Photographer Liz Calvi noticed something was wrong: Her male friends she knew from high school were leaving college and moving back to live with their parents.
Crushed by skyrocketing higher-education costs, they were returning home to West Hartford, Connecticut, stuck, with less-than-bright futures ahead.
But without college degrees, Calvi’s friends couldn’t find living-wage jobs that offered them the financial freedom to leave the nest. It was an economic Catch-22.
“You’re almost in this trap, where you have to go to college to get a job,” Calvi said. “But college costs so much money, so sometimes you have to go back home to live with your parents.”
For men, she said, that situation is “so counterintuitive to what boys have been told to do. You’re supposed to leave your family home at age 18 and go out and make a name for yourself.”
In J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” books, the title character never grew up. Growing up can be more challenging for young adults forced to live with their parents.
“We’ve been called the Peter Pan generation,” Calvi said. At age 23, she includes herself in this group. Calvi recently left New York City’s Pratt Institute for financial reasons and returned to West Hartford to live with her parents and younger brother. Luckily she was able to enroll at the University of Hartford.
Disturbed and intrigued by what she saw among the men of her generation, Calvi began work on a series of portraits. She titled her project, “Lost Boys,” tipping her hat to Peter Pan’s gang of boys.
Through her camera’s lens, she hoped to peel back layers of male stereotypes surrounding these young men and capture glimpses of their true nature.
“I wanted to find a softness and vulnerability to these guys that I don’t think is portrayed a lot,” she said.
One of these men was Nolan, who was studying graphic design.
She asked Nolan to describe himself. “He said, ‘beloved — or at least that’s what I’d like to be,’ ” Calvi recalled.
“I thought that was so beautiful,” she said. “It wasn’t a traditional male response from a guy you just met.”
In her series, Calvi included her younger brother Nick, who is about to graduate high school and hopes to attend college.
“Living with my brother and seeing him day to day, I was able to see him in that stage of feeling lost and finding his own identity,” Calvi said.
“I worry about him,” she acknowledged. “But I do feel better about his situation because he’s very computer-savvy, which is a popular field today. He’s really driven.”
Her brother faces a tough education landscape, based on the statistics. College is less affordable and high-wage jobs are limited.
From 1982 to 2007, U.S. college tuition and fees skyrocketed 439% while median family income increased just 147%, according to a 2008 report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
Meanwhile, 58% of jobs created in the economic recovery have been relatively low-paying jobs such as retail and food prep workers, according to a 2012 report by the National Employment Law Project.
What does all this say about the American dream — that media cliche foisted on the public for so many generations?
“I don’t think it’s a question of whether the American dream — however you define it — is achievable or not anymore,” Calvi said. “I think it’s kind of a myth.”
Some of the men who participated in her project don’t believe in the American dream, Calvi said. Or if they do, she said, they believe it’s no longer achievable.
Others outright reject it.
“I know for sure some of the boys really don’t want to settle down into that mold of you get a job, you work the job and you fit into society,” Calvi said.
That attitude is represented by Varley, one of Calvi’s portrait subjects from Farmington, Connecticut. He chose to hitchhike throughout the United States and hike the Appalachian Trail.
“I see that as a rejection of the American dream,” she said. “But also, in a way, he’s accepting a different kind of American dream.
“He’s doing whatever he wants. He’s making what he wants of himself. It’s all how you look at it. To me, it’s just being who you want to be — and being free.”
- Thom Patterson, CNN