The New Victorians

Blaming the Boomers

“There is definitely this return to tradition,” said a 27-year-old Upper West Sider named Olivia, who works for a theater nonprofit and, while not one herself, has many friends who fit the New Victorian description. “My sense of things is that the marriage phenomenon is part and parcel of a larger phenomenon, which is that young people are trying to grow up faster …. We’re trying to figure out what success means and achieve it.”

Olivia has had ample time to study this phenomenon. In the past two years, from the ages of 24 to 26, Olivia and her beau, an MBA candidate, have attended some 10 weddings—grand, traditional affairs with blushing brides and small armies of froth-draped bridesmaids. This was hardly the kind of 20’s she had imagined as a young graduate of Dalton and Skidmore, but somehow, her life has become dominated by invitations to dinner parties, kibitzing about careers (“people are really driven,” she said), discussions of real estate, and visiting the occasional friend’s country manse in the Hudson Valley or the Hamptons. Along the way, she has come to the realization that for a certain tribe of New Yorker, the whole “rebellious 20’s” phase experienced by the baby boomers (for some, well into their 50’s) is simply not part of the Plan anymore: Sure, a New Vic can be a feminist and even a committed world-changer, but she also has to have a great job, superior husband, kids, and try to save society all at once.

“We came from these boomer parents who were very free love and change-the-world and made a lot of difference, but, in order to give us the opportunities they wanted us to have, became very traditional,” said Olivia. “And because the world has changed, we’ve tried to leap to our parents’ level of success right after school, rather than trying to figure out who we are and make mistakes.”

The question of how this generation of Alex and Alexis P. Keatons came to be is a source of rich speculation among some of their perplexed generational elders. “They are trying to push the culture away from the Gen-X direction,” said William Strauss, a generation historian who has written three books on the “millennials,” people who were born in 1982 or afterwards. “There’s a push away from the edge.”

“There are some economic conditions that are driving this. These young people are confronting extraordinary college bills,” said Mr. Strauss. “So they come out of college and, they may want to do these other things, but they feel this pressure to earn and to avoid taking chances.”

For Penny Arcade, the iconic Lower East Side performance diva, however, the New Victorian is less an economic phenomenon, born of the ravages of capital, than a cultural one. It’s about the new ethos of striving and success and the cult of dining at expensive restaurants. “New York used to be filled with people who, if you got all of their collective report cards, [they’d] say, ‘Suzy or Johnny is working below their level.’ That’s who used to come to New York, because they didn’t fit into the status quo,” she said. “Now it’s only the people who fit in.”

Ms. Arcade doesn’t dither with her words. But whether this judgment is too harsh or not, there is certainly an argument to be made that the New Vics are a particularly driven breed.

From the time they were tykes, New Victorians have been bred to ace exams, master extracurricular activities, land a coveted spot at a prestigious college, and then go forth into the world, ready to achieve. “This generation has been more strategically educated than any other generation,” said Mike Sciola, the Director of the Career Resource Center at Wesleyan University.

And after all those years of rigid programming, during which they hopped from one Great Expectation to the next, these latter-day Pips apparently just can’t stop striving. “I don’t think anyone drifts for the sake of drifting anymore,” said Anya Kamenetz, 26, the Yale-educated author of Generation Debt—and grower of her own lettuce—who recently married her longtime boyfriend. “There’s much more of a purposeful zigzagging. It’s very much like, ‘I’m going to check off this list of things.’ And it might be the same things that my older brother and sister did when they were out of college, but they did it with this aimlessness and relaxation, while we do it with a sense of the life course and ‘what are you going to accomplish?’”