Image Credit: DF / Public Seminar
New School alum and author Rainesford Stauffer reinvents the wheel on how we discuss our confusing and rather ordinary adulthood years in her latest book, An Ordinary Age. Stauffer spoke with Public Seminar intern Shivani Somaiya on the structural and systemic issues that have contributed to the false mythologies about young and emerging adulthood.
Shivani Somaiya [SS]: Can you talk to me about how you found yourself in New York and then The New School?
Rainesford Stauffer [RS]: I was a literature major, and I wanted to be a college professor. I had imagined getting a master’s degree and a PhD, but life just did not go in that direction. I had a really hard time with the transition into college for really no discernible reason other than I was depressed at the time and had no language to explain what I was feeling. I didn’t know how to ask for help.
Being disillusioned, unmoored, and not really knowing what I was doing then made me feel like I needed to leave school. At the time I tried to convince myself and others that it was an entrepreneurial decision, but in reality, I was lost. I was terrified that staying in school was a bad decision; I was terrified that leaving school was a bad decision.
A random internet search brought me to the Bachelor’s Program for Adults and Transfer Students where you were able to get academic credit for experiences outside the classroom. Instead of punishing me from taking time away from school, it validated the fact that my college experience didn’t look the way I thought it would and, that it was still going to turn out okay.
I was able to be a full-time student at The New School while also working full-time: this was a necessity. I don’t think that there are very many other institutions that not only would have let that happen but would have actively supported it.
SS: How and in what ways did your time at The New School inform and influence your writing?
RS: The New School caused me to question the one-size-fits-all narrative. Because my program was online, discussion was really critical. I was in classes with people from all different walks of life. They were different ages: people who were in their sixties and had gone back to finish a degree, and people who were finishing their degree one class at a time while working.
In those discussions, classmates drew relationships between something they had experienced in their life and the material we were talking about was probably an education in and of itself. It was also an environment that automatically required you to think differently about the path you were on.
First of all, the prior learning portfolios taught me how to think about how all of these different puzzle pieces of my life came together. Then, the rigor of the writing and research really helped me. I took all kinds of different classes; I remember a food psychology course I loved. I took a lot of classes on film analysis which is something that I would have never pursued. But it got me thinking so analytically about information. It put me on the path of thinking, “Okay, here’s the story that’s being presented, but now what’s missing?”
The “what’s missing” question has driven a lot of my interest in writing and reporting since then.
SS: Your book An Ordinary Age is all about coming into adulthood. How would you describe your emerging adulthood years?
RS: They were a disaster. I look back and I see someone who was trying very hard to do all the right things, who was trying to, like I said, be this entrepreneurial freethinker who definitely took her own path and knew what she was doing. In reality, there was also some semi-undiagnosed anxiety and depression there. Doctors said, “Yeah, you probably have it,” but didn’t really do anything to encourage me to treat it. There was a lot of pressure to do things that were not clicking for me, like college.
I was lonely a lot of the time. I spent a lot of time searching and didn’t know what my career path was going to be. When I look back at my early adult years, there is a lot that I would take back if I could. There’s a lot that I’ve learned that has since informed my understanding of the world and my place in it that at the time.
I don’t think we give young people a tremendous amount of grace to say, “I don’t know, and I need to slow down and learn and figure out what I’m doing before I open my mouth about it; before I fill out a job application about it; before I tweet it; before I think that it’s the thing, I need to devote my life to.”
I felt a lot of pressure to have this perfect path that just did not exist. At least for me.
SS: At what point did you notice that there was a problem with the narratives about young adulthood? What sparked the thought in you to put this to paper?
RS: I was freelance reporting and focusing on stories that happened to have young adults at the center of them. I noticed a narrative thread in all of these seemingly unrelated stories: no matter what anyone was doing, no one felt like it was good enough. These were people who were in circumstances where they were having to overcome exceptional things.
Ironically, from the outside looking in, nine times out of ten, people would look at them with admiration and think, “Well you’re the ones that have it all figured out.” But they were sitting there, telling me something that seemed entirely different.
The biggest inspiration came from those conversations. I heard these people be so vulnerable about what they thought was missing from popular discourse, and what was frustrating them—whether they were working multiple jobs or grieving or taking care of younger siblings—all of these things that just were not popping up in news coverage. I was also reading about young adulthood, which was what drew me to the dichotomy of the ordinary versus extraordinary.
SS: What do you think was missing from your book? What would you add if you could?
RS: I wish we had touched more on what the solutions look like. People have been saying this forever: the solutions are structural. I was very adamant that I didn’t want to do anything that made people feel like the burden was back on them. Like, “Here, go self-care this away.” No. Nothing, I can say in a book is going to change the fact that people are living paycheck to paycheck, that they are in toxic or abusive work environments or that they have no health insurance.
When we think about young adulthood, I think as a society, we put it in this little bubble where you’re not really taken seriously enough to be an adult even though we know a lot of young people do take on “adult responsibilities” very early in life.
When we don’t acknowledge the complexity of who young adults are, the conversation is shallow.
SS: A lot of the structural issues that you talk about in your book were exacerbated by the pandemic. How did the outbreak of the pandemic influence and inform the writing and reporting process?
RS: It was a very narrow line between not wanting it to be a book about young adulthood in the pandemic, which we really didn’t have time to do, but also knowing that so many disparities and inequities that already existed were becoming deeper, and fundamentally change the way we think about a lot of “life milestones”: graduations, moving out, and first jobs.
On top of that, people that I had spoken to six to nine months earlier were now, in some cases, in radically different circumstances than the last time I talked to them. They had lost loved ones, gotten sick themselves, and were grieving. They had been laid off from their job and didn’t know what they were going to do.
I kept thinking about how so much is changing and yet so much is staying the same. I wasn’t sure how to articulate that in a way that makes it clear that a lot of the fault lines that were exposed in this pandemic were things that a lot of young people had known were problems all along: the impact of systemic racism and oppression, capitalism, lack of healthcare and health insurance or lack of living wages, lack of affordable housing. These were not things that young adults all of a sudden snapped to attention to during the pandemic: they had been informing and shaping their lives all along.
SS: You cover a range of topics in the book from hyper-individualism to #LivingYourBestLife, loneliness, normality, and this division between an ordinary and extraordinary life. Why do you think all of these topics are important to talk about now?
RS: We should have been talking about them all along. I don’t think young people would feel disillusioned and lonely, or internalize all this failure, if we had been having more complex discussions about who young people are, what circumstances impact them, and who has the choices to do what, on a national scale.
Young people are given a social script that does not match the circumstances a lot of them are trying to build lives in. We talk about failure to achieve adult milestones without talking about who those milestones were built for, or fear of failure, without realizing that the stakes of failure are not equal.
All of these issues are interconnected. The pressure to live a #BestLife is not separate from capitalism. It’s not separate from a world that teaches you that you are only as good as the last thing you were productive at. Of course, we can’t talk about capitalism without talking about hyper-individualism. How do all of these systems put the burden back on the individual instead of looking at what responsibility we have to one another?
Only good things can come from young people complaining loudly about what’s not serving them and what they want to see happen instead. It’s true for all people, not just young adults. But in young adulthood, so much of this comes to fruition. In the introduction, I quote an expert who talks about structural dispossession and what happens when people are separated from very basic needs. So much of this hits a tipping point in young adulthood, because you’re supposed to be making all of these big life choices all at once and the lack of resources becomes even more apparent.
SS: How do you think An Ordinary Age compares to and stands out against other books on young adulthood?
RS: One of the things that makes the book unique is that I tried to listen to young people, amplify their stories, and as best I could, get out of the way. There was a lot of back and forth about whether there was going to be any personal narrative in the book at all. To be honest with you, I’m still not entirely comfortable with that because my job as a writer and reporter is to listen, to distill more nuanced versions of the times we’re living in, who people are, and how they see themselves in the world.
Also, the fact that I was still in my twenties was probably a blessing and a curse. There’s something to be said for writing about this time of life without having a decade of retrospection. It probably did make the book a little messier and complicate the narrative in ways that are actually true to this decade of life.
SS: What is it like to have to talk about these really vulnerable conversations? How did the writing process change you?
RS: The reporting gave me many interesting people to learn from, which is such a privilege and such a gift. It’s one that I don’t take lightly. My favorite part of getting to write anything is listening to people. But writing about myself was a learning curve I am still navigating. I get stage fright. I don’t have all the answers. Frankly, I should not be the most important voice in this conversation, and it feels a little bit uncomfortable to occupy that space.
What’s changed is that I look back at my younger self with a lot more patience and grace. I know that life is not a linear process. If you’re going to learn as you go, you’re making a commitment to learning. You have to give yourself patience to mess up and say, “I would do that differently now and this is how.”
SS: What do you want your readers to walk away with?
RS: I don’t think we’re told it often enough or given enough chances to believe that we are worthy as we are right now, not when your five-year plan has come to fruition, not when you feel like you know what you’re doing.
We need a really radical re-imagining of, not just how we think about young adulthood, but how we move through our lives and where we find value. I would want people to know that this myth of young adulthood is not your individual burden. Doing the best you can within that has a lot of value.
Read an excerpt from An Ordinary Age, courtesy of Rainesford Stauffer and Harper Perennial.
Rainesford Stauffer is a freelance writer who has written for Teen Vogue, Vox, and Scalawag, among others. She’s the author of An Ordinary Age, which came out in 2021 from Harper Perennial, and All the Gold Stars, forthcoming from Hachette Go. Currently, Rainesford is the Writer in Residence with the Kentucky Student Voice Team. She holds a BA from The New School, where she completed her undergraduate education online. You can find her on Twitter: @Rainesford
Shivani Somaiya is a writer and journalist studying at The New School for Social Research for her Master of Arts in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism. Her writing has been featured in Schön Magazine, Diplomatic Courier, and Geopolitical Monitor. Read more on her website.