Mission Adulthood: An Excerpt From Hannah Seligson’s New Book
The author of “Are Twentysomethings Expecting Too Much?” shares a chapter from her book about the work and personal lives of twentysomethings.
Last year I wrote a story for The Washingtonian titled “Are Twentysomethings Expecting Too Much?” It’s a question that became a major theme in my new book, Mission Adulthood: How Today’s 20-Somethings Are Transforming Work, Love, and Life. The book profiles seven people who embody different characteristics of Generation Y—from an African-American woman who served in Iraq and bought her body armor off the Internet to a gay Latino man who is the first person in his family, out of 40 cousins, to attend college.
After writing this book, I have a clearer answer to the question I set out to explore in that magazine piece more than a year ago. And the answer is no, twentysomethings are not expecting too much. We—I was born in 1982—have gotten a bad rap as entitled and demanding. Yes, we have high expectations, but in other eras that would have been labeled as “striving.”
Alex Schriver, the now 24-year-old National Chairman of the College Republican National Committee (the position that launched Karl Rove’s career) embodies some of the best qualities of Gen. Y. Alex is open-minded, tech-savvy, and wants to change the world. He believes, as do I, that our generation is going to transform the workplace and politics, if the party elders listen.
Alex both bucks and falls neatly in line with generational stereotypes. Sometimes I wondered if Alex and I would ever make eye contact, or if I would just have to get used to interviewing him while he looked down at his phone. On the flip side, Alex is a traditionalist. He wants to get married and have kids—and within his peer group from high school and college, he’s the outlier as the single guy with no kids. In fact, Alex’s face lit up the day I told him that the median age for a first marriage in the District for a guy is 32. He isn’t so “behind” after all.
I followed Alex during a rather extraordinary year of his life—he went from working at a job that didn’t offer him health benefits to running the largest youth Republican organization in the country. In this way, Alex has a rags-to-riches story that will, no doubt, inspire anyone yearning to work their way into the DC political machine.
What follows is Alex’s chapter.
The Political Wunderkind (or The Next Karl Rove)
“Here: in camel hair sports coat and jeans,” Alex Schriver texts me as we try to find each other in a Starbucks on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. It is a sunny, brisk winter day in February 2011. When we succeed, then 22 year-old Alex shakes my hand firmly and introduces himself by his first and last name. He speaks with a light Southern drawl. It’s the type of greeting that seems both genuine and like he’s done it a thousand times before. Alex has mastered the art form that’s the hallmark of all good politicians—making a good first impression. The warm smile, the dapper blazer, the whole persona—it just works. It is no accident that Alex comes off well. He is running to be the chairman of the College Republican National Committee (CRNC), the position Karl Rove, famously dubbed “Bush’s brain,” held in the 1970s, which many say launched his career as the most successful political operative of his generation. Alex too hopes to ascend the CNRC and springboard into a political career.
Through its network of 1,800 campuses and 250,000 members, the CNRC trains, mobilizes, and advocates for Republican candidates. It also has a budget of millions of dollars that Alex could one day be responsible for overseeing. In July 2011, delegates from all fifty states will vote to determine who will become the next chairman of an organization considered “the fastest growing sector” of Republican Party activists, not to mention whose term will overlap with the 2012 presidential election. Becoming chairman would give Alex a killer Rolodex filled with the next generation of Republican politicians and operatives. In ten years, Alex told me, he’ll know every prominent Republican state party staffer, lawyer, and politician in practically every state. To put it another way, Alex is an avatar for the I-can-do-anything-twentysomething. He has unabashed ambition at a young age, putting him in line with a segment of his generation but certainly not everyone.
“I set the bar high for myself, “Alex said. “I want to be successful professionally.” But what differentiates Alex from the garden-variety twentysomethings with big goals, a lot of drive, and the desire to be famous, is that he is after more than visibility and a lot of Facebook friends, although he has that (to date: 3,713). “Success doesn’t just mean being good at my job,” Alex has told me many times. “I want to be successful in my relationships and in my faith,” he said. But having a girlfriend right now would be next to impossible. There are so many other things competing for his attention, namely one Blackberry and one iPhone and the hundreds of e-mails, texts, and BBMs that come pouring in every day. This is the tradeoff Alex has made at this point in his life as he tries to rise to the top of a field before he turns 25: putting his personal life on hold. “I don’t even have time to pick up my dry cleaning,” Alex said, “let alone a girlfriend.”
Alex is a cross between Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee. He’s got the folksy I-want-have-a-beer with you persona of Huckabee coupled with the smooth, polished side of Jeb Bush, minus the political lineage. His bio-data certainly aren’t exotic for a card-carrying member of the Republican party: white and male; raised in the Bible Belt of Tennessee; degree in Political Science from Auburn University in Alabama; president of his fraternity, Delta Tau Delta; active member of The Church of the Highlands, the largest evangelical church in the state of Alabama. When Alex was State Chairman of the College Republican Federation of Alabama, he doubled the number of chapters in the state and brought the organization into the 21st century with a social media program and a new website. But Alex doesn’t have an ego about his accomplishments. In the year I spent interviewing him, he was always hesitant to brag or take credit for things. He’s exceedingly polite, charming, and chivalrous. Every time we met, Alex held the door for me and shook my hand, even after our half- dozen coffees. I never heard him use a four-letter world. In the age of sexting, Alex is a dying breed: a gentleman.
Alex was raised in Franklin, Tennessee, an affluent suburb of Nashville. The Schrivers were upper-middle class, the kind of family that went on vacations to the Bahamas but didn’t fly first class or stay at five-star hotels. Alex took out a small loan to go to college, but not to cover tuition. The loan was to pay for all of his extracurricular activities—traveling to different Republican conventions and paying fraternity dues. Alex is the first person in his family to put himself in the political spotlight. “They are all Republicans, but no one is publicly political,” Alex told me.
When Alex was 17, in 2005, his parents got divorced. His parents broke the news to him one night after he came home from a date. Alex said he accepted the separation and tried to move on. That’s Alex’s approach to life: don’t linger on the bad stuff. His other guiding principle was to forge independence, and early. While Alex was growing up, his parents never saw a transcript. He bucks the stereotype of the Gen Y kid who can’t cut the umbilical cord. There’s a rugged, almost Ayn Rand-inspired individualism about Alex. Being self-sufficient is, perhaps, the most important goal for Alex right now. “No one wants to have to graduate and move back in with their parents,” Alex told me. Backpedaling a bit, he added, “I mean, there is nothing wrong with that, but it’s just so important to your sense of self-worth and independence to be able to support yourself and live on your own.” Of course, Alex has the luxury of this viewpoint. If he couldn’t make rent one month, his parents could chip in.
Alex hasn’t had to make that phone call (yet). Even on his measly starting salary—less than $30,000, which he earns working for a Republican fundraising and lobbying firm (campaigning is his after-hours job)—Alex pays his own bills and rent. “I consider myself an adult on the grounds that I’m very independent. Yes, I’m close with my parents, but I was not a leashed child. I have a lot of friends in college and here in Washington, who have a natural instinct to say that ‘I got a parking ticket, I’m going to call my mom,’ or ‘I don’t know how to register for my driver’s license, I’m going to call my dad.’ I don’t operate like that. But if you define an adult as someone who has a spouse, a mortgage, and a kid, then there aren’t many adults among my generation here in Washington, DC,” Alex said.
Alex’s Mission: Carving Out a Name for Himself in National Politics
At first glance, Alex doesn’t seem like most other members of the college class of 2010, many of whom couldn’t find jobs and had to move back home with their parents. In a stark contrast to the unemployed and drifting twentysomething, Alex is running to be the chairman of a very large, influential political organization. In many other ways, however, Alex is representative of a 22 year-old newly minted graduate. The CNRC is a side gig to his day job, putting him in the bracket with most every other early twentysomethings toiling in an entry-level job. But twentysomethings like Alex also pursue what they really want to do, whether it’s photography or writing or web design, on evenings and weekends, part of the emergent trend of after-hours jobs for this generation. And like any recent college graduate, Alex is figuring how to make his way in the world. Washington, DC, is the major leagues for anyone forging a career in politics and a big adjustment for Alex. He’s not at Auburn, living on the cloistered campus that had one main street. So will he adjust, or pack his bags and head back to Alabama?
“I’m always someone who wants to be ahead.”
Alex’s political resume reads like someone who is far older than 22. In March 2009, over a year before Alex moved to Washington, DC, to work for a Republican fundraising firm, Bradley Byrne came to speak at Auburn University. According to Alex, “He hit on a lot of things I really believe in, and I turned to my friend and said, ‘This guy is going to run for governor.’” Alex was prescient. When Byrne announced his candidacy, it took Alex all of five minutes to make a phone call and get connected with the campaign. A few days later, he started an unpaid internship. He was so moved and excited by Byrne that he took a semester off of school to work on his campaign. Alex became the deputy political director for Bradley Byrne’s gubernatorial campaign in Alabama, overseeing seven field reps, all of whom were older than Alex. Byrne, however, lost in the 2010 primary to Robert Bentley, the current governor of Alabama, so Alex went back to Auburn to finish his course requirements and get his diploma.
Alex is certainly no aimless twentysomething, putting him in a different category than many who wonder, post-college, “What should I do with my life?” Most recent grads ponder this question during a six-month backpacking trip across South America or while working at a restaurant waiting for something better to come along. Alex, though, is different. Even if he harbored some doubts about which way to turn—stay in Alabama or move to DC—the what-should-I-do-with-my-life question was not one Alex spent a lot of time mulling.
“I’m always someone who wants to be ahead,” Alex told me when I asked him how he’d made a name for himself in Republican politics before he could even legally drink. He’s friendly with many members of the Alabama state legislature, including the speaker of the house and president pro tempore. “At 18, I wanted to do what people at 22 were doing. I was elected president of my fraternity, Delta Tau Delta, when I was a sophomore, and most fraternity presidents are seniors. I went to college when I was 17.” Alex cites birth order as the explanation for his drive. “I was the youngest of three kids, so there was always someone to catch up to.” But there’s something else propelling Alex. He has imbibed a certain generational attitude about the standards of achievement. “It used to be enough to graduate from college, get married, get a job, and that was enough to be successful. Now I feel like—and maybe I’m just imposing my own idea—you don’t want to have any job. You want to make a difference,” Alex told me. He thinks that kind of success is more attainable today, a common belief for a generation that has seen people like Justin Bieber become almost instant international sensations because of one YouTube video. The equivalent of that in Alex’s sphere, he says, “You can just make business cards and slap up a website and voilà, you’re a political consultant.” Of course, making business cards and slapping up a website doesn’t automatically make someone a successful political consultant, but Alex hits on a prevalent generational attitude: that the doors to success seem wide open if you wield your social network correctly.
“I live under the pressure of ‘Don’t mess up because if I do, I’ll have 3,700 Facebook friends watching.’ Everything today is magnified.”
Alex spends every weekend on a plane. Part of his campaign strategy is to meet face-to-face with as many of the 50 state chairs before the election in July 2011. The state chairs are critical to Alex’s election strategy—they appoint the delegates and he says the delegates usually follow the lead of the chairperson. The process is like going on fifty political first dates. And like a lot of dates, there’s a script. Alex said, “I ask them, ‘How are things going in your state? How are the college Republicans?’ Then we have a conversation about that and I say, ‘I’d like to have your support.’”
While another candidate might just, say, try and arrange 30 or so video Skype chats, Alex is taking this election as seriously as if he were running for the U.S. Congress. He is on the campaign trail—constantly. Luckily, soliciting favors isn’t something that makes Alex uncomfortable. “I have a friend who served on the national fraternity board with me a few years ago, and someone asked him why he didn’t run for office and his answer really took me. He said, ‘I don’t want to have to ask all my friends for a thousand dollars.’ [In this job] you are asking your friends, family, and professional contacts for money. If the fundraising process made me uncomfortable, I wouldn’t be very good at my job,” Alex said with a half-smile. But he concedes that it’s not always easy. “You have to be prepared for a meeting with a potential donor where that person says, ‘I’d love to talk, but I’m not going to give you any money.’” When that happens, Alex doesn’t miss a beat. “You say, ‘Absolutely, I just wanted to update you on the campaign and the progress we are making and if you change your mind, I’d be happy to talk about it.’”
Running for chairman of the CRNC puts Alex in the spotlight, something he is no stranger to. Being active on social media since he was a teenager gave him a glimpse of what’s like to have an audience. For the last couple of years, Alex has been building his following. Managing an online persona is an entirely new undertaking for aspiring public figures today, and the task has directly confronted this generation in ways no generation has been confronted before. As Emily Nussbaum pointed out in New York magazine, this is like thinking of oneself as a brand, a term that used to be reserved for carbonated beverages and hotel chains. In many ways, Alex’s experience with social media has prepared him to campaign—having to tend to his Facebook page and Twitter feed has instilled in Alex a discipline about image management, messaging, and avoiding gaffes that will forever be immortalized on the internet.
Alex, however, is no Anthony Weiner, for many reasons aside from party affiliation. He carefully monitors his online persona, going as far as to correct status updates that have an errant comma. So mostly because of his own scrupulousness, Alex has stayed out of the negative limelight. But other friends and colleagues of his haven’t been so lucky or careful. There’s the friend of his who made a negative comment about his employer, which someone from the company took a screen shot of and sent to the higher-ups. He almost lost his internship. And on more occasions that he can count, Alex has witnessed political aides send out impulsive Tweets that have been tantamount to career suicide. Alex, on the other hand, is savvy on this front and follows the cardinal rule of the social media age: people are watching you so don’t publicize your bad judgment. Alex is hyper-aware of his “invisible audience,” as media researcher Danah Boyd coined it. “I live under the pressure of ‘Don’t mess up because if I do, I’ll have thousands of Facebook friends watching.’ Everything today is magnified,” Alex said.
I met Alex on a Tuesday. That Friday he would fly to Alabama for the GOP state dinner and a fundraiser for his own campaign. “Don’t you ever just want to relax, play some ‘Call of Duty,’ and drink a few Forties?” I asked him. His breakneck schedule is intense even by the standards of aspiring politicos in Washington, DC, a city that is no stranger to Alex’s breed of extremely ambitious twentysomethings. “Yeah, it gets exhausting, but I enjoy being busy,” he said. Keeping a frenetic schedule isn’t an accident; it’s by design. Alex likes—and purposefully plans out—a schedule that borders on frenetic. Typical of this generation, he was a super-scheduled kid —his afternoons were filled with soccer practice, scuba diving lessons and SAT prep class, so what others might consider overly programmed just feels normal to Alex.
Having so many activities hasn’t triggered a nervous breakdown, at least not yet. Alex says he relishes not having a lot of down time and feeling productive. With all the media hype about the negative impacts of “the over-scheduled child,” in 2006, Joseph Mahoney of the Yale University psychology department looked into the impact of having so many extracurricular activities. Mahoney found that most of the scheduling is beneficial to kids’ well being. Why? As Alex’s experience confirms, it gives kids a sense of accomplishment, purpose and structure that many twentysomethings now seek out in their post-college life. He’s not the only one. There are bocce leagues, softball and baseball teams, pub trivia nights, and book clubs populated by legions of under-30s who are looking to fill their off-hours with grown-up after-work activities that makes it look they are trying to pad their resumes to apply to college again. But they aren’t—that’s just their idea of fun, or they don’t know how to live any other way.
When I get Alex talking about a topic he really cares about, like the CRNC, I can hold his attention for, maybe, up to ten minutes. Otherwise, our conversations start and stop by the flicker of the red light message indicator on his Blackberry. Not everyone, including some of Alex’s past girlfriends, has appreciated constantly competing with a small electronic device for his attention. “I’ve learned to leave it in the car when I go on dates,” Alex admits sheepishly. Alex may sound like just another technology-addicted, attention-deficit twentysomething. But he is on a personal crusade, and rightfully so, to avoid another stereotype that has become a favorite media trope about twentysomethings—they are entitled and lazy. “I feel like I’ve gotten where I have, wherever that might be, by hard work and dedication and being dependable. I want to be accessible. I want to be responsive.” That desire, he says, is part of the reason he is compulsive about checking his smartphones. “What happens if I miss something? What happens if someone needs something, and I’m not there?” he asked. That mindset, which used to be something reserved for firemen and emergency room doctors, is now the way of political fundraisers and hundreds of other kinds of professionals who are expected to be on duty around the clock. Defending his addiction to his Blackberry in particular, Alex said, “I can get more done in a day than people could 20 years ago. “ That’s probably true. During our meetings, I’m sure Alex raised thousands of dollars and scheduled countless lunches and dinners and possibly got entire state delegations to support his campaign.
One weekend in February 2011 Alex was on eleven flights and touched down in nine states. On the Friday, he flew to Tucson, had dinner with the chairperson of the CRNC in Arizona. He woke up on Saturday and flew to Spokane, Washington to have dinner with the Washington state chair. Then it was back to the airport, where he caught a red-eye flight to St. Paul and then another flight to Sioux Falls, South Dakota later in the morning. He had lunch in Sioux Falls with the South Dakota state chair and then flew to Portland, Oregon to have dinner with his grandfather and three of his aunts. Monday night he took his second red-eye flight back to DC and went straight to work Tuesday morning. “I’ll work this week, and then I’ll fly to Little Rock, Arkansas on Friday,” Alex said, trying to beat the fatigue with a grande mocha. “I live on these,” he explained.
If Alex has doubts about whether this is all worth it in the end, he doesn’t let them seep in too deeply. Of course he wants to win the election, but Alex also believes that it’s noble, citing Theodore Roosevelt’s desire “to be the man in the arena.” As Roosevelt said: “To be the person who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is not effort without error and shortcoming.” Alex is also a purveyor of the generational attitude that tends to value experiences over outcome. How many times has this generation heard the adage, “It matters not who won or lost, but how you played the game”? We’ve grown up learning to value the process and that even if you don’t win, everyone is a winner. If Alex loses in July, he says he won’t have any regret about all the time and money he’s spent on the campaign. “Because of the experience,” he said to me, like it was an obvious point. “That’s why it would still have been worth it.” The outcome, in some ways, is beside the point.
On weekdays, Alex is like any other 22 year-old at his first job. He’s at the bottom of the food chain, but with aspirations of working his way up. The job is an entry-level position that Alex describes as encompassing “a bit of everything.” He might accompany a member of Congress to an event, help set up a fundraiser, work on logistics, or run errands. While it’s not always the most glamorous work, Alex says he “loves” his job because he sees an end game. The drudgery is tolerable because Alex views it as a stepping-stone to something bigger—that crucial ingredient that can make the difference between hating and loving a job. Alex is luckier than most in his generation who have to conceal their after-hours job from their employers, either by blogging on the sly or sneaking out of work early to meet a tutoring client. There’s a nice symbiosis between Alex’s day job working for Gula Graham Group, a Republican political consulting firm, and campaigning to be the chairman of the CRNC. His bosses—Michael Gula and Jonathan Graham—are rooting for him to win and are accommodating of Alex’s travel schedule.
But like most entry-level jobs, it isn’t perfect. For one thing, Alex doesn’t have health insurance because he was hired as a consultant. Luckily, thanks to the new health care law that was enacted by the same president he might work very hard to unseat, Alex can stay on his parents’ health insurance until he is 26. Even though Alex was one of the lucky college graduates of the class of 2010 to get hired, he thinks he had a major handicap graduating into what economists have called a “jobless recovery.” “I think I definitely would have had more jobs offers if I graduated in more flush times, or had more lucrative opportunities,” Alex told me. As with most events, Alex sees the positive side. He says he feels lucky to get paid to do something that puts his college degree in political science to use and isn’t mind-numbingly boring.
“DC is a very different place than Auburn, Alabama.”
“I used to think I was really good at handling stress,” Alex admitted after the weekend when he touched down in nine different states. Just a few months ago, Alex thought he was juggling a lot and managing it quite well—he was president of his fraternity, state chair of the CRNC in Alabama, and looking for a job. “For the first time in my life, I felt anxiety that I would consider a high level of stress,” Alex said. While the vast majority of recent college graduates don’t run for positions in major national political organizations that involve raising tens of thousands of dollars, Alex is experiencing what is probably the most shocking part of the real world for recent college graduates: after four years of being accountable to no one, people now depend on you. You have responsibilities. There are no more extensions. What you do actually matters. Alex also feels pressure to not just be good at, but to be the best at his job. His bosses aren’t that much older than he is. There’s no reason he couldn’t be where they are in a few years if he plays his cards right.
Alex is feeling the need to achieve, and fast. For the first time in his life, he is taking stock of how he stacks up to many of his peers. At Auburn, he was the equivalent of the big man on campus. Moving to DC, Alex says, has taken him down a notch, making him question his pedigree for the first time in his life. It’s not that he isn’t incredibly proud that he went to Auburn, but he’s surrounded by lots of other impressive twentysomethings whose resumes have the same type of credentials that Alex has, but with degrees from schools like Georgetown, Princeton, and Dartmouth. “It’s a little intimidating,” Alex said about being surrounded by so many other people like him. That’s certainly a defining feature of the culture shock of entering the real world: the realization that being “special” is relative when you emerge from a very small bubble.
Alex graduated from Auburn on December 13, 2010 and moved to DC the next day. A few months later, in February, Alex had what he called a “step back moment,” when he took stock of his new life and the whirlwind of changes that had taken place since college graduation. For many recent college graduates, it’s hard to compute how much your life transforms in the months—or, in Alex’s case, days —between leaving the nest of college and starting to live like an adult. “DC is a very different place than Auburn, Alabama,” Alex said. Auburn is a small, southern college town. Alex knew the sheriff, mayor, and his state senator on a first-name basis and had all of their numbers programmed in his phone. In DC, he doesn’t even know the name of the barista at Starbucks that makes his grande mocha every day. His social circle has also dwindled. He lives in a new high rise near the Nationals’ baseball stadium a few blocks from his office on Capitol Hill with his roommate Bee, a friend from Alabama. At night, they come home and share war stories about being neophytes in the political trenches. Bee is a staffer for a Republican congressman from Alabama. Alex’s life is a far cry from term papers and frat parties.
So one night in February 2011, over a couple of beers, Bee and Alex wondered what they were doing. “It’s like you are going a billion miles a minute and the moment you stop and you realize all of these moving pieces—socially and financially things are very different than where I was a few months ago,” Alex explained. “In Alabama, if you fall flat on your face, your rent is $400 a month, whereas here it is $1,000. Here it feels like there is no room for error.” Like so many aspiring young people who come to the big cities to try to “make it,” Alex was questioning if he had what it takes. By the end of their conversation, Alex and Bee came to the conclusion, albeit a little skeptically, that they should live outside their comfort zones, at least for now. “You are only 22 and single once, so we might as well stick this out,” Alex said.
After a bout of post-graduation syndrome—that feeling of uncertainty about your future, which is about as normal as low starting salaries—some people call their parents for a pep talk. Alex called his pastor, Wren Aaron. On the phone, Alex talked to Wren about everything that was swirling through his mind that day. “There were a lot of ‘what ifs’ for me. What if I had a normal job and had stayed in Alabama to work? What if I had gotten married at 22?’” Uncertainty is one of the cornerstones of twentysomething psychology: with so many options, it’s hard not to wonder about the paths not taken and your imaginary duplicate self that could be living any of those other lives. That day, Alex was questioning whether he’d made the “right” decision. Should he have stayed in Alabama?
After the conversation, Wren and Alex prayed on the phone together and Wren offered Alex some Bible verses and reminded him how important it is to have a personal support network. “See, you try and build yourself safety nets so you never have true uncertainty,” Alex explained to me. Alex was lucky that he had Wren to call. He found reassurance at an unsettling moment in his life. I asked Alex, who is part of a shrinking group of young people who identify religiously, whether he felt sorry for people in their twenties going through the same period of flux and adjustment who don’t have their religion to fall back on. “I do. At the end of day, win or lose, hired or fired, I know there is still something bigger than me out there.”