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.”

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