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Jean Twenge knows young people.
The San Diego State professor has been a sort-of one-woman ambassador to Generation Y through her high-profile research on millennials, entitlement and how culture affects individuals. (Side note: My first big break in journalism was a Los Angeles Times op-ed written in response to some of Twenge’s research on narcissism.)
Now, Twenge is focusing on some even younger people: babies. Her recent article in The Atlantic detailing how our shared notions of fertility and age are basically outdated and irrelevant, has been called “shocking” and “jaw-dropping” for how thoroughly it decimates what we thought we collectively knew about when to have kids.
To write The Atlantic piece as well as her newest book, “The Impatient Woman’s Guide to Getting Pregnant,” Twenge had to turn the microscope on herself. She and I talked this week about what that was like.
Your latest research on fertility seems to be somewhat of a departure from your focus on the millennial generation, and began when you were trying to conceive for the first time. What was it like delving into a medical issue, as opposed to the more intangible topics you’ve focused on, like narcissism and confidence?
Looking at the medical journals meant interpreting others’ research rather than doing my own. But the statistics and methods are similar, so it made sense.
What was it like incorporating your own story into The Atlantic piece, and into your book “The Impatient Woman’s Guide to Getting Pregnant?”
When I was in college and graduate school, I wrote a first-person column for the school paper. So writing this was harking back to those days, except I was writing about having kids instead of college relationships.
You mention in your Atlantic piece that you felt pressure from articles in Time and Newsweek about a sort-of ticking clock for motherhood. The Atlantic itself has been criticized for its many cover stories on motherhood, women’s work-life balance, marriage, sex and singledom, to the point that Slate mockingly referred to “The Atlantic Guide to Womanhood.” Do you think we’ve reached a saturation point on articles about how women should live their lives?
I think The Atlantic’s past coverage of women’s issues is what made this piece a good fit. I think we’re all still trying to figure out how to balance career and family — these are complicated issues that are not going to go away anytime soon.
Some recent articles have suggested women in academia pay a heavy “baby penalty.” What’s your experience been, and is there anything you think is crucial to this conversation?
In my experience, the crucial things are 1) getting paid enough to afford full-time daycare, and 2) acceptance of working at home. If you have those two things you can (at least in my experience) be just as productive as before you had children. Lots of men and women in other fields have full-time jobs and raise children; academia should be no different.
Why do you think your research and writing is so nationally resonant?
I’ve always been drawn to topics that ordinary people like to talk about, much more than issues debated mostly by academics.
Has your research on narcissism, parenting and millennials affected how you act as a parent?
I don’t tell the kids they are “special” or a “princess.” I think it’s better to simply say “I love you” — I think that’s what most parents who say “you’re so special” mean anyway, but “I love you” is a more connected and much less narcissistic way to get that across. We also try to emphasize hard work and self-control as much as we can.