Wednesday, April 05, 2006

How Good News Becomes Bad News - The Five Asterisks

From Po:

Baseball started this week, and there's been a lot of talk about using an asterisk on Barry Bonds' career home run total.

So I'm going to employ this technique today. I'm going to put some asterisks on another place they belong.

The hot-topic demographic group of Year 2006 is the 18 million Americans aged 18-34 who live with their parents. It's not an election year, so this group isn't being wooed by the politicians the way Soccer Moms were. Rather, these 18 million people are being held out as the demographic that explains what's wrong with America these days. They are being called out as immature losers who fail to grow up. They might have a job, but they have no work ethic. The only thing they apply themselves to is reaching the next level of their favorite video game.

Once you're aware of just how adrift these 18 million slackers are, it's easy to see how they are to blame for just about everything that needs explaining. They are a perfect Bogeyman. Or Bogeyboy. For example:
  • The economy is walking along at the leisurely pace of a stoner strolling down the street - because these people don't work hard.

  • Women can't find husbands because these guys would rather live with their folks than move in with a girl who expects them to do their own laundry.

  • College boys are lagging behind college girls in academic performance because the guys simply are unmotivated.
We've been too easy on these kids!

Or so it is alleged. The Wall Street Journal called it a "Crisis of Coddling." The Times called them "adultescents." US News called it the latest challenge in parenting. Psychology Today called it the "Perma-Parent Trap." Time cried "They Just Won't Grow Up." And everyone has his own pet name for these 18 million. Boomerangers. Rejuveniles. Failures to Launch.

Every media outlet has pitched in with the criticism, but most of the media gets triggered by a book or two that needs to be sold. Last Friday, the Washington Post ran an op-ed that had a huge response. It was by Dr. Leonard Sax - another guy with a book to sell - who stated that a third of all boys age 22-34 live with their parents. He also alleged that this represents a doubling of the percentage in the past 20 years - and he cited the US Census. (When our Census Bureau expert read this, in her local Post, she gasped - because it's not true. In the last 20 years it's gone down slightly.) Striking at our fears with these sensationally-inflated numbers, it's no wonder Dr. Sax had a packed session in the Post's chat rooms later that day.

Okay, now for a dose of reality. Let's tack some asterisks on to these authors' handiwork. We begin with 18 million people. But really, how many are we talking about?

* Let's call 25-years-old the "Worry Point." If you're 25 and living with your parents, they have a right to worry. Younger than 25? Not such a problem. College is more expensive these days (college tuition has gone up 350% in 20 years), so if you move home right after college so that you can use your job income to pay down your school loans - we're not going to criticize that.

So, how many of those 18 million living at home are under the Worry Point?

14 million!

In other words, these gaggle of authors are claiming to be experts on their army of 18 million, when there's only 4 million who we should actually be "worried" about.

I'm glad I brought up college right there, because that leads nicely into this next asterisk:

* If you are a single person attending college and living in a dorm, the Census Bureau counts you as living with your parents!

So if you're doing everything society wants you to do - (leaving home to go to school, getting good grades, preparing to launch) - these authors still count you as one of their 18 million pathetic losers.

Doesn't that sound kinda distorted? Yes, but let's have some sympathy for these authors, too. They need you - to beef up their numbers. Let's face it. The authors have already won this game. They've rigged it. The more of you who go to college, the more losers they get to count!

How many of those 18 million are being counted this way? Well, we know that in 2005, there were 16.7 million students in American colleges and universities. 10 million are under 25 years old. Hmmm ...

So if you're going to college, and you live in a dorm, you're categorized as a failure. Or, if you go to college and you live at home to save money, you're considered a failure. So where are you supposed to live?

* Of those 18 million, a full 3.6 million are Hispanics and Asians who don't consider it a failure that they are living in an extended family household. (2.8 million Hispanics and 800K Asians.) They actually prefer an extended family home. They come from countries where living with your parents isn't a stigma - it's normal. In other words, we intellectuals shouldn't worry about them either. Twenty percent of all 18-34 year olds were born outside the United States. This is rarely mentioned by the amateur demographers who want you to think all these 18 million Everkids have lots of discretionary income (no rent!) to spend on Playstations.

* Of those 18 million, a full 1.4 million already have their own children. They're living with their parent(s) to get help in raising the kid. Most of these 1.4 million are single women.

We admit - there are some people living with their parents and the parents wish they were on their own. But not 18 million. Not 4 million. Maybe half that. At most. Should we worry about them? Sure. But don't lie and tell the whole world that there are 900% more losers out there then really are.

Why do we condemn James Frey for exaggerating his drug use to sell his book, and we don't condemn other authors who exaggerate their numbers to sell their books?

In this way, good news is turned into bad news. The good news is, far more students are going to college than ever before. But who wants to buy a book full of good news? So they find some way to take these hard-working college kids and name them by some other demographic - and voila! They're a scourge on our society!

Did I just say "hard working"? I did. Did I mean to? - aren't these young slackers generally lazy? That's what everyone says. And they can't be working, because they are in school, right?

Welcome to the biggest asterisk of all.

* The kids - endlessly disparaged - are holding down jobs like we haven't seen in decades. Half of the students in school have jobs at the same time. (And almost half of those are full-time jobs!) They're not earning much, but that's not because they're not trying - the jobs available for them suck. As a point of comparison, let's match the average post-college slacker (age 22-24) against the industrious adult in his/her late 50s:
  • The % of people age 55-59 who have jobs right now is ... 65%
  • The % of people age 22-24 who have jobs right now is ... 69%
So why are we blaming everything on these kids! 90% of kids today have had a job by age 20.

Here's what I think is really going on.

You can't make fun of people anymore on the basis of their race, their gender, their nationality, or their sexual orientation. You can't make those jokes anymore, and journalists/authors certainly can't put down these categories of people. So the new technique of the last few years has been to make up a new demographic category, one not based on race or nationality - and trash them.

This fills a need that racism used to fill - the need to be mean, to pick on someone. To vent. To blame.

The only saving grace to all this? These people who are being criticized don't actually exist - not in the massive numbers that we're told.

6 Comments:

Blogger Andreia said...

I am less worried about the Everkids (nice word) than I am about Barry Bonds singlehandedly ruining baseball.

7:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am one of these people who would rather buy a book with good news.

5:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And here is what I get to see on the ground floor as I look for jobs.

http://stockton.craigslist.org/res/190197739.html

6:39 PM  
Anonymous David in Vancouver said...

Po,

I like the way you get at what really is underlying the numbers and subtly skewer those "lying with statistics". This seems what someone dubbed 'trend journalism' a few years back.

Three female celebrities have younger husbands/boyfriends. Great new trend!

Highly educated and successful career women cannot find boyfriends/husbands, they are 'overqualified'. Another trend!

9:49 AM  
Anonymous B2b said...

nice site

10:45 PM  
Anonymous Katryna said...

I don't think I will ever understand the urge to blame someone else for your problems. If you're unhappy, do something about it. Even if it's to move to another country. Even if it's to go talk to a therapist. If you are unhappy, you can do something about it. It's not "all someone else's fault."

6:03 PM  

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