9 Books and Stories Baby Boomers Can Read to Understand Millennial Anxieties

Social media, terrorism, the gig economy, identity crises—they all make for good literature

There are plenty of articles that purport to tell people under 35 what they should read: “33 Books Millennials Need to Read Before They Are 30,” or “16 Books Every Millennial Should Read,” or “7 Best Money Books for Millennials.” But how come millennials have to do all the work? If older generations want to use the millennial generation as a scapegoat, they should first understand the complexities millennials are surrounded by: changing technology, economic recessions, personal overexposure, terrorism, debt. Here are nine titles that can help baby boomers understand the anxieties millennials live with, so maybe we can get some slack cut out for us—or some proper legislation in order. (Though some of these were written by millennials, we deliberately chose a bunch by people over 40, in the name of bridging the generation gap.)

“The Fourth State of Matter,” Jo Ann Beard

Lately, with the significant rise in school shootings in the United States, the question on many students’ and teachers’ minds is will my school next? “The Fourth State of Matter” was published in the New Yorker in 1996 and it reports on the shooting that occurred in a Physics Department at the University of Iowa, leaving five people dead. At the time, Beard was dealing with an ailing dog and a messy divorce, but none of these events could prepare her for the powerlessness of tragedy. The shooting happened in 1991, and in 2018 there have been more shootings than weeks and the victim population is growing. Doesn’t that make you anxious?

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

Consider how many children sat at their television screens, watching and re-watching September 11th. How many children lost a parent, friend, or relative on that fateful day. These were all millennial children who had to grope with death and grief and fear at a very young age. The attack affected the entire U.S. national psyche, especially for young people, shaking the confidence in safety that most (though not nearly all) American children used to have. In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, nine-year-old Oskar’s fear of certain objects and tall buildings stem from his inability to move past that day. Having to move on, rebuild, and sort through loss are notions that those who were children on September 11th hold close.

Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner had this to say about the main character in Leaving the Atocha Station: “The protagonist doesn’t unequivocally undergo a dramatic transformation, for instance, but rather the question of ‘transformation’ is left open, and people seem to have strong and distinct senses about whether the narrator has grown or remained the same, whether this is a sort of coming of age story or whether it charts a year in the life of a sociopath.” Nothing happens in the novel, really. We are in Adam Gordon’s head, filled with anxieties and loneliness that he doesn’t know how to overcome. He takes on a fellowship in Madrid and starts spending his days overthinking everything, smoking weed, and emotionally abusing women. Millennials not-so-fondly refer to this kind of man as a “fuckboy,” and understanding millennial anxieties starts with understanding what we are dealing with when we deal with the Adam Gordons of the world.

Mean, Myriam Gurba

“What are you?” is and always will be my least favorite question. On the West Coast I am always seen as Mexican. But here in New York, people always ask “what are you,” which in turn makes me wonder, “Who am I?” (“Mexican” doesn’t seem to satisfy people here, so I have to tell them I’m also Colombian, even though I would never identify as Colombian anywhere else.) This question—who am I?—has plagued young people not only in the millennial generation but in every generation, but as identities have become rallying points and bones of contention, we’ve been forced to ask “what am I” more than ever before.

Mean, Gurba’s memoir, takes on the “what are you” question and applies it to every aspect of life. Queer? Chicana? Chicanx? What are you? And how are you going to be accepted by every one else? Do you even need acceptance?

Self-Help, Lorrie Moore

Much of millennial anxiety can be attributed to the anxieties that were rubbed off from our parents—including their messy marriages. With half of America’s children witnessing their parents divorce, it’s difficult to overlook the consequences bearing witness will have on their daily lives. Issues with trust and the inability to understand healthy relationships are some factors that contribute to the anxieties of millennial life. “The Kid’s Guide to Divorce” is a short story in Self-Help that delicately shows the way children are the center of the separation of parents and how children have to deal with emotional labor when it should be between the adults.

A Selfie as Big as the Ritz, Lara Williams

Lara Williams’ new collection highlights the romantic, emotional, and financial tenuousness of millennial culture. The main character in one story argues that marriage should be a temporary trial period which you evaluate before you fall too deep (I feel like that’s called dating, but heck what do I know). On page two, we are already hearing about the unpaid positions the narrator is forced to take, after she lists all of her qualifications. A Selfie As Big As the Ritz examines the temporality of life and all of its uncertainties, something millennials know all too well.

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This book is about race and racism, identity, immigration, cultural criticism. It turns the world on itself and asks questions about its intentionality. It makes you question what you do and why you do it. People my age often hope we engage with baby boomers that are well versed in books like Americanah, in the hopes that we won’t have to deal with back handed or heavy handed racism. Millennials know that we do not live and have never lived in a post-racial world; get on our level.

The Circle, Dave Eggers

We are in an age of high visibility. Internet privacy is questionable and the online community frequently jokes about the FBI agent on the other side of your webcam. The Circle takes us into a dystopian kind of universe, echoing much of Orwell, and shows how being constantly completely connected can cause major dysfunctions. We have seen the importance of communities like Twitter, for example, that help grassroots organizations come together and keeps news fresh. But The Circle keeps us wondering how far we can go down the rabbit hole of technology—even though we no longer have the ability to opt out.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz

Oscar is a young Dominican man struggling with his identity as well as his sex life. The issue with his identity is he has too many different hats. And the issue with his sex life is that it’s nonexistent—and for a Dominican man, that’s not supposed to be happening. But that’s the anxiety-provoking dilemma of the status quo, particularly for hyphenated peoples (Dominican-American, Mexican-American, etc.). Which side do we live by? And why does any of this matter? Cue: nihilistic millennial.

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