They say that youth is wasted on the young. But that’s not true. It’s more like, “Youth is exploited on and used against the young.” It’s more like, “Youth is taken from the young before the young get to figure out how they want to use it.” It’s more like, “Youth, as a concept, is only reserved for some and for others, it requires a new definition and a new approach.”
When I talk to Rainesford Stauffer about this and her debut book, An Ordinary Age: Finding Your Way in a World That Expects Exceptional, it’s already one of many convos we’ve had on the matter. Rainesford’s work prioritizes young adults by doing something that is somehow considered radical when it should be considered the norm: she talks to them and reports on their actual experiences, not what people assume young people are experiencing. Fresh off the release of her book, something she says she never thought she’d get to do, she’s still working through more ways to report on the ever-changing and adapting experience of young adulthood.
“I think the most ordinary part to me honestly was getting to talk to people about their ordinary experiences and their lives and thinking back on those conversations has kind of grounded me in how powerful, first of all, our ordinary experiences are,” she says. “Second of all, it just underscores that my favorite part of all of this is getting to talk to people and hear their perspectives and share a little bit of their story and the way they think about their life and the world.”
That she didn’t have to spend her entire book release focusing solely on the book and engagements and could keep going back to having these conversations she associates with luck–especially when they’re conversations that benefit her as a writer, reader, and overall human.
“It’s funny because as a kid, I was not a big talker. I think I was more of like an observer/listener. I was a really curious kid and I’m the oldest of four kids so I was always used to being around people and there being movement and stuff happening, but I just liked to listen,” Rainesford says. Growing up, she found herself curious about other people, their interests, and their feelings about their surroundings. “I think it’s funny because I wouldn’t have ever thought that I would want to grow up and talk to people all the time because I’m introverted and I still get very nervous doing it, but it’s funny to look back and maybe the seeds were planted before I knew that’s what they were,” she reflects.
Many writers, myself included, can relate to that sentiment of growing up wanting to know more about other people and see what was going on in their heads, partially because we spent so much time living in our own.
It’s also fitting then that the character she felt understood her growing up was the beloved Beverly Cleary character, Ramona Quimby. Some would call her pestering (maybe because there’s a book called Ramona the Pest) but perhaps, there are far more who relate to Ramona in all her muchness, her imagination, and her mischief. “I don’t think Ramona (the character) and me (the little girl) were super similar. I think she was a lot more extroverted and probably a lot more fun,” Rainesford laughs. “But I got the impatience and the frustration with waiting and the curiosity that led to her doing [like] I always think of the scene where she wants to squeeze all the toothpaste out. Like feelings like that of, ‘I just want to try it to see what will happen,’ is a moment that I very clearly remember thinking like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is exactly how being nine or ten feels.”
The many adventures and stories of Ramona Quimby put into words how uncomfortable being a kid often times felt. But her reactions also showed how the preference for kids to react to this discomfort in perfect and obedient ways is not only not fair, but also oftentimes not possible.
I think that one of the things we do to young people and to children frankly, [and] it’s really demoralizing, is telling them that any problem that they’re experiencing or any fear or doubt they’re experiencing, ‘Well, you’ll grow out of it.’
And yet, the pressure of that preference still exists to the point that as we continue through young adulthood, it manifests in multiple ways. The obvious one being perfectionism, something Rainesford shares has continued to grow with her. “I think that one of the things we do to young people and to children frankly, [and] it’s really demoralizing, is telling them that any problem that they’re experiencing or any fear or doubt they’re experiencing, ‘Well, you’ll grow out of it.’ First of all, it puts you in a terrible position if you grow up and realize, ‘No, I haven’t grown out of it, I actually need help.’ It doesn’t really give the resources to go find the help that you might need and you might want and it also kind of strips the value of the phase of life that you’re in,” she says touching, a little, on the sentiment, I said at the beginning.
To assume that a child or a young adult should just wait out the anxiety, depression, and often other mental health issues that can find formations in perfectionism instead of creating and offering resources is to both take youth away from the young while also using their youth against them.
“When I was younger and really up until I gotta be honest, the past couple years when I really started talking to people about this and researching it, I thought perfectionism was a problem with me. I thought of that kinda in three ways; I thought it was a problem that I wasn’t perfect and somehow everyone else was, then I grew up a little more and realized perfectionism in and of itself is a problem, and then third, ‘you need to be able to fix the perfectionism alone by yourself because it’s coming from within you, it’s a problem with you.'” The third one she found herself internalizing in a way that many of us do; believing that only she was struggling with this mindset and since she was the only one that needed to be “fixed,” she was the only one that could “fix” it.
Now, however, she sees perfectionism as something structural, although the mainstream conversation could benefit from the same realization. “I think people want to point to things like Instagram and participation trophies, my favorite trope of all time,” Rainesford jokes, “and young people wanting to be special, all of this stuff, and I see perfectionism as a stand we feel we have to meet because the basics we need to live and fulfill a stable life in society have been slowly and steadily stripped away. I see it as something that begins when we’re very young and tells us that there’s a right way to be and a right way to do your life and even what kind of dreams to have and kind of measures us on the scales of that worthiness and pegs our self-worth to what we produce. So of course, we grow up thinking that, ‘Oh, well, not only can I be perfect but I should be and that’s something I should be working towards,'” she explains.
This brings us to the root of many (evil, harmful) things: capitalism. Something that alongside (and with the help of) perfectionism carries inherent racism. “It is rooted in white supremacy that tells us there’s a certain way to be and there’s a certain kind of life that matters and is good and is virtuous and all of these incredibly toxic things. I think that my mental transition in that has been that perfectionism is not an individual problem, it is embedded in our social structures and our schools and our workplaces and I think it impacts people obviously depending on their identity [and] depending on their circumstances.” With all of these factors and then some into play, Rainesford says, there’s no surprise that statistically speaking perfectionism and its effects are increasing. In part, because since the system we live in benefits from this behavior, we’ve yet to completely grapple with and accept the fact that this problem isn’t simply one generation deciding they wanted to bear this burden to be seen as special or gifted.
We need to open the floor to the different ways in which perfectionism dictates not just our lives but our opportunities and personhoods. When a sixteen-year-old is told that success means they know the career they want for the rest of their lives, they already have the grades to prove they can do it and get into college for it, that way they can begin racking up the experience to already have the 5-10 years of it required to get an entry-level job that doesn’t pay enough or offer benefits as soon as they graduate, that is the pressure of perfectionism.
The way police departments, media, and the public, in general, worked to find flaws in Trayvon Martin, in Tamir Rice, in Michael Brown, in Adam Toledo, in Ma’Khia Bryant from what they posted on social media to where they spent their last minutes on earth before lives were taken from them, that is also the pressure of perfectionism. Because when alive they were expected to chase perfection and in murder, they were expected to chase perfection as a victim even though perfectionism could never solve racism or the flaws of the state. Even though perfectionism is not what would have saved their lives.
“I think that for young people, it’s so much more consequential sometimes than just, ‘Oh, man I got an A-minus instead of an A-plus and I’m such a perfectionist. It has real-life ramifications,” Rainesford concludes.
Taking on the themes and “topics” of young adulthood and then tackling the real-life ramifications is the work of both Rainesford’s freelance work and her book. Ranging from discussing home and hobbies to spirituality and religion (the topic she said she was originally the most hesitant about trying to get right) and then some, the first chapter she knew would be included was an in-depth look at college. “It felt very timely given conversations that were starting to bubble up slowly–too slowly–about what the cancellation of student debt would mean to people, what options are we entertaining outside pushing everyone through four-year colleges, [and] what are resources you need to attend college at all in the first place,” she explains. “So that was kind of the place where I knew this was something that I want to tackle and this is something I want to look closer at.”
Rainesford mentions that while young adulthood and especially the concept of, “living your best life” is more often than not tied to the college experience, it doesn’t take into account that neither young adulthood or ‘the college experience’ looks like this for a majority of people. And since that’s the case, what does it mean for young adults that don’t go to college or don’t take the “traditional” route of college? What does it mean for people who are no longer young adults but go back to college? For high schoolers whose only “college experience” will be the IB, AP, or extra classes they take in high school? To people who can’t afford to move away to go to college and instead commute from home? To people who go to a community college? Who are caregivers? Who don’t finish getting their degree or decide/need to take a break before continuing? Their “best lives” don’t look like “superficial” ideas of college living and having a good time.
The chapter that came later for the book ended up being the introduction. “In some ways, it just felt like trying to connect this constellation of things in any way that made it feel relatable to the reader and also not underwhelming. It was one of those moments where I went back and forth rewriting that probably more than anything else trying to figure out how it would resonate, how to update it based on whatever current event was happening in a given week when we were editing, figuring out how to pull in as many other voices beyond mine as possible,” she talks me through crafting that chapter.
Making an introduction is already a challenge, but making an introduction for a book about current day life that began being written before a pandemic and would be released during (although at the time, it hoped to be released after) the pandemic could pose as intimidating.
Rainesford describes the editing process for this as a “weird limbo space” because she was lucky enough to have time to update it as much as possible to include the world that now existed after the first draft was turned in. However, they didn’t set out to make a book about ‘young adulthood during Covid’ which meant that she had to strike a balance.
This meant going back to the people she initially spoke to and asking about the world they now existed in since she last spoke with them. “I think what stood out to me the most was the pandemic took things that young people knew were issues and just spotlighted them in a completely different way than we had previously been discussing. Everything that happened in the last year that we think of as this great reckoning really just underscored and made worse things that were problems all along–systemic racism, us all being at the mercy of capitalism, lack of healthcare, low wages, wages that are not living wages, student debt, people being evicted–none of these things were new and they were all impacting young people prior to this year,” she says.
I think what stood out to me the most was the pandemic took things that young people knew were issues and just spotlighted them in a completely different way than we had previously been discussing.
“But it was the first time that I was seeing a lot of our conversation just culturally sorta center these things where it’s like, ‘Young people are in the real world, they are being impacted by real experiences that are having a real significant impact on their lives and their identities,'” Rainesford explains.
The demand to not only do right by young people but to also listen to young people in order to learn what doing right by young people even meant has continued to grow. Everywhere we look, young people are continuing the revolutions that have been passed down to them. At the same time, everywhere we look, we see obvious attempts at shutting down and controlling young people–usually through ageist tactics–to depower them as if it’s not bad enough that young people have to demand better in the first place.
For Rainesford, it’s a matter of both being furious that young people are still being put in a position where fighting for their lives is an everyday lived reality and also holding onto the optimism that this generation of young people hopefully are the ones to break that generational curse. When it comes to moving forward, it looks like redistributing resources through community/collective care. A new and better world/system has already been reimagined many times and we all carry the collective imaginations to do it, but still, it’s a heavy burden to put on this generation to be responsible for building.
“I think young people right now are imagining a world that’s not just better for them personally and their personal life, but what does it look like to grow up and create yourself and your sense of self in the context of other people and the systems we live in? And how can we make it so we’re not all in competition with each other because we all have the resources and security we need to be successful?” Rainesford questions. It’s thoughts like these that are ever-present throughout An Ordinary Age from Rainesford and from the people she speaks with.
She’s hopeful that young people will disrupt that social script in favor of one that dismantles those structures and prioritizes empathy and nuance. And on top of that, she’s hopeful for seeing people realize that just because we have suffered, doesn’t mean that the people after us have to “pay their dues” and suffer as well.
The idea that people have to be deserving of and earn a basic standard of living a sustained and fulfilled life, she explains, is deeply flawed and capitalism at work. “It takes everything and it individualizes it so like, if you’re not ambitious in that way or if you’re not hustling for it, it’s your own personal problem, it could never be a problem of the system you’re existing in, it’s always gonna be you,” she says. “I think that hyper-individualism is another thing we’re gonna see young people really look twice at and go, ‘Wait a second, no. We’re gonna serve our communities and take care of our communities and each other and it’s not gonna be kinda bowing at the altar of capitalism.'”
The book itself explores the multitudes of ways in which young adulthood welcomes (and can sometimes isolate) community. While it’s not something that mainstream young adulthood, especially college years and early 20’s, often explores, loneliness in young adulthood is ever-present even in young people who are considered to have big social circles. When you’re told that at all times you’re supposed to be living your best life and yet you might feel like you’re not or that you’re supposed to be doing more, of course, it can present itself in loneliness.
For Rainesford, her experience dealing with and reaching out at her most lonely stems from the examples of those she calls “braver people” who have reached out to her. From those who simply asked her to grab a cup of coffee and taking that chance rather than having doubts about the invitation to receiving messages on social media from people that spark a conversation on mutual interests. She notes that these asks are meaningful, but we’re often trained out of doing them because of the way we’re expected to separate our offline life (what’s considered “real life”) and our online life (what’s considered “pretend” or “nonconsequential”).
That we’re often talked out of, by ourselves and by others, reaching out in a way that acknowledges our loneliness, can put us in vulnerable spots where we convince ourselves into believing we’re not as lonely as we feel. But as Rainesford explains, it’s normal to want to make a new friend, to want to expand our circle of people, our communities, our lives, be it on and/or offline.
She looked at the ways in which people reached out to her and how that generousity felt and at her most lonely, she says she finds herself reaching out to people the same. “I think that those little options really have a much more profound impact than kind of what we’re trained to recognize as friendship. And I think that at my most lonely, it’s been really helpful to realize that community and friendship can look like different things at different points. Maybe not every friend is the friend you tell everything to, but maybe you have a friend that’s your friend for watching your favorite show.”
Online spaces such as fandom and having more than one account online (i.e. a public and a private account or even a personal and a fandom account) are things that many Millennials and Gen Z have admitted to doing already and in our own ways have explored how that can build community. “Letting people come in and out of your life and vice versa and creating space for as many people to bring something good in and that you bring something good to them as possible is what helped me. I don’t want to say [it helped me] get over loneliness because I’m still lonely a lot of the time, I think we all are,” she says.
“But I think when I stop seeing it as a problem to solve and more as how can I bring great people into my life and how can I be a part of theirs, I think that framing really helped me,” Rainesford concludes.
It helps to also acknowledge, as Rainesford does in the book, that these are typical stages of life. Loneliness is not inherently Millennial or inherently Gen Z. Every generation regardless of the age they are now has and will experience loneliness. Emerging adulthood is just one of the life stages where people are told to brush that emotion off.
At the same time, however, the way that Millennial and Gen Z are conflated as markers for this time of life can also cause harm. “I actually think that our misuse and overuse of the term Millennial is completely glossed over. Young adulthood is a development that we are all going to go through if we are lucky enough to grow up and get to age,” Rainesford points out. When the focus is less on developmental stages and more on “generation”, it becomes pointing fingers. It becomes about which generation cares enough to fix the issues and which generation is the only one who could. Which, surprise, surprise, ties back to capitalism.
“It’s harming us literally across the lifespan, down to infants, all the way to those who are in old age.” Simply tossing around terms such as ‘Gen Z’ and ‘Millennials’ among other generational names, Rainesford says, does a few things. One: it makes it easier for the young adult experience to typically be commodified towards how white, upper middle class young adults experience it. Two: it contributes to the idea that we need to have our lives completely figured out as young as possible taking away the autonomy of both our youth and our later years.
I think young people right now are imagining a world that’s not just better for them personally and their personal life, but what does it look like to grow up and create yourself and your sense of self in the context of other people and the systems we live in?
“I think it would be so boring to know for sure everything about myself or what makes me curious or about the world by any age,” she stresses. She also points out what is maybe very obvious, unless you read most headlines about youth: Gen Z is going to remain Gen Z no matter what age they turn because they happened to be born in the range of years that name was given to. Same for Millennials. Every young person from here on out will not be considered a Millennial, despite what most articles blaming Millennials for everything attempts to have people think. But above all else, it’s the systemic things at play that we need to focus on. “It’s impacting everybody as they make their way through different phases of their life.”
That’s a crucial thing to consider and think about when reporting and documenting young adulthood. As Rainesford explains, it’s important for her that when she does her work she makes sure to get out of the way and find the nuance in young adulthood by talking to and centering the actual young adults the discussion needs to reflect. This also means admitting that young adulthood is not one size fits all. We all, if we live to see it, will experience young adulthood. We don’t all experience it the exact same way, “I think that it’s so much more interesting to talk to people about what their realities are like and I think that means recognizing that, yes, they’re young adults, but they’re also just human beings with very different concerns and fears and interests. And I think that the reporting has to center that and the fact that there are individuals in differing circumstances.”
The hesitancy that some have towards accepting that, she thinks, is because to make general and clickbait-y assumptions about Gen Z and Millennials is a simpler narrative. To report on and make room for that nuance takes time and energy that isn’t necessarily easy to invest in when our news and content cycle moves the way that it does. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try though especially because that simpler narrative is prone to ignoring the multiple ways in which young adults are impacted by what happens in the world and how they are often the ones shaping politics and culture even when they aren’t given the credit. But above all, it can be dehumanizing because it turns young adulthood into some nostalgic concept instead of something people are actually going through right at this moment.
“I do think that there is actually a shift we’re getting to see in young adult representation across books and media and movies and TV and all that good stuff,” she says when I ask her about it. “I think that we’re getting more realistic about how hard it is to grow up,” She praises the ways in which the coming of age story finds itself understanding more and more that what hurts and traumatizes in young adulthood cannot/should not be easily wrapped in a bow and then we move on. It’s messy and it impacts who we become. “I think that as this generation of young people gets more power over the narrative and who gets to tell that narrative and that story, I think we’re going to see representations of what it means to be young and what it means to come of age that stands much closer to what that looks like in reality.”
The fun of that might be that as has been mentioned multiple times already, that reality looks like a lot of things. This means that there’s actually a ton of different stories that coming of age can honestly tell if willing. Especially in a digital age, although that would require being willing to capture young adulthood and how social media is both everchanging and incorporated into that now, without being condescending towards young adults using social media.
Rainesford and I discuss the way in which it’s almost Gatsby-like. “The idea of creating a larger-than-life persona is something that I think everyone in some capacity at some point in their life has related to. I think [that] also related to that book, this idea that you’re going to either amplify or mask parts of your personhood by projecting these grandiose, over-the-top, kind of beyond your wildest imagination and fantasies of life and who you are and what you can be,” she explains.
It also reminds her of the quote, “I like large parties. They’re so intimate.”
“So many people I talked to described being able to be more of themselves or see more of themselves represented in these online spaces that just by virtue of being online were so much larger than their typical social circle,” she refers to the social media chapter. “In a way, it felt like they were talking and eventually making friends with people who were strangers and sharing very personal things. I think there’s something about social media being a place where you can test out different parts of your identity and explore different versions of yourself and have that agency. I think that reminds me of the intimacy of things happening on a really big scale. And obviously, that can be very problematic and even dangerous, but I think that there is intimacy in getting to pick what we share and who we share it with.” It’s something that Rainesford says young people have managed to capture and figure out.
Now that An Ordinary Age is out in the world, Rainesford gets to continue talking about the book and holding discussions surrounding what’s inside it. But she also gets to continue pondering and growing as both a writer/reporter and a person during this ordinary/extraordinary period of her life–including penning a recent essay for Medium about what it’s like to outgrow who you thought you were supposed to be. She’s documented the parts of this time that have been joyful and the parts of being a new author that can also be slightly anxiety-inducing and the ways in which baking is her go-to in those moments.
A comforting interest for her, she excitedly talks about the pan-banging chocolate chip cookies she baked multiple times throughout the creating of this book. “I think that I’ll always associate them with it. They’re comforting and they’re delicious. But also, just getting to bang the crap out of the pan is very cathartic,” she adds with a laugh. Which just about sums it all up.
You can stay up to date on all things Rainesford Stauffer by following her Twitter account.
(photo cred: TBA)