Bedford, New Hampshire
Tyler York lives in a comfortable space above a three-car garage. He has his own entrance and kitchenette stocked with Capri Sun and frozen bagels. There's a queen-sized bed, a plush leather couch and a large, flat-screen TV. The land around the house is wooded with old oaks and maples, and the yard is curated by the former president of the local garden club. There's an in-ground pool out back with an HGTV-inspired slide.
It's a great life, and none of it belongs to him.
His actual possessions, the ones he would take if he moved, could fit in the trunk of his 1998 Volvo: his clothes, a half-dozen pairs of shoes, a laptop, a tennis racket, a few baseball bats, a gun that belonged to his grandfather, cheap sunglasses, a bottle of Yves Saint Laurent cologne.
He has three part-time jobs, none of which require regular hours in an office, most of which can be juggled from the couch. Tyler is not beholden to a cubicle, to clutter, an apartment lease or plans for next Tuesday night.
"I'm still kind of in that process of experimenting," he says, wondering "which avenue is the proper one to go down."
He could be talking about work, where to live, life itself: "I don't want to jump into something and have that be, like, a tie-down."
He is lucky, he knows. The garage apartment is attached to his parents' house. The gardener is his mom. In exchange for chores, his parents do not ask for rent or demand he find his own health insurance. They tell him they love him every day. He's fit and tan from hours of golf and tennis, every short sun-bleached-brown hair in place. He gets along with his brothers. His girlfriend is adorable. His car is reliable. His debt is paid off.
If there's a complaint from him -- and really, there's not -- it's that the wireless Internet connection doesn't reach the pool.
Still, this is not how he pictured life at 25. Like a lot of millennials, he once saw a clear track: college, career, home, family. Job plans were derailed by the economy, but even as full-time opportunities arose, Tyler turned away from that path. In a noisy, crowded, competitive life, he discovered a quiet moment between youth and adulthood and decided to linger.
This pause could last another few months, maybe another year. Not forever. He allows he might want the apartment and the office job someday, or even soon. He's not sure about the rest.
Sometimes, he gets in the car for long drives to nowhere in particular. Once he might have considered it a waste of time, but lately he thinks he gets a lot done when he lets his mind drift: work, his little brother's college decision, his friends' money worries, politics, the world, right and wrong, what's next.
"What's going on?" he wonders. "Am I really happy?"
In November, for the second time since he's been eligible to vote, he will walk into the booth as an Independent and cast a ballot for president. His political opinions rock and sway as he learns more; he's not enthused by Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, but he feels an obligation to make an educated choice.
Simply by growing up in New Hampshire, Tyler soaked in the politics of its swing-state status and precious early primary. It holds only four electoral votes, but campaigns know they can put competitors on defense here. Obama won New Hampshire in 2008, but Romney is a friendly face, a former governor of neighboring Massachusetts who owns a vacation home on Lake Winnipesaukee, about 60 miles from Tyler's parents' house.
This election season, like all the others, diners and churches are crammed with candidates and their surrogates. Political signs skewer every corner. Rally traffic is terrible. TV, unwatchable. Tyler's parents' land line will ring for weeks with pollsters collecting more of those famously independent New Hampshire opinions.
Candidates are fighting for voters like Tyler. He's a millennial who doesn't always know what he believes but remains confident the country can be better. In New Hampshire, people younger than 30 turn out in high numbers almost every Election Day, according to the nonpartisan Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
Young voters boosted Obama's win in 2008, and both campaigns are chasing them now. They're on college campuses to talk up affordable education. Romney is hoping Paul Ryan, a 42-year-old Gen-Xer, will inspire young people. Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, a major issue for many millennials.
Back in 2008, Obama had Tyler's vote. Not anymore, or at least, not yet. Tyler was in college then, caught up in a hopeful narrative. He believed Obama was serious about cutting out the partisan wrangling that gridlocks Washington and divides the country, but he's seen no change. He's disillusioned, but distrustful of the Republican option, too. He saw one version of Romney across the state line but sees a different man on the campaign trail now. To Tyler, Romney never seemed like a guy who wanted to hear other people's perspectives. In the New Hampshire primary, which Romney decisively won, Tyler voted for Jon Huntsman.
Still unburdened by the stuff of adulthood, weighing what it means to lead a good life, this might be the first big choice Tyler makes.
He doesn't believe his indecision stems from youth, naïveté or ignorance. He thinks people favor parties, incumbents or familiar faces because they're too overwhelmed to ask important questions of the candidates -- and themselves.
"People settle for it to be easier," he says.
Tyler is deciding he doesn't want to live that way. He is coming to believe this uncertainty is how it's supposed to work, that none of those choices are meant to be easy.
Tyler has lived in his parents' cream-colored colonial most of his life. He was just a few weeks old when the York family moved to this cul-de-sac in the Manchester suburb of Bedford.
His parents, Gail and Don, had been high school sweethearts in Manchester, about an hour's drive from Boston. They saved for a house before they married, saved for babies before they were pregnant and saved for college once they were expecting.
"I feel like we were more grown up sooner, in a way," Gail York says. "We were very diligent, and kind of disciplined, kind of ready to take on responsibility."
When they were growing up, downtown Manchester was an exciting place to be. Along the river, giant red brick mills, "skyscrapers on their sides," were packed with workers making Pandora sweaters and tennis shoes.
Even as textile manufacturing disappeared and the mills emptied, the Yorks never considered moving too far. Bedford, a wealthy and growing suburb, was the perfect place to raise kids. The community was familiar and close to mountains, beaches, big cities and the little athletics store they ran together.
For more than 30 years, they've owned Indian Head Athletics and the embroidery and screenprinting business in the basement below. The store's wood-paneled walls are crammed with baseball gloves, Little League bats and sweatshirts for the Manchester West High School Blue Knights, Goffstown Grizzlies or Memorial Crusaders. Every order is handwritten by the store's employees, and each of Gail and Don's five boys worked there for a summer or two.
All the York boys were athletes, tall guys with dark hair, younger versions of their father. The rules of the field -- sportsmanship, competition, teamwork -- still course through their lives. Tyler learned early on that natural talent doesn't matter without work. Once, when he was a kid running on the football field, his mom told him he didn't look like he was putting in much effort. A petite woman with long hair, she dared him to a race in the backyard -- and won. He decided after that to at least try, always.
He played baseball, soccer, basketball and his favorite, football. He picked up lacrosse just for fun, and worked as a lifeguard at a neighboring community pool. He was captain of the football team at Manchester West, like two of his brothers before him, just like his dad was at Manchester Memorial High.
On the field, he motivated the guys and called the defensive plays. He liked setting the tone for the team, an outlook he thinks could apply to politics, business or his weekend flag football league: Talk trash, but don't dismiss your opponent.
"You still want to bury 'em, but you respect that they're giving you a challenge," Tyler says. "I'd much rather play someone who's beating me every time than someone I continually beat all the time. When you do win, it's that much more a feeling."
A major blow came his sophomore year of high school when he tore his hamstring in three places during a scrimmage. He sat out most of the season, his first on the varsity squad. To stay close to his team, he went to every practice and game and spent hours in the weight room with athletic trainers, trying to maintain strength and avoid more injuries. Under their care, he realized he might have found his next step.
As he began to think about college, he zeroed in on athletic training as a major, but there was something else to consider: His parents wouldn't allow him to go more than a few hours' drive from home. The rule was the same from the first York boy to the last. With a 17-year span between their sons, Gail and Don didn't want them to grow up strangers. They expected them to be at each other's big games and birthday parties, to return home for weekend get-togethers. If they instilled the habit of staying close while they were young, the parents thought, maybe they'd stick around when they were older, too.
Tyler decided on Plymouth State University, his dad's alma mater and home to a competitive athletic training program.
"The day he left, I'm not gonna lie, we all cried," says Dylan, the youngest York brother, who was 11 when Tyler headed to college and the last one still living at home. "It was definitely different to get used to. I was always by him. We'd literally spend all day together. We'd go play catch, go watch TV. When his friends would come over, I would try to hang out with them, and he always let me. I don't think he ever really kicked me out."
Like his parents hoped, Tyler came home often during college: Friends, a girlfriend, his grandfather's last years all drew him back to Bedford. But he had been one of a few accepted into the athletic training major, and the coursework was rigorous. He had summer jobs fitting casts for broken limbs and school-year training gigs with soccer, lacrosse and football teams. His friends and college roommate describe him as focused but friendly, a guy who could talk to anybody. "A professional wingman," one friend said.
He graduated in four years, in May 2009, just as the dust was settling from the imploded job market.
Tyler shows up a bit late to his little nieces' pirate-themed birthday party.
They've already moved on from eye patches and stick-on beards to heart-star-glitter-covered bathing suits. Still, they fall into giggly, shrieking fits when Tyler arrives with his girlfriend, Emily Getto. She's tall and slim with long, soft waves in her hair and a knack for vintage style. She works for Panera Bread in Boston -- she was on a poster promoting the store this year -- but her degree, and dreams, are in fashion design. Her voice is high and sing-songy, like a Disney princess, and she crouches to make eye contact when talking to the little girls. It's the kind of thing that makes the whole family love her.
All the family is here -- the aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents wearing skull-and-crossbones hats, sipping beer from koozied bottles and keeping a watchful eye as the girls leap into the wading pool behind Tyler's brother Evan's house. If not for the tricorn hats, this could be any weekend; the kids and grandkids often spend sunny afternoons together by Don and Gail's pool, or at each other's houses. The York brothers and their ever-expanding passel of children all live nearby, in a radius even tighter than their parents set for college. The oldest is 35 and lives in the house his mother grew up in.
Tyler bends down to play the "high-five game" with his niece. He holds up a hand, then yanks it away as she tries to smack it. If she's quick enough, she wins.
She misses. "Be better." Again. "Be better." Again. "Be better."
She reaches to take his hand and stop the game. "No," he says, "Be better." She laughs.
Later, with the two nieces blissed out on gifts of unicorn slippers and princess skates (the sisters were born around the same time, two years apart) the York brothers' attention shifts to the high school football schedule. Dylan's team lost in last year's state championship, a painful end his older brothers can commiserate with from their own time on the field. They'll be at Dylan's games this year, and maybe next year, too. He's a senior at Bedford High School, the team captain and the most gifted athlete among the brothers; it's no surprise that colleges are calling.
"There was a time when you older boys were in as good a shape as your little brother," Don York jokes, a quick swipe at the egos of his older sons.
Tyler, once voted "best looking" by his high school classmates, tries correcting his dad: "Brothers! Brothers!" he insists, emphasizing the plural. When it comes to fitness, he'd rather be compared to his athletic younger brother than his older siblings.
Kyle, the middle brother at 29, jabs back: "There was a time we had jobs, too."
"I have a job," Dylan reminds them, lest they forget he's staying in shape and holding down a few hours at Indian Head after football practice most days.
Tyler lets it drop. They all know he has a job too. Three, actually. His older brothers may tease, but they're the ones who helped him pull the work together.
Tyler was up for an athletic trainer job while he was still in college, but it evaporated. By the time he graduated, he didn't have another one lined up -- nor had he passed the exam to become a certified professional. He thought the four-hour, typed test was "a joke and a half," an absurd way to measure a hands-on profession. He failed on his first try.
His parents were happy he wanted to move into the little apartment above their garage; it meant he'd be around more during his youngest brother's last years of high school. But they worried he was too willing to stay up late, sleep in, snack on leftovers, hang out poolside and spend his savings on overseas trips. They wanted him to at least attempt to find a job in the field he'd studied.
"He was floundering," Gail York says. "He'd be watching TV or playing a video game or something like that. He wanted to travel. You want them to do those things, but … you want them to recognize that's not real.
"Someone bought the chicken. Someone is paying for the propane for the pool. It's not really a free ride."
He failed a second time but was already making other plans. In college, he'd started planning and promoting charity benefits around Manchester, and that work was starting to draw clients and a little income.
After re-reading textbooks front-to-back, he passed the exam on his third try. His parents were relieved, but he was nonplussed. Athletic training had become more a profession of paperwork than passion. Passing the test was not a satisfying win.
"I almost felt, like, defeated," Tyler says. "That was really strange for me."
It seemed like everyone else was marching through life's milestones: His friends and brothers were settling into marketing or engineering careers, jobs that absorbed them 10 or 12 hours a day. They were buying houses, finishing advanced degrees and having babies. Wedding invitations were showing up in the mail. Occasionally, there were funerals for people he knew, or their parents.
He played the game as best he could. In fall 2010, he landed a one-year gig as an athletic trainer and teacher at a boarding school an hour away, and he commuted there and back from his parents' house. He liked the students but realized he wasn't aching for that type of job. He watched a documentary online, "Lemonade," about career climbers who'd been laid off in the recession and used the time to rediscover their passion through art, yoga, parenting, coffee roasting, running a small business -- even changing genders.
Tyler went on long drives or stared at his bedroom ceiling: Was he too young for a second career?
When the boarding school asked him back, he thought fondly of the kids and the classes, of maybe getting to use the athletic training education his parents' planning had paid for. He was tempted by a reliable income and benefits, by getting his own place and starting a life away from home. It seemed like a job he could grow into and enjoy for a long time to come.
He turned it down.
"I don't necessarily need to have a full-time job," he says now. "It's part of that system. You work hard to get good grades, get a job. Your life is almost planned from when you're born."
Instead, he pieced together part-time work producing videos and managing interns for his brother's marketing firm; guiding the speaking and writing career of a friend, an African refugee; and managing a music- and brand-marketing site his brothers helped launch, 1 band 1 brand. He works from home, from the marketing agency office, and from a shared workspace for tech startups in Manchester.
In each role, he feels like he's learning something new, like an apprentice with flexible hours. He's meeting all kinds of new people and generating new ideas. He likes being able to grab a bagel from his parents' fridge between Skype meetings, and to talk business with his brothers over birthday cupcakes.
As the party for his nieces winds down, the little girls turn their attention to one of Uncle Tyler's presents: Silly String. His sisters-in-law hate the stuff, but he brings it to every birthday anyway. Tyler chases his nieces around the yard, lines of goo trailing behind them, wrapping their ankles and streaking their hair.
Here's a choice made: He's willing to work hard, to take risks, to learn more. But he never wants to miss a Silly String battle because he was too busy talking about a job.
One morning this summer, Tyler hangs out in his brother Kyle's office at Dyn Inc., a tech company in downtown Manchester. A whiteboard covered in notes and calculations fills most of one wall. Above the board, a sign reads "Welcome to New Hampshire -- Live free or die." Kyle is the company's chief revenue officer. He's married, and their first child, a boy, is due in a few weeks. They recently bought a home in Bedford, close to Don and Gail's.
Kyle travels a lot, spends hours on e-mail and Twitter every day, and the company is taking off. Dyn employs about 160 people and operates from a 30,000-square-foot space in one of Manchester's old mills; it's filled with desks and conference rooms -- and a rock-climbing wall, a stage where bands sometimes play, a comfortable room for breast-feeding moms, and, behind that, a hangout space with a well-stocked bar. The median age is 34.
Between Kyle's meetings, the brothers debate who would make a better president: Matt Damon or George Clooney?
It's a joke, although the brothers agree the actors seem like passionate guys who care about the world and know how to command a room.
"What is the role of the president?" asks Adam Coughlin, a childhood friend of the Yorks who works with Kyle. "The CEO of the country? The ambassador of the country?"
"First and foremost," Tyler says, "he's the leader of the country. He's in the position to lead."
"What's leadership?" Kyle asks.
"It's people flocking and encouraged around what you're doing," Tyler says. "Motivation. You inspire."
Tyler can rattle off a quick opinion on almost any issue in the news. He thinks we should rework education and job training entirely, move away from using coal for energy and give women complete, unbiased medical information if they have an unexpected pregnancy. He's fine with paying taxes but wants the money spent wisely on libraries, fire departments and schools. He does not like public money to be funneled to boondoggles, like, he thinks, Boston's Big Dig. After all that time and money, he doesn't understand why it still needs fixing, or why he sits in traffic for hours to visit his girlfriend at her apartment near Fenway Park.
None of those issues are likely to decide his vote. He would back a candidate he disagreed with if he thought the person could make people work together, he says. Tyler thinks all elected leaders -- not just the president -- should cooperate to help the country grow. He might not like some of their decisions, but he respects the process.
"Being a voter, you just want to see progress, and there really hasn't been for how many years now?" Tyler says. "If you have a strong argument supporting your opinion that's different than mine, I'm more than willing to have that conversation with you. I want to talk, I want to understand why you think that way. It could change my mind … but I won't know unless I have that conversation."
He thinks his vote will be decided by watching Romney and Obama debate. It's the ultimate test of whether they're listening to each other, he says. During primary season, Tyler was sold on Huntsman after watching him in a Lincoln-Douglas-style debate with Newt Gingrich. The former House speaker seemed like a loose cannon, he says, but Huntsman seemed like a smart guy who wanted to connect.
Tyler does not like to feel played. He does not want to be appeased. He doesn't want candidates to say what they think voters want to hear.
He doesn't want candidates to tailor their policies to him, his family, his situation, his state.
Of course he doesn't want his friends or family or anyone else to struggle or be at a disadvantage, he says, but he doesn't think that'll happen if politicians will stop being stubborn and start working together.
"It might be naïve, but it's sort of what my vision is," Tyler says.
"Typical millennial," Kyle says.
Millennials are the generation born between 1981 and 2000, the first to come of age since the turn of the century, the Pew Research Center says. The oldest have just crested 30; the youngest are in middle school. The majority are white, although it's the smallest majority of any generation as the Hispanic and African-American populations grow. Millennials text, Facebook, tweet, YouTube. They trust the wisdom of their parents, teachers and government, but fewer attach themselves to religion. Politically, they are more progressive. Those who are old enough to vote often do.
Kyle, the middle brother, is a millennial. So is the youngest, Dylan. They, too, are undecided voters. Dylan was a few days shy of 18 this summer when it first occurred to him he'd be able to vote this November.
Because of their ages, they'll be lumped in with Tyler, but he is the stereotype: The one who moved to his parents' house after college. The one who got his oldest buddies together to smack a tennis ball around a Little League field in a weekly game they call "tennis baseball." The one who wants to do something bigger, more world-changing than the track already laid for him. The one who turned his back on a 40-hour-a-week job, then conjured up three creative endeavors to fill his time and bank account. The one who says he'd keep working even if he won the lottery -- he wants to work for something more meaningful than money anyway.
"All the work that I do now, I believe wholeheartedly that what we're doing is right," Tyler says. "It will pay off in the end, whether it is the paycheck or knowing that we're able to help 'X' amount of people."
Eventually, he thinks any of his jobs could morph into full-time work, that they will help him buy a home, get married, support a family -- everything he always wanted to do, and thinks he still probably will.
There are deadlines approaching. Tyler will be 26 by the middle of next year and booted off his parents' health insurance. Gail and Don would be OK with him still living at home, but he knows they won't tolerate him going without medical coverage. His expenses are low -- car insurance, gas, eating out, his portion of the family's cell phone plan -- but health care could add up.
"It's almost a kick in the ass. That's sort of the timetable I would hope for, myself," he says. "Enough messing around. Let's get serious."
Then Tyler looks up at the ceiling, thinks for a moment and changes his mind.
"Why does it have to be the case? If the messing around is becoming something, then why not run with it?" he says. "I can buy my own health insurance, too. It could just be budgeting accordingly. That could very well happen."
He will vote in November, along with millions of others trying to figure out the same things: What's really going on here? Am I really happy?
He thinks the decision will be good practice, a nice exercise, if not a simple one. He doesn't like things to be too easy, anyway.