Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Aspiring Grown-Ups: Editorial Assistants

I know my generation doesn't always get the best reputation for being self-motivating and self-sufficient. Those who grew up economically stable may take a lot for granted, and may have had the luxury of participating in enriching experiences (unpaid internships, world-traveling, taking time to "find oneself") that would make the rest of the world cringe and mutter with disgust. But when I read Robin Marantz Henig's piece in this weekend's NYT Magazine, which asks the question, "Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?", I started to wonder if the writers currently pontificating on my generation have ever met a twenty-something editorial assistant.

The basic premise of the article is this: twenty-somethings, once a group that consciously made efforts to grow up by taking on jobs, marriage, and children, are now prolonging the point at which they have to call themselves "grown-ups." We're delaying marriage and children by cohabiting with roommates or significant others (and sometimes "sowing our wild oats," depending on how monogamous we feel). We're delaying careers by having as many as seven jobs in one decade, which usually means never rising beyond a certain income bracket. We remain financially dependent on our parents, and emotionally dependent and easily prone to breakdowns. Henig says that this thing called youthor "emerging adulthood," which makes adulthood sound like the air into which we emerge after the sticky chrysalis of childhoodcan only "be in fullest flower only when the young person has some other, nontraditional means of supportwhich would seem to make the delay something of a luxury item."

Henig's not entirely off-base, and she's right to note that this is, predominately, a trend for the children of the economically prosperous. This sounds about right
you can only afford to act like a child when you are still provided for like a child. We all know twenty-somethings who are putting off the approach of real life: people who drift from job to job, people who stretch their graduate degrees into longer and longer periods of time, people who haven't deeply thoughtor have thought, but without purposeabout who they want to be when they grow up. Those twenty-somethings who would coast on the good graces of their parents and their parents' bank accounts . . . one would sometimes like to grab them by the shoulders and ask, "When are you going to grow out of this? But if you try to apply this portrait to that of a twenty-something in publishing, you couldn't be farther off-base.

Here's your typical editorial assistant: she grew up devouring literature, constantly pushing herself to expand her view of the world. She went to a great school where she strove to stand out among her peers. She developed passions through what she studied, and never neglected to examine how those passions might be applied to developing a life in the real world. She graduated, got a job, and worked long hours for little pay, learning as much as she could from the brilliant, funny, engaging people whom she felt proud to call colleagues. She did this for about two years with little to no pain, because she still considered herself somewhat of an apprentice in this industry. She was a merry sponge, a proactive sponge.

But like all sponges, you can only absorb so much before you need to be squeezed to become useful again. This assistant wanted to be held accountable for something important, contribute something uniquely valuable, and become indispensable. So she asked for more responsibility, and got it
a little of it. But a pattern kept revealing itself: with no grownups leaving, and the responsibilities being given to those more senior, there was little means of growing into something more than what she was. (She's also female, and the likelihood that she'll get promoted over a male assistant is slimmer than ever.) So she remained an assistant, subordinate, stuck in a bad economy with few options to grow into the future she so deeply hoped to attain.

If the ambitious twenty-somethings among us want to be treated like adultswant to emerge from their adulthood, not linger in limbowill we able to do it without opportunities being extended from those more senior? Publishing is, in its structure and its ethos, a hierarchy of experience and wisdom. Senior editors are considered wiser than junior editors, just as an 18th-century author will often be considered more brilliant (or more worthy of reverence and respect) than his 20th-century counterpart. The chances to show one's talent are reserved for those who booked an audition spot twenty years earlier, and so those young'uns chomping at the bit to gain some respect often get left in the wings. It feels just like the quandary from A Chorus Line: "Too young to take over / Too old to ignore / Gee, I'm almost ready... / But what for?"

There are plenty of twenty-somethings out there who'd like to be
running things, to gain some form of expertise that no one else possesses. This generation would like to be treated just like non-twenty-something coworkers: like they are valuable. And in an industry where assistants indefinitely go without recognition or promotion, when snarky authors blog to rail against editors for delegating work to a "lowly assistant," it makes my blood boil. As an unpublished author, would you consider yourself so above the fray that you would deny a highly educated, highly ambitious and motivated assistant—who hopes to be an editor somedaythe privilege of reading your work? Really?

I don't have a solution for those twenty-somethings who want to stay in their emerging-adulthood stage, and I appreciate Henig's discussion of programs that put the not-yet-adulthood period to good use. City Year, Teach for America, Peace Corps, and even military service create a stop-gap period between youth and adulthood, and give a person an opportunity to assess their options and to see if they can give back to society. It can take a lifetime for people to discover what they want to do with themselves, if they have a calling, a passion that can be put to work. And I'd be the last person to push twenty-somethings towards major life commitmentsmarriage and children, especiallybefore they truly have the opportunity to think things through. But as someone pursuing something that feels like a lifelong passiona career that could define me as much as I hope to define itI want to slam Henig's theory that all twenty-somethings are lost in the pre-adulthood haze.

Henig concludes, "If this longer road to adulthood really leads to more insight and better choices, then [the] vision of an insightful, sensitive, thoughtful, content, well-honed, self-actualizing crop of grown-ups would indeed be something worth waiting for." Dear writer, your crop of grown-ups is here and ready for harvesting.
Now please, put us to good use already.


  1. Jess, I totally understand where you're coming from regarding the hard work, enthusiasm, and desire for passion and responsibility. Those are also some of the hallmarks of our generation.

    I'd like to recommend a book that helped me understand my coworkers and come up with strategies for communication that works for myself and older generations. It's called "Plugged In" and it's by Tamara Erickson. It really helped me understand why some of my senior coworkers see things so different than I do.


  2. thanks for the suggestion, Holly! I hadn't heard of the book and I'm going to check it out as well.