If my landlord was a human being instead of a management company and could greet me in the hallway as I return from work, panting, headphones in, she would file me away under young professional and also probably kind but withdrawn, which is fine because that's the type that pays rent on time. My building is full of us.
We start the week bleary-eyed, stumbling into Mondays with jangling keys, with shirts poorly ironed and ties dangling, casual tees and Chuck Taylors, pencil skirts and Zara blouses, flats and maybe a pair of heels in the bag. We caffeinate and pray for air-conditioning on the subway, the highway to the city's corporate life. We read or text or sleep our way to our desks in Midtown cubicles and Brooklyn lofts. We toil. We toil. We meet. We meet.
Let's touch base about...
If you have a second, I would love it if you could...
Can you look into...
I just wanted to check in and...
Can you confirm that...
I'm sorry, totally my fault...
I am attaching a...
And so on.
A young amicable immigrant in a Yankees hat probably does all our laundry for a dollar a pound but he's got machines available too, in case we are longer on time than money. He has our names and numbers committed to memory and expects a stream of hampers in the early hours of the morning. He promises to have it all washed when we finish work but before he closes at 8 p.m. Sometimes we make it and sometimes we work late. Sometimes there's a happy hour, or an event or a date.
If it's not dinner to catch up with so-and-so, then it's a pan-fried something-something with a side of greens, or maybe just Seamless. It's Netflix, a documentary. It's a protein shake or a little wine, maybe a beer. We've got to unwind, you know? In this city of 10 million people, we first discover true loneliness laid bare. And to discover others laid bare, we Tinder. We also Happn and Hinge. Our roommate tells us an app bravely called Bumble is the new big thing and we download it too -- I mean, what else are we gonna do in the bathroom? Be left to face our own thoughts? Forget it. Swipe right.
Weekends are eagerly awaited. Dinner, drinks, SnapChat, medicine in shot glasses prescribed for laughter and forgetting. Flirting, dancing, late-night dollar-a-slice, hungover brunches. Shopping, gym, a few emails. Tiny snapshots of our lives are the stuff of movies. We spend the rest of the time making it seem like that's all it ever is. If we opt out of the denial that is Sunday Funday, the last day of the weekend is usually quiet, lazy, peppered with reflections on the alchemy of time, how it was literally just Friday a second ago. The weekend's luster soon fades and there we are, starting the week bleary-eyed, stumbling into Monday with jangling keys.
This lifestyle makes us seem confident. If history's arc bends, then surely it bends towards us. We think that we are both the result of progress and on its cusp. That our hard work and our late night emails and our promptly paid off credit cards and our Manhattan leases cast us as some sort of vanguard for a civilization that trusts us with its spoils.
We probably don't have a mortgage and certainly not a car (the subway or a CitiBike will do just fine) but MacBooks and fancy clothes and $16 drinks and IRA investment accounts are our appurtenances. And yet, paradoxically, we are so damn insecure. Our extracurriculars are often exercises in self-affirmation: attempts to prove to ourselves, by proving to others, that the aunt that once described us as doing really well was right. That we are different and better. And we are, right? Right?
Magnises, a private members club, is this phenomenon writ large: it offers its perfectly young professional demographic a tucked away penthouse in which to pour a glass of wine and, according to the club's literature, network with "diverse and influential millennials". The penthouse is impressive and the platinum card that comes with it is too. There are snacks and a fully stocked bar and an unparalleled view of the city. Except that membership is surprisingly affordable -- for a reason. The wine is cheap, the cards are made in China, the furniture is sparse and the cavernous lair is unavailable anytime the hotel in which it is housed needs an event venue. But it lets us feel we belong to some global elite without paying the full price.
The same is true of the Ivy League clubs popular with our demographic. The Yale Club, like the Harvard Club and the Princeton Club, charges a very affordable fee of its younger members for a similar experience but with more mahogany and white gloves and pretension. It's like we've been conditioned to chase confidence's look, rather than its feel.
We have another, related problem. The little world we live in is reinforced by the tech start-up culture that grips the city. We are taught that technology connects us. And it does -- but, in our case, mostly to others like us. In fact, if anything, technology pushes us away from everyday interactions with those who are different from us. Why go through all the trouble of physically raising your hand to hail a yellow cab when you can virtually demand an Uber or a Lyft or a Gett for the same price? Everybody who is anybody (that is, young and financially stable) knows that yellow cabs are for tourists and old people. The Uber experience is at once highly personalized -- the driver knows your name, can see your picture, alerts you of their arrival, calls if there are delays -- and impersonal, with in-app address entry replacing clarifications of cross-streets and automatic billing obviating the need to even take out your wallet, much less count change or enter tips on stubborn touchscreens. You enter and leave quietly, classily, like some Victorian aristocrat when in fact you write passive-aggressive emails or make Pivot Tables for a living.
Similarly, FlyCleaners is offering to make obsolete the discussions of stain removal and post-wash shrinkage with the proprietor of the Laundromat across the street. With a tap of the iPhone, a van comes by and picks it up. The CitiBike app lets me rent a bike without speaking to a single human being. I can order not only gourmet, chef-prepared meals to my door but also the chef himself (seriously). Shyp, which recently raised $50 million, will send someone to literally take my package to the post office, stand in line with it and ship it off for a few bucks.
These apps have obvious advantages. I will be the first to admit that none of them are bad in themselves, many are pretty damn cool and some help in non-obvious ways. But the lamentable side effect (and, perhaps, the hidden promise) of all of these trappings taken together is to minimize contact with those who are most unlike us -- the cab drivers, the cashiers, the people in line at the post office -- and instead reroute our time and attention towards those who are most similar to us (or, worse, towards work).
We do that to our detriment. New York's beauty, and probably the key to its success, lies in its diversity. It's a cliché that is repeated so often it may have lost its meaning, especially for young professionals. Among many other things, interactions with those who are different from us, no matter how short-lived, teach us humility, ground us, soften the sharp, conceited edges of our consciousness. We forget how to be patient with someone who started learning English, with its manifest contempt for logic, at 45. And what is tedium, what is hard work if not leaving an eight-hour shift at a cash register to go mop floors at some corporate office? We swipe and swipe and tap and click and lose sight of other people, hidden, as they are, in plain sight. Humility and humanity can be learned if forgotten. We just need to look up from our screens sometimes.
We, young professionals, are an anxious, anxious group of kids. More than a decade of high-pressured test taking developed within us a compulsion to prove ourselves to ourselves and to others. When the formal tests end and life begins, we go out of our way to find other tests, to compare ourselves to our classmates, as it were, to prove our success. Those who are not in our class, we do not see. Our willful ignorance becomes easier to enforce as our lives become cushier with every new title, with every new start-up that seeks to vanquish some remaining vestige of human interaction.
Dredging up this endless escalator, our collars blindingly white, we risk building lives that are the dreams of the ambitious and unimaginative, forgettable and a little empty. Buyer, beware: there's more to youth than this.