Do millennials really have it easier than baby boomers did? Rosita Sweetman (left) and Sarah Maria Griffin (right) compare lives and discover that, despite coming of age 40 years apart, their attitudes are not so different after all …
*This article first appeared in THE GLOSS Magazine in September 2016
Sarah Maria Griffin, 28, is a writer from Dublin and contributor to THEGLOSS.IE.
“The cultural identity of our generations feels heavily defined by our failures. The baby boomers let everyone down, generation X are disillusioned and sarcastic, millennials are vapid brats who take selfies in museums and won’t move out of home. Many of these sweeping generalisations refuse any of us leverage, conversation, any pause to empathise with one another. Any meeting-in-the-middle. So I jumped at the chance to get to know Rosita Sweetman, a baby boomer and fellow writer.
Rosita and I talked and talked and talked. We looked at our lives. We had more in common than I thought possible. She was so, so cool.
I read Generation X by Douglas Coupland when I first met my husband. He placed it into my hands, told me it was his favourite. It’s one of mine now, too – portraits of young deadbeats with dimming aspirations who make up stories as a means of emotional survival. This is the book that defined the term. I am not from generation X, mind you, not one of the kids born between the mid 1960s and early 1980s. I’m 1988, and therefore a solid millennial – and I’m never allowed forget it, though there are many aspects of this branding that don’t sit easy with me.
I was ready to be apologetic for my age group when I first sat down with Rosita, but was quickly and warmly relieved. She had nothing but interest, support and empathy for the young, while I was shortsightedly expecting to be dismissed. She’s lived all over – first bouncing to London after finishing up at a convent boarding school, then back to Dublin and then on to Tanzania, then further afield again: South America, India and Sri Lanka among others. This breadth of experience gives her a wise, gentle energy.
Over lunch at her home, Rosita recalls the journalists, writers and editors of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement gathering in Gaj’s on Baggot Street in the 1970s. She was one of more than 800 women at their first public meeting and tells me how the women of Ireland were galvanised. I well with pride, thinking of the weekly drinks I have with women in my own life, one word repeated again and again – repeal, repeal, repeal. As I sit at her table, Rosita asks me flat out if I consider myself a feminist. I tell her I do. We’re united in this, generation gap or none. How far we’ve come is clear, what’s unchanged too, is stark.
I ask her if she uses the internet. She sighs, “Yes, too much.” I relate. The internet is such a huge historical advent, a cultural leap between us. She watches documentaries, keeps up with the news. This is where there’s truth, she tells me: “The internet lets everything get cracked right open.”
There’s no judgement in Rosita’s tone at any juncture. At my kitchen table later in the week, I ask her coyly what she makes of selfies, curious to see if we’ll disagree. She pauses a moment, shrugs, says people should take them if they want to, muses over how girls have always wanted to look beautiful. We talk about the glory of Topshop later in the day: Rosita wears dark magenta velvet platform sneakers that I recognise, having fawned over them in a shop myself. Her leather jacket is a deep blue, her hair bright blonde and pinned in neat curls, gorgeous tiny rings, made by her daughter, jewellery designer Chupi, on each finger. I aspire to her glamour, thinking maybe this is the first time I’ve truly met someone who I can say I want to be when I grow up.
When Rosita talks about living in Dar es Salaam she explains that she immediately got a job writing for the local English language paper – an unwillingness to slot in with the “colonial wives” of her social circle. Her former husband was an economist and with him she travelled, and worked. Rosita’s unease with taking advantage of privilege is clear: this is an acute perception of life abroad that I rarely see in people my own age. During my own three years living in San Francisco I was, in turns: an unpaid intern, a receptionist, a pet-sitter, and a nanny, masters degree under my arm, meaningless.
Rosita’s jobs after her education at Sacred Heart in Roscrea were mostly secretarial. She describes London in her 20s as different to how she sees it now: “You felt human in it still.” My first jobs out of school were pulling pints, shilling videogames in a shopping centre, folding clothes in a high-street store. As the recession opened its jaws, even these jobs fell away – then my friends fell away. Australia, Thailand, Japan, New Zealand, New York. Uncannily similarly to Rosita’s route to Dar es Salaam, my husband, then boyfriend, got a job at Facebook that took us to California.
While living abroad, Rosita and I both wrote. She describes sending off her manuscript for Fathers Come First in a brown paper envelope tied up with string, then six weeks later receiving an acceptance in the post, far away from her family and friends. The book would become an Irish feminist classic, reprinted recently in a gorgeous, stylish edition. I related closely to her writing and submitting from abroad: that’s what I did too, with my memoir, Not Lost.
Rosita put down her pen professionally for much of motherhood, which she speaks of with great warmth, as a great time, how it adjusted her priorities: “You see the world in such a different way – how brutal it is. You have to get clever and get political.” She speaks of her children with such love and pride – the tenderness is contagious. I tell her I’d love to have kids of my own, but I have no idea when I’m going to be able to do it. None of my friends who are in their 20s have children. I feel these are things I should know by now, at 28, because they are things I want to do, but they are still dots on the horizon.
Talking to Rosita, all of my assumptions about the boomer generation were cast aside: we may have come of age in different times, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have something in common. Just because a woman is in her 70s doesn’t mean she’s going to brandish a crucifix at you. Quite the opposite. Maybe the solution to the Ireland we’ve been left is moving forward together, with the power that can only come from combining energy and hunger with wealth of experience.”
Rosita Sweetman, 68, is a writer from Dublin. Her first novel, Fathers Come First, was published in 1972, and became a bestseller.
“I was nervous. I was meeting Sarah Maria Grffin – young, beautiful, clever, tall – for the first time. Sarah plunges straight into the politics of it all, the challenges her generation faces, with mile-a-minute analysis: “We’re being asked to be adults without having any of the things adults need – like houses and jobs. And being able to afford to have a family.”
Our conversations, over drinks initially, then lunch at mine two days later and then at hers two after that – go from serious to seriouser. There’s a lot going on for these millennials. Sarah, from the “leafier” end of Kilbarrack, says her generation is over-educated and underemployed. A survey last week showed one third of young people in the UK are in “insecure” employment, stripped of benefits, rights and, usually, meaning. Another recent UK survey from the Resolution Foundation revealed they will spend £53,000 on rent before the age of 30. It’s madness!
Sarah says 90 per cent of her friends are working two or three jobs, nobody is managing to save for a house deposit and with ever-escalating rents, (“How do you save a deposit of €60,000 when most of your money goes to the landlord?”) and without job security, or even the possibility of being able to get on the housing ladder, very few are having babies: “Everyone’s broke. Everyone’s trying so hard in their own career. It’s all delayed.”
As they see it, Sarah says, the old men in suits banjaxed the economy: “We’re all scared.” What’s going on? How could this smart young woman, a published book of poetry, Follies, a smashing memoir and a new dystopian novel, Spare and Found Parts, coming this autumn, be afraid?
I’m trying to think – did we feel that fear in the 1960s and 1970s? I don’t think so; we were busy out on the streets protesting women’s rights, black rights, gay rights, end all war rights. Power to the people! There wasn’t this sense of powerlessness that millennials are faced with today.
Sarah is a blazing feminist, wearing her REPEAL [the eighth amendment] sweater with pride: “There is no medical procedure that would not be performed on a man because of religion, not one!” She adds that the abortion debate is a sombre one: “There’s a sadness there, of course there is, but the debate must be held.”
She is not one of those returning emigrants who arrives back in Ireland and disses everything here; there was lots to dislike about America, she tells me. She’s wonderfully funny and honest about the loneliness of a small, empty, very expensive apartment, her husband working in Silicon Valley from dawn until dark every day: “America, so hard and so strange. We didn’t even have a bottle opener let alone friends.” Where buying fresh food was expensive, where meat was “grey sludge” and there was corn syrup in everything. Sarah leans forward, “You know in America they don’t have a word for ‘cop on’? They don’t know what it means’.”
Mind you, as the late great Philip Larkin merrily quipped, “If the experience is painful enough you might get a poem out of it”; writing pieces for The Irish Times’ ‘Generation Emigration’ slot became Not Lost, the saving of her sanity, and her pathway from performance poet to fully-committed writer. Writing, which had been her escape, became her passion.
Actually, Sarah writes in a charmingly boomerish way – everything in longhand in big jotters, the pages carried around in a satchel, without so much as a photocopy as back up. She’s a girl with attitude – a demon video gamer, who happily walks miles through the city on her own, and a whiskey drinker: “Two is my limit. I do have that weird discipline.”
Now that’s a difference between us. I’m pretty sure discipline was not an outstanding feature of boomer culture; weren’t we all about giving disciplinarians the two fingers, smoking joints at the opera, shedding our bras? Discipline was considered a hallmark of the citadel of conservatism we were trying to smash. In retrospect, perhaps the baby was chucked out along with the bathwater; lack of discipline led to so many of the groups stalling, their ideas, and style hijacked by the mainstream, stripped of its political heart.
So much that was wonderful in the boomer years – the worldwide surge for freedom, sexual politics, racial politics, incredible music, Woodstock, the Beatles, the Sex Pistols, Joni Mitchell, Modern Art, the Women’s Movement – was either smashed or co-opted. That consumerism replaced revolution and our wonderful young people are trapped in a bind so impossible, so stacked against them, they’re not even having babies? Characterising them as over-entitled and spoilt is a bit rich coming from a generation that destroyed an entire economy and has, so far, paid nothing for the disaster they caused but walked away whistling.
Boomer that I am, I’m on the side of the millennials. More power to them. They need it.”