Have I been jilted? me + richard armitage + #LoveLoveLove + moving back home at 46
I’d been searching for a while for a way back into writing the “me” piece of this blog, so it seems as good an idea as any to start with the issue of children moving back in with parents, which has been my situation since January. I mentioned before that the script of Love, Love, Love held multiple resonances for me, but didn’t get into specifics. This post contains discussions of some of the chief themes of the play, although I still will not betray decisive plot spoilers.
Normally at this point in a post I state my argument. But this post isn’t about my position on what is to be done. It’s about resonances, and reflections, not ideology or one-to-one correspondences. I see an uninformed version of the generational battle starting already in Richard Armitage’s twitter stream (how could it be different in 140 character bursts?) and continuing or justifying the proclamation of ideological stances is not the purpose of this post. I’m not making an argument so much as trying to express why I don’t think there’s an argument to be made, why I can’t take sides. Why I think we’re all trapped in this together.
In the play, Rose, who drives the action of Act Three, when the generational conflict comes to its head, is 37 in 2011, which makes her exactly my brother’s age — five years younger than me and three years younger than Richard Armitage. We assume Armitage will play Kenneth, who had finished his first year at Oxford University in 1967 and so was potentially born around 1948, give or take a year — this character is plausibly Armitage’s parents’ age or somewhat younger. Sandra, Kenneth’s wife, is a little bit older than Kenneth.
In addition to age, I have four significant things in common with the character of Rose, and Armitage has at least two that I am aware of. So I wonder what he thinks about Rose. I didn’t know what to think. And he will be hypothetically be playing her father. Maybe that’s one reason why he’s reading that book — which seems to be about millennials — but millennials have inherited the problems the play talks about from their predecessors.
I’ll begin my own story in 1987, so I’ll start my version of Richard Armitage’s about that time, as well. Armitage began attending Pattison’s College in Coventry at the age of 14 as a weekly boarder, and left at 17 (we have spilled a lot of words over this and we think that that means spring of 1989, because he would have turned 18 that fall). In 1987 unemployment in the UK stood at 10.5 percent after a high of 12.5 percent two years earlier. Annual inflation was 8 percent. Interestingly, it was in that year that the Single Europe Act went into effect, initiating UK open access to EU markets — the “single market” that we have talked about so much lately that the UK may not want to abandon. Incontestably, Margaret Thatcher, who came into office in 1979, sparked an economic boom in the UK — for some. She did it on the backs of heavy industry, public services, children, union members, and blue-collar workers. The early to mid-80s were years of significant turmoil in the UK. Armitage has referred to his awareness of strikes and revolts in the period.
It wasn’t the best time to prepare for an artistic career — at least arguably. The Armitages were not an artistic family nor one that came from university circles (another thing we’ve spent a fair amount of time discussing). Although Armitage’s parents might not have had much in common with Kenneth and Sandra educationally, they must have shared their idea that their son should follow his passions. It would have been unlikely for Armitage to attend an institution that at the time called itself “Pattisons Dancing Academy” if not for significant desire, persistence and family sacrifice and support. He bugged his mother about it; he stuck with it; he obtained a Local Authority scholarship and at least one additional, smaller grant; she went into the work force to help manage the expense.
One imagines a lot of little extra expenses along the way. Shoes for ballet and tap; costumes; cello strings; sheet music; journeys back and forth between Coventry; headshots. Travel to watch competitions and witness performances. Preparation without knowing if it would work out. Perhaps they paid for his ticket to Budapest so he could gain enough experience to obtain an Equity membership. Armitage has said his parents were always supportive but never pushed. I wonder what they wondered, if they wondered. How it would all work out in the end. Nobody knows, when their kid starts down this path. When you’re that age, a little physical hardship bothers you less. Armitage has described his sleeping situation in the circus as less than salubrious.
I’m sharing a bedroom with a girl I don’t know, myself. It’s the fall of 1987, and I’m in my first semester at an expensive private university, paid for by merit scholarships and private grants. My parents, who are 46 when I leave home, do okay but not well enough to pay for this. Without the scholarships, I’d have gone to a state college near home. Most of my schoolmates are wealthy; their families are paying full tuition. On October 19, the U.S. stock market loses 23 percent of its value. A new friend’s roommate doesn’t return after the winter break and doesn’t tell anyone. His dad, a Texas oil “name,” can’t afford it anymore, and he was too embarrassed to say. The quick recovery from Black Monday is fueled by another bubble related to speculative investments by savings & loan associations intended to help them out of the whole created by the Fed’s early 1980s rate increases. When it bursts, along with the junk bond market, on October 13, 1989, I am a junior. Luckily, my expenses are paid by an endowment that isn’t hit too badly and by a donor family in Ohio. But next January, two close friends are absent. Their parents are realtors — further down the financial food chain, but the S&L collapse destroys the Texas real estate market. This time, the resulting bear market and recession will last five years.
It’s April or May of 1989 when I read the first editorial in a national newspaper (I was in a politics class that term that required us to read three national newspapers per week) asserting that recent college graduates are not getting jobs because they are spoiled and lazy. On top of my scholarships, I’ve worked part-time and temped all the way through undergrad. There are spoiled people in every generation, but they don’t seem any more numerous here than elsewhere. It’s puzzling.
Whatever else he may be, my contemporary Richard Armitage is not lazy. Well, apart from that little break to dance to Gloria Estefan in the summer with his friends. While I’m finishing university, he’s continuing to train, taking odd jobs to keep himself afloat, and trying out for work in musicals. UK unemployment falls to a period low in 1989, so he must be able to earn enough bread to put in his mouth, although one imagines occasional or episodic parental assistance — at one point he refers to driving his father’s abandoned Citröen for years, with his father fixing it for him. He’s too tall, but he sticks with it, with the encouragement of professionals like Gillian Lynne, who urge him to strive for more. He gets a decent number of roles; he gets cast in a Sarah Brightman video. He’s dissatisfied and is beginning to look for non-musical acting roles. One wonders how he navigates the recession years in the early 1990s — this reduces demand for musical theater. One imagines he becomes skilled at saving his pence. I wonder what he wonders about his future, in between the running around to classes and dancing on stage and auditioning. Thinking about going to Paris to the Lecoq school. Not going.
Are UK editorialists as eager to blame Gen Xers for the economy as American ones? Somehow I imagine Armitage doesn’t have time to read them. I wonder what his parents think. I wonder what they say to him about his choices.
Rose in Love, Love, Love is sixteen in 1990, when she takes the drastic action on her birthday that ends Act Two. Presumably, she finishes school in 1992.
I finish university on time in 1991; the scholarship expires after eight semesters so I have no choice. I apply to grad school in both Spanish and history, because I feel I haven’t had enough learning yet. My parents — who, like Armitage’s, support me doing something that makes me happy — don’t understand why I am not studying to be a teacher or a nurse, but it’s okay with them if I go to graduate school as long as they don’t have to pay and “there’s a job at the end of it.” Fellow students tell me I’m lucky not to be looking for work on the depressed job market. It’s common knowledge that it’s a good idea to spend recessions in school, because the opportunity cost of not working is much lower. Uncertain couples get over their indecision and make plans to get married: “At least we’ll have something to count on.” It’s also a hedge against the possibility of having to move back home, unemployed. Nobody wants to regress. Nobody wants to disappoint their parents.
The week I get the fellowship offer, the national newsletter of my future profession publishes an article about university faculty retirements: prospects for history professors look bright as so many retirements are coming up after the mid-90s, just when I should be finishing. In November of 1991, after I enter, I see a front page article in the student newspaper: Arts & Sciences to eliminate at least 79 faculty positions. But don’t worry! Elimination will be done by attrition. I’m committed now, I think. And shake my head. Plus most of my fellow college graduates are still unemployed, except for the teachers.
Also in 1991, the term “slacker” re-enters the popular discourse with a film by Richard Linklater. In the same year, my age cohort is described for the first time as Generation X. I read that my fellows and I as an aggregate are lazy, aimless, unfocused, self-involved, unwilling to grow up, not serious. “Well, not you,” older people tell me when they complain about “kids today” — “present company excepted,” they joke, “you do work really hard.” Kurt Cobain, two years older than me, releases “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that year, the anthem of Gen X disenchantment. It hits 6 on the U.S. Billboard Top 100 and 1 on the alternative charts. Unemployment in the U.S. from that recession will reach its apex at 7.5 percent in 1992 — an important contributor to George H.W. Bush’s loss to Bill Clinton. “It’s the economy, stupid,” is the omnipresent mantra to explain the unseating of the incumbent. The economy is enough to change a U.S. administration, but not, apparently, a sufficient reason to keep young people out of work. It’s still our fault, as I read every six months or so, that Gen X is not fully employed.
In 1994 — with the recession still overhead, but still in graduate school, where I am spending fifty hours a week developing the knowledge and skills I’ll need to navigate my professional life — I see Reality Bites. One of the major plot lines is the generational conflict: parents who have abandoned their children emotionally or who drastically misunderstand the current circumstances tell them toughen up and grow up. I’m amused by some of the problems these characters experience — they are chronologically one or two years younger than I am and graduates of my alma mater’s major competitor institution, so they are certainly privileged — but I find myself nodding my head.
A week later, the local paper’s film critic has seen the film and takes up several column inches with his outrage about the spoiled, lazy, entitled characters, in whom he finds nothing sympathetic. By the fall of that year, at the age of twenty-five, I’m teaching my first university classes. My students seems to have most of the same problems I do. I don’t think we’re unsympathetic. I think we’re struggling. I’m hoping things will change, but most of the time, like my students, I am just too busy keeping my head above water. I’m paid to study and teach full time and I do not take work in violation of my agreement to concentrate on my preparation. There’s a bit of a stick: the fellowships I have require me to meet a particular timeline for intermediate points of my degree or lose the money. “We’re not funding slackers here!” the graduate director tells us every fall at our orientation meeting. I’m lucky, though; most of my unfunded cohort has to work at least part time in an unrelated job. Some have children. Anyone who isn’t teaching has no health insurance.
Richard Armitage has the NHS. Just as unemployment rates drop in 1996, he auditions for and enrolls in LAMDA. He pays the expenses with money made from touring with CATS in 1994-5. He spends 1996-8 in drama school, apparently eking out his budget over Christmas by playing the Genie of the Flame in seasonal panto. While at LAMDA, he’s even in a play about unemployment: Manfred Karge’s The Conquest of the South Pole.
Rose gets a degree, in about 1995/6; we don’t know what she studied; although she tells us in the play “there were no jobs,” history tells us that she hits the UK job market at a relatively opportune moment, with roughly 6 percent unemployment one of the better job markets in her lifetime. It sounds from the play script as if her father — who himself had had a grant — paid her tuition. In any case, she pursues a career as a musician and moves to London, as her brother Jamie notes in the play, a notoriously expensive city. She’ll have had to save to get along.
Playing unemployment is good preparation for Armitage, because graduation brings him some small roles but nothing big for a period, until he successfully auditions to join the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1999.
I looked up the people Armitage was in CATS with a few years ago. Most had left musical theater and turned either to teaching dance or stage roles. One had left the business entirely. The move to the stage probably increases his longevity, the RSC is good for Armitage’s CV, and it puts him in an important production of Macbeth that tours internationally, but he leaves it without a major role and after one contract. Perhaps it isn’t renewed? Perhaps he is restless — wanting something else after his spate of sword-carrying with serious audiences? Or perhaps he realizes that to headline a stage production he needs to build a reputation in television or film? Persistent, Armitage starts from the bottom again in television roles — soap operas, second-list dramas. In any case, he seems to be working much more, but in very still places. He leaves the RSC in 2001; it will be four years until he appears in North & South. Acting, like academia, is a bit of a niche market.
Just as Armitage finishes at LAMDA, I finish my PhD. I move back home for the first time in May of 1998. I’ve finished my degree, but not found a job. Despite applying for everything out there, including positions at Pentecostal colleges that won’t consider me because I’m not a Christian, I get only three on-campus interviews; none are successful. Most employers want people with PhD in hand, and I’ve finished mine only in May, so applications submitted in the previous November say “expected” rather than “awarded.” I’ve been scraping for some time financially. After seven years of fellowship and three years of living in Germany, I’m living on a single adjunct contract and paying my rent by house-sitting, driving a fifteen year old car that my parents were planning to junk, and calling alumni of my university asking them to make donations for an hourly rate that rises if some of them actually give. It doesn’t make sense to live in any setting where I have to pay rent.
At home, it’s a bit of a struggle, to move back in after so long away, but I’m not often home anyway. I temp all day as a paralegal, but in order not to allow a hole in my academic resumé, I teach nine hours of English composition at night at a community college, which also gives me health insurance. It covers the expenses of working, anyway, and keeping my resume free of holes.
My parents are confused, because national unemployment in 1998 is only 4.5 percent and it’s lower in our region. In the U.S., this is vanishingly close to full employment. Why shouldn’t I be able to get a full-time job? They don’t really buy the notion that academia is a niche market with different rules. My father tells me to just get a “regular job” or “teach in a school” (although the degrees I have don’t qualify me for a teaching license), and doesn’t understand why I need to get academic experience.
Luckily for the child / parental relationship, a German institution comes across with a fellowship. In that year’s job market, I apply for seventy jobs, have eight interviews, and end up with one full time tenure track job offer. I’ve put my foot on the first rung. I learn later that there were 127 applicants for the position. Of the seven students whom I started with my doctoral advisor in 1991, of whom four received a PhD, I am the only one who will ever occupy a tenure track position. Due to the mid-1990s economic growth and extremely friendly lending practices, most of my college friends now own homes (or rather, have mortgages) and have children. I don’t want to reproduce. At the age at which my parents — neither of them a university graduate — bought their first house, I am finally able to rent an one-bedroom apartment I don’t have to share with anyone. I move into it largely without furniture. When I leave this job after two years, at the age of 31, in order to pursue a more prestigious opportunity, I lose two years of retirement contributions the state has made on my behalf. “You’ll catch up easily,” people tell me. “Not to worry.”
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Richard Armitage, Rose, and I are all doing the same thing — Armitage and Rose are even doing it in the same city: aggressively pursuing careers which are also our passions. It seems from our energy levels that despite being lazy Gen Xers, we are all putting quite a bit of effort into it.
Armitage goes from strength to strength, or so it seems. After North & South, he headlines two BBC series. In 2005, he starts making private pension contributions. In 2006, at the age of 35, he buys his first house, in the overheated London real estate market.
Rose struggles and makes a go of it, just, but “misses her chance” to have children or get on the property ladder. She still shares her flat. Her romantic partner leaves her. She piles up unsecured debt.
In 2001, at the age of 32, I switch jobs, to a position for which over 300 people applied. I now have a job that pays enough to allow me to make retirement contributions. I’m still driving the abandoned junker, but in 2008, I scrape together the down payment for a good used car — just as the U.S. economy goes into free fall. I am denied tenure in the fall of 2009, an outcome that is primarily my fault, but exacerbated by the lousy economic situation. I’m not surprised when it happens; the writing has been on the wall since 2005. I’m better at my job than Rose seems to have been at hers, but years of lengthy weeks with few breaks and high stress at work means I am losing energy. I already know I won’t be able to retire — I started saving too late and know I won’t catch up no matter what I do — and I don’t see how I can keep the pace up for the rest of my life.
In 2011, I leave my last tenure-track position. The academic job market is so bad that the subsquent job search is the most competitive job search I’ve ever been involved in, with approaching 400 applicants. In the new position, my income drops by $10,000 per year, but paradoxically my financial situation as a visiting professor improves — moving to a cheaper city, not having to finance expensive research and visits to my partner in Europe, and not needing therapy all help. I still have debt, but for the first time in life — at 42! — I also have six months of savings. The problem is that the position is term-limited and I know I will not have the energy to continue as a professor.
In 2011, Richard Armitage begins filming The Hobbit — the biggest professional and monetary achievement of his career. He is rumored to receive $2 million total for The Hobbit and Captain America.
And also in 2011, Rose, after a horrible birthday that’s like an epiphany about everything that’s gone less than optimally in her life, journeys to visit her parents, confront them, and demand their help. At that visit, she confirms that her brother, two years younger, still lives with her father. In a brutal exchange, she outlines to Kenneth and Sandra everything they did wrong and for which she holds them responsible. The play ends in the collision of two apparently incompatible worldviews: that of the babyboomer parents who think they did everything for their children, who rather than being grateful, simply want more and whine when they should be working, and that of the Gen X child who has noticed just how many opportunities her parents had that were never open to her, eliminated by Thatcherism, economic downturns, privatization, and the somewhat clueless attitudes of the boomers.
I just reread Act Three and I wonder what happens to audiences who see this play. To me, both perspectives are presented in their rational and irrational moments — if Rose sounds spoiled and entitled, she’s not wrong about the structural situation in which she finds herself; if Kenneth and Sandra are correct that Rose expects something from them that is off the map, at the same time, they give ample evidence throughout the play of having committed exactly the sins she charges them with and more.
I would never make the demand that Rose makes of her parents. Of this, more below. Still, both characters say things I have actually heard. Rose points out to Kenneth that the economic opportunity he had was not available to her. Kenneth brags about his retirement income after his daughter makes clear to him how poor she is. Or we say similar things. I have pointed out to my father repeatedly that real wages have been in decline for some time. Friends of my father’s have recently told me that “my problem” is that I never saved — my generation had to have new houses and new cars and replace them immediately. “I’ve never owned a house,” I told them, “and I’ve purchased exactly one used car. I inherited every other one I’ve had and they were all a decade old or more when I got them.” The woman in the couple smiled and patted my hand.
This is the thing that the end of the play makes incredibly clear — that just as in our living room, these arguments just fly by the characters whom they are supposed to impress most. Everyone has his own picture of how the world was for him and is now and what that means and no one wants to consider how to alleviate the actual misery the others are experiencing.
Everyone, not just in the play, but also on the planet, wants to turn the situation into a failure of personal morality somehow. That’s not what it is. I don’t know what it is. But whatever we’re experiencing now, it’s not only about bad parenting or lazy children. Just as the successes of the past weren’t only about great parenting and industrious children. Individuals have made mistakes, they have been more or less responsible and accountable. But we can’t talk about generations in this way without tearing our social fabric apart.
My income dropped further after 2014 with the change to the job as academic advisor — by another $10,000 per year — even though the new job still required an advanced degree for appointment. From 2011 to 2014, then, I took slightly more than a 30 percent pay cut. My cushion of six months of savings evaporated on everyday expenses — car repairs, clothing, the air conditioning that one has to have in Florida. Public employee salaries were not rising, despite the falling unemployment rate. My lease renewal was going to price me out of an apartment any closer than a half hour commute from my workplace. I hadn’t ever had Internet at home; I stopped eating meat; I couldn’t afford the six months’ price for my car insurance any longer. After fourteen months of that job, $600 stood between me and catastrophe. I was working fifty hours a week and felt more vulnerable than I had in a decade and a half.
There’s a new Gen X now, though, and they’re called the millennials and every week I read another article, on Facebook, because we have the Internet now, about how they are lazy and don’t know how to work independently. The so-called “trophy generation” allegedly expects to be praised constantly and their helicopter parents will intervene to smooth the way for them. They don’t want to be confronted with ideas that disturb them. Flashbacks to the 1980s. But part of academic advising involved actually listening to the students. Future history teachers were borrowing $30,000 to finish a degree to get a position for which the starting annual salary was $37,000. If they could, they lived at home — but most were sharing expenses and chores with their parents rather than living in luxury for free. The average student was working at least 27 hours per week in a service industry job. They constantly ran into problems with course readings because they couldn’t afford to buy all the books at the beginning of the term.
And yes, they also did stupid things. They wasted money; they failed classes for stupid reasons; they drank on weekends; they slept through work; they played video games when they should have been studying. All the things that every generation of university students has ever done.
I couldn’t hack it. I admit it. I thought it was important and according to my evaluations I was extremely good at it, and I did it with enthusiasm, but I could see the day coming when I couldn’t listen to one more story. Because mixed in with the wonderful things these students did, and their sillinesses, were the date rape stories and the grade forgiveness petitions and the day long fights to get the registrar to listen to the business office and the mediating of professor / student problems and the veterans who shook with PTSD and the ones who couldn’t sit in my office for more than ten minutes because HIV prophylaxis was making them vomit — and all of the students who invaded my dreams. Not their fault. Mine.
So, at 46, the age my mother was when I left home, I moved back in with my father. Other matters contributed to that — he needs help in the house and doesn’t want a stranger here; he’s lonely for company and he won’t ever be able to share a residence with Flower, who’s a chain smoker; someone younger needs to try to keep with the yard; some needs to make sure there is healthy food in the fridge; someone else needs to be clearing the snow from the steps in the morning. My father is not like Kenneth in decisive ways — he has lived through an incredibly prosperous period of history and he is willing to share.
So it’s a generational compact of some sorts. Not that unusual, historically — intergenerational living was extremely common in the West well into the twentieth century and still is in many parts of the world. I’ve moved into the basement and after six months of part time work, I’m now looking for something full time. I’ll keep house and hang out with my father and snip away at the shrubs while I figure out what happens next. Not paying for housing allows me to rebuild my cushion. And yes, there’s a creature comfort level here; television, big rooms, a better kitchen — but at the same time, things rub at me occasionally. The way I’m turning into my mother. The autonomy I’ve lost. The fact that I have to tell dad where I am at all times or ask if I want to have someone over.
I wish I had had the skill with which Armitage has navigated his life, although I think he has also had a great deal of good fortune. Maybe he wishes he had had more, though. Like Rose, I could have done things differently. I could have pursued a different career, one much less demanding or more lucrative, one that demanded less financial investment of my own salary to advance. I could have avoided getting romantically involved in Germany, which was expensive. But I haven’t led a profligate life; I have worked hard; I tried to do what I was told I was supposed to do and the vast majority of the time I accomplished it, too. I didn’t choose the period of history I’ve lived in. I don’t begrudge my father anything he has or blame him for the success he and his generation had. I accept that my choices are my own responsibility. I agree that accountability and responsibility are important things to practice. If I am stunned by Kenneth’s blindness, nonetheless I don’t sympathize with the more egregious moments of Rose’s entitlement.
But I think we all have to accept that history has turned out differently than we expected it would — and that that outcome is all of our problem. Not just the greedy, thoughtless boomers. Not just spoiled, entitled Generation X. No one can fix it alone. We all live in this world together. We are all accountable for it.