Tuesday, December 26, 2006


Back in September I wrote:
(I can't stand the appellation "young professionals", but that deserves a separate rant.)

An anonymous commenter responded:
please, please, please do your rant on the icky term "young professionals!" (we are what we do for money, and what we do for money is always very white collar??)

So here goes.

There are some instances when the use of "young professionals" is warranted: when career networking (and thus the actual "profession") is the explicit objective, or when referring derisively or jokingly to the "yuppie" stereotype.

But much of the time, the "professional" part is irrelevant. Really, people are just trying to refer to a particular age group, and the "professional" part is just incidental filler. This leads to one of two readings, both of which are offensive: 1) As Anonymous suggests, everyone is assumed to be a "professional". 2) There is no such assumption, but only "professionals" are invited.

If neither of these readings is intended and the goal is just to refer to an age group, then why does the phrase "young professional" have such traction?

I think it's like "Czech Republic".

We don't ordinarily refer to countries by their national adjective followed by their system of government. We don't say "Mexican Republic" or "Cuban Dictatorship" or "Iraqi Anarchy". We just use the noun forms of the countries' names.

But ever since Czechoslovakia split in 1993, the Czech part never had a noun name that caught on in English, just the adjective. (It was never an independent nation before; before World War I, it was part of Austria-Hungary along with much of central Europe.) Czechia has been suggested, but hasn't become popular yet. So in the meantime, we talk about the "Czech Republic", gratuitously mentioning its system of government for no good reason, all because of a grammatical constraint.

"Young professionals" is the same way. Really they just mean "young", but that's an adjective, so they need to find a noun to stick after it. "Young people" doesn't work, because that suggests children. What they mean is "young adults", but that doesn't work either, because that is a euphemism for adolescents has been used to refer to what we would now call adolescents since before adolescence was constructed. They're looking for a phrase that refers to the young end of the stage that our society now thinks of as adulthood. And someone thought that "professionals" would do the trick, since "professionals" can't be any younger than 21 or so. Except that this usage is problematic, as discussed above.

The solution: If you want to refer to an age range, refer to the age range explicitly, and don't look for descriptive labels, because our language isn't versatile enough to provide one.


  1. Fair point. But whenever I hear the term "young professionals", I think "as opposed to students". And that makes at least a modicum of sense in the original context, where they might be referring to professionals without a Hillel to fall back on, as opposed to undergraduate and graduate students who (might) have a pre-made campus-based Jewish community and therefore are less likely to "need" to join "synagogues and federations". (Or aren't considered "unaffiliated".)

  2. But the communities discussed in the original article have plenty of grad students too, and the distinction between students and non-students isn't of any significance in those communities. (In that article, "young professionals" comes up in the context of people participating in independent minyanim, not in the context of people not joining synagogues.)

  3. and then there's the young professionals' minyan that meets downstairs at OZ; a friend of mine who goes there always gets upset when i call it the "yuppie minyan" :-P

  4. bz-

    Perhaps we can call people by their names that describe them?

    But seriously I would argue individuals who are young and professional, would be called Young Professionals. But then again you are "unaffiliated" but more actively Jewish than most affiliated.

  5. "young post-college adults"? (still has the effect of excluding those who aren't university graduates, but I suspect it's a fairly accurate description of the indy-minyan demographic)

  6. I'd submit that this term is generally used by organizations that are targeting programming *at* or trying to *welcome in* this demographic; it is not generally used by the people it is meant to refer to.

    When 20-30-somethings create their own Jewish communities -- they name those gatherings after what they're about, or what is important that they do together. If you're gathering to welcome the Sabbath in a minyan (for example), or to learn Jewish texts, it's not terribly important that you have a precise peer group there unless you're attending the community primarily for social reasons. (Of course, we can make friends with people of different generations -- more specifically, people would seek a community of peers if they were focused on *dating* them.) Maybe "young professionals" makes us bristle because if you have to use it, you're probably creating programming you think we'd like, *for* us, and in any case the activity isn't enough about whatever it's about if adults of other age groups aren't invited. If it's for the "young professionals," it must really just be a device for gathering that demographic together socially. If it were about Torah, or prayer, anyone would be welcome.

    It makes sense to have a "Junior Congregation service" for 3rd graders geared to their developmental level and a different one for 15 year olds aimed at their developmental level. But most programs that are about Jewish practice or learning can serve all adults (students or professionals) simultaneously. To me, the designation "young professional" communicates that the community thinks I wouldn't want to be part of the grown-up activities at the shul -- why? presumably because my only goal in my 20's is to socialize, preferably with people who are my age. As BZ has written previously, "we" do not appreciate being treated in the Jewish community as only interested in meeting people to marry -- targeting special programming at the "young professionals" implies that they're not full participants -- or not expected to want to be full participants -- in what the rest of the adults are doing.

  7. To me, "professionals" adds a notion of point in life and of class. Young professionals would generally be, as others have mentioned, post-college, non-grad-student (although they often do paid work, too) employed people living outside of their parents' homes. The term also implies the type of work they're doing (white collar as opposed to, say, auto mechanics, although a person of any class and education level may do this) and that they have indeed finished college.

    When it comes to advertising events for such a demographic, one could just say "young," or one could specify age group (say, 20s and 30s) without the "professional" bit. Another option is to let people decide on their own who's "young" and simply elaborate by referring to the demographic as "young singles and couples," if applicable. This advises potential attendees that it's not just a singles mixer (but could be a nice place to meet somebody special); that it's hitting a demographic where you've got singles and couples but not kids; and where a 41-year-old gay person shouldn't, other things considered, feel uncomfortable on the basis of age or orientation, regardless of whether there's a sig other.

  8. I agree with EW -- I think the "professional" part is (intentionally) classist. I don't think "young professional" is an awkward stand-in for young & single, but young & single & SUCCESSFUL enough to please your parents and reflect well on the larger Jewish community. I would've figured your rant would be about why the professional part (e.g. must be a lawyer/doctor/businessman) is a throwback to a different time, doesn't reflect positive values, excludes people based on shallow criteria, &c.