Robin Marantz Henig is an award-winning science writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, Seed, Discover, the Washington Post and other publications. But it was her 2012 book TwentySomething, which she co-authored with her daughter Samantha Henig, that brought her to our attention. That nuanced, insightful and idiosyncratic look at Millennials and Baby Boomers (which we reviewed here) grew out of her 2010 New York Times Magazine piece “What is it about 20-Somethings?” which was among the most shared pieces the magazine published that year. Ms. Henig, who is the current president of the National Association of Science Writers and whom you can follow on twitter here, elaborated on the book, on twentysomethings and on writing with her daughter with us recently.
This book began as a very successful piece for the New York Times Magazine, correct? And while writing for books and writing for magazines are very different, they’re similar in that they’re often long processes in which observations and insights are discovered, disputed and discarded. So let’s begin there. What was your expectation as you began the piece for the New York Times Magazine? And then later, did you have different expectations when you began the book? Further, what surprised you as you finished writing the magazine piece, compared to what surprised you when you finished writing the book?
Despite what young people were saying about my article as they passed it around among themselves in 2010, and despite the kind of dismissive title the editors put on it, my piece at the time was very focused on one question only: whether “emerging adulthood” is a new and distinct developmental stage. I tried to restrict the article to that question only, which is essentially a debate taking place among psychologists. I guess what surprised me at that point was how many people read the piece (or maybe just the headline) and decided that the New York Times Magazine had dispatched an embittered Baby Boomer to complain about entitled Millennials.
My expectations when I began writing the book were different, I guess — mostly, to have the experience of writing a book with my daughter! And once we settled on a table of contents and style of writing, we kept coming back to the observation that not so much had really changed about being in one’s 20s from my generation to hers.
back and forth
One of the most unusual – but ultimately valuable – aspects of TwentySomething is the format – the back and forth between you and your co-author and daughter, Samantha Henig. How long did it take you to hit upon the idea of the exchange, what were your concerns about it, and what were the hurdles and obstacles once you’d decided on it. Also, did it evolve from your original perception as you worked on the book?
We looked at a couple of models of similar books for inspiration, like Barbara Kingsolver‘s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which she co-wrote with her daughter AND her husband. Our original system was for me to write in a “we” voice, with me writing the text and then handing it over to Sam for her to youthify it. But that ended up sounded like neither one of us, which is how we finally settled on the idea that the main text of the book would be in my voice, and the asides would be in Sam’s. (We flipped that system for the chapter on Love and Marriage, which is written in Sam’s voice, with the asides from me.)
as time goes by
TwentySomething came out in late 2012, and the New York Times Magazine piece came out two years before that. Our conversation is taking place well into 2016. What do you think has changed for Millennials since you wrote about them? What do you think has changed about our perception of them? And what would you change, or at least think about differently, if you were writing about them today?
Unfortunately, I don’t think that much has changed about our cultural perception of Millennials, even though I think it should. Just this morning the David Brooks column in the New York Times used words like “emotional ” and “orchid generation” to describe today’s young people. Enough already. I’m actually not interested in writing another book or article that tries to characterize a whole generation (we tried to avoid that in Twentysomething, too), and the truth is, the young people we were writing about in 2012 are now generally in their 30s, pretty grown up, and more and more in charge.
In spite of the many similarities that you and your co-author Samantha Henig explain that exist between Baby Boomers and Millennials, there seems to be something of a pitched battle between them in the culture – or certainly from the Baby Boomers towards the Millennials. Have you observed this, or are we over-reacting to a few isolated incidents? And if we’re not (and you agree that there seems to be some kind of friction) why do you think it exists?
I’m a freelance writer who works at home, so I’m not out in the world enough to observe pitched battles. But I think there’s much ageism at play in the workplace and elsewhere, with people on both sides of it feeling threatened — the Boomers threatened by the Millennials coming up and taking charge of a digital environment they no longer recognize, the Millennials threatened by Boomers who insist on holding onto their positions of privilege and their (vanishing) authority. I’m not sure it’s any different from the way things always are whenever, as is inevitable, one generation is being displaced by another.