior, aimlessness, and self-pity in many contemporary novels about women are more than I can take. Tweet This
One big source of conflict between the sexes, if you’ll excuse the stereotyping, is that when women complain, they just want their interlocutors to listen. Their boyfriends, husbands, and fathers, though, want to offer solutions. Recently I’ve noticed that when reading novels about the lives of contemporary women, my reactions are more like a typical male.
Books like The Party Upstairs about Ruby—the daughter of a New York City building superintendent, who has just graduated from college with a degree in art, has no money, tons of student loan debt and is trying desperately to keep up with her not very nice wealthy friends from childhood and college—make me want to jump through the pages and shake their protagonists. The anxiety, self-destructive behavior, aimlessness, and self-pity are more than I can take.
But at least Ruby is only in her early 20s. Elizabeth, the protagonist of Lynn Steger Strong's new novel Want, is married with two young children of her own and still seems paralyzed by the way that her dreams don’t seem to match reality. Reviews of Want rave about the ways in which Elizabeth’s life represents “economic fragility and just how close to the edge people are―even with the seeming safeguard of middle-class jobs and good educations.” Entertainment Weekly called it “a 200-page argument for the necessity of democratic socialism.” And the Wall Street Journal says, “Want … feels like something larger, a portrayal of generational dispossession, or of the American Dream moving in reverse."
So, what is Elizabeth’s situation? She and her husband both have college degrees; she has a Ph.D. in literature. Her husband lost his job at an investment bank during the financial crisis and then decided he’d rather make furniture anyway and never goes back to a full-time job. Elizabeth was unable to find a college teaching job and instead works at a charter school and as an adjunct professor one night a week. The couple rents a small apartment and has six figures worth of student loan debt, in addition to medical and credit card debt.
Elizabeth is not representative of generational dispossession, though. People who earn college degrees and get married before they have children are not the ones who don’t have money to pay for groceries. As Wendy Wang and Brad Wilcox wrote in an Institute for Family Studies report, "97% of Millennials who follow what has been called the 'success sequence'—that is, who get at least a high school degree, work, and then marry before having any children, in that order—are not poor by the time they reach their prime young adult years (ages 28-34)."
And Elizabeth’s loan debt is hardly typical. As Beth Akers of the Manhattan Institute noted,
A Millennial household with two college-educated earners would earn more than $113,000, on average, and have monthly loan payments of less than $400 (assuming that both earners accrued the typical level of debt in pursuit of their bachelor’s degrees).
Moreover, Akers finds that “only 6% of borrowers have more than $100,000 in debt. These high-balance borrowers tend to have graduate or professional degrees and often come from higher-income families.” In other words, they are mostly in a position to pay it back.
Of course, there are always exceptions, but Elizabeth and her husband are not the victims of some kind of capitalist plot to screw Millennials. They are people who made a lot of bad decisions and, frankly, should have known better.
Maybe this sounds heartless. Even if Elizabeth (and presumably Strong, who seems to sympathize with her protagonist’s difficulties) just wants someone to listen to her complaints, I’d like to offer some advice.
First, the job market for literature professors has been impossible for more than 30 years. Universities continue to produce Ph.Ds at a breakneck pace but they don’t have tenure track positions for them. Unless you’re independently wealthy and just studying for fun, don’t bother. And if you’re studying for fun, you don’t need to get a Ph.D. for that.
Second, once you’ve acquired six figures worth of student loan debt, stick with jobs that pay well and provide good health insurance for a few years, even if they’re not as much fun as woodworking. This is doubly true if you have children you’re trying to support.
Finally, leave New York. The city has been unaffordable for middle-class families for decades. In most of the rest of the country, you can do just fine on the salary of a teacher and a furniture maker. You can even buy your own home.
According to the book’s description, “Strong explores the subtle violences enacted on a certain type of woman when she dares to want things.” In fact, though, the problem is not that Elizabeth dares to want things. It’s that she wants things she can’t afford. Welcome to the club.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.