It’s not that it’s impossible to find somebody to love these days. It’s just that once you find someone, it’s hard to forget about all of the other people out there you could also have loved, and, more importantly, who could have loved you.
In sociologist Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice, he argues that, in our pursuit of absolute freedom, American citizens have paralyzed themselves in the face of too much autonomy. We’ve spent so much time ensuring that no option is unavailable to us, he says, that we’ve never stopped to realize that limitless options might have the opposite of the desired effect: they overwhelm us in our effort to choose only one option, and as a result we don’t choose at all. In sociologist Serena Nanda’s too-seldom read essay “Arranging a Marriage in India,” she pontificates on the unspoken benefits of arranged marriage, its simplicity and practicality—a tradition so taboo to Westerners that we’re conditioned not only to disagree with it but to dismiss it outright. We want our freedom. We want our choice. And that’s fine for a lot of stuff—careers, fashion, political ideologies, identity. But when it comes to who and how we love, this abundance of choice has stunted us, possibly irreparably. Who is “us” in this context? Both of the aforementioned authors—who I’ll get back to in a minute—argue that “us” is Westerners in general, and they’re right to a degree. But I’d like to go one step further and argue that our present generation suffers a particularly acute form of this disease, more so than any generation prior. Here’s why.
The recent college grads of the early 1950’s, the “Greatest Generation” were fascinated by and obsessed with class and wealth. Brought up during the Depression, these parents perhaps understandably strove to rebel against the ration and frugality of their own upbringing by proving not only did everything have a price, but that they could afford it. It was all about image. Under this umbrella of buyable items fell Marital Bliss and Functional Families. Marriage, in other words, became nothing more than a product. As a result, their children—the Baby Boomers, the recent grads of the early 1970’s—rebelled against these loveless, synthetic marriages and fought to make sure they had total choice in who they ended up with: Free Love wasn’t just a sex thing. The Women’s Movement and the Sexual Revolution made it possible to explore, to look around, to marry who was “right” for you rather than just who was practical. And that all sounds great, except of course the divorce rates spiked, and those Boomers sold out hard in the 80’s, and became just as consumerist as their parents were. Which is why their children, Generation X, the recent grads of the early 1990’s, went even further and believed not in Free Love but in no love at all. Having been exposed to what they saw as the phony nature of their parents’ sincerity, they embraced irony and cynicism as weapons, and shrugged their shoulders at everything (“We’re the MTV Generation,” Bart Simpson tells his dad in an early ‘90’s episode. “We feel neither highs nor lows.” “What’s it like?” asks Homer. Bart shrugs: “Meh.”).
Which brings us to now. Us. The recent grads of twenty years later. 9/11 marked the Death of Irony, we’re constantly being told, and as a result today’s generation is duly rebelling against the cynicism of its Gen X parents. However, while we do live in a post-ironic age, that change happened abruptly, suddenly, without our consent. It happened within a few hours on a September morning twelve years ago, and our role in this shift—unlike the rebellions of those generations mentioned above—was passive rather than active. We had no say. Irony died, but we forgot to replace it with anything. As a result our collective identity has come out half-baked, with our foot in both camps, neither one thing nor the other.
And what are those camps? Well, it’s hard to say. Sometimes it feels like our generation wants a little bit of everything. We want the rock-solid, in-it-to-win-it, ‘til-death-do-us-part marital stability of the Greatest Generation, but we also want the freedom to choose and the belief in romantic love of the Boomers, but we also want to be cynical about the whole process, like the Gen Xers. We don’t even have a suitable name for ourselves (Gen-Y? The Technology Generation?).
A lot of this has to do with Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice thing, mentioned above. He cites at one point an incident wherein he went to buy a pair of jeans for the first time in years (the last time he’d bought jeans, they only came in one style, called “jeans”). He was overwhelmed by the options: boot-cut, acid wash, stone washed, etc etc. He left with the best fitting pair of jeans he ever had, he says, but he was disappointed, because they weren’t perfect. With that many options presented to him, his expectations went up, and he was convinced that of all those choices, one of them had to be perfect—so when it wasn’t, he was let down. The children of too many fathers, our generation suffers a similar increase in expectations. We have so many examples to learn from that we expect we’ll be able to get our marriages perfect, when they eventually happen. Technology doesn’t help in this regard either, of course: dating sites have opened up the field even wider still, and we can never stop thinking about what else is out there, can never be satisfied with what we have. As a result, we have no real identity, because we only want to define ourselves by what we don’t want, rather than what we do.
As is always the case, nowhere is the identity of our generation more evident than in our pop culture. Our ideas about love and stability are reflected in the weirdly unromantic romantic comedies we produce. From Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to 500 Days of Summer to Vicky Cristina Barcelona to Two Days in Paris to last year’s criminally underrated The Five-Year Engagement and Celeste and Jesse Forever to this year’s Frances Ha, our romances are continually about not finding a happy ending but being dissatisfied with the happy ending we’ve found. Or look to the most popular music. Even the shitty, cutesy, chart-topping teeny boppers are in on the act. Where teeny-boppers of the 50’s produced “Teenager in Love” and the 70’s produced “I Want You Back” and the 90’s produced countless boy-band love odes, today’s most popular teen singer is Taylor Swift, who can’t seem to stay in a relationship for more than like twenty seconds.
Or look at TV. Sex and the City and Judd Apatow have a lot to answer for, in my opinion. For girls of our generation, Sex and the City established a confusing mixed message—that you should never, ever settle, but also that the perfect person is out there, that perfection even exists at all. For guys, Apatow’s comedies encouraged male camaraderie and suggested that hanging out with your slacker friends wasn’t just okay but an inalienable right, one that your romantic life should not infringe upon. Girls, which is what happens when Sex and the City and Judd Apatow have a baby, is the ultimate product of our generation: young people meandering around aimlessly, without ideas, without identities, without any clear reality of what they want, simply a surefire attitude about what they don’t want.
Where does this leave us? Screwed? Should we follow Serena Nanda’s suggestion and participate in arranged marriages? Who’s to say? People are still getting married these days, but they’re doing it at a much, much older age. I spent a lot of time during my twenties (I’ll be thirty in five days!) looking for someone who was 100% right for me, only to discover that confidence in my own, independent identity had a lot to do with my ability to be 100% right for anyone else. But there’s also this. A friend of mine offered me a really great piece of advice: Don’t look for the person who is 100% right for you, she said, because that probably doesn’t exist. Find the person who’s 60% right for you, but 100% in it. She’s getting married in three weeks. Good for her.