Between the hours of 10:00 A.M. and 11:59 P.M. on November 24, 2005, the inbox of 20by20essays@randomhouse.com was inundated with more than one thousand e-mails. Was it spam? A virus? Were people finally responding to our Match.com profile? No, we still couldn’t find a date or a good deal on Viagra. It was simply the deadline for the Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers contest, and as it turned out, nearly everyone—two-thirds of the total contestants—had waited until literally the last minute to submit.

According to our colleagues, this meant we were a generation of procrastinators, too busy blogging about our recently diagnosed ADHD or watching the first season of The OC to get our act together and turn something in ahead of time; the contest had run for a full six months, after all. And they had a point. But the more we thought about it, the more we realized that this procrastination wasn’t necessarily a generational fault but rather an indication of how today’s world works. In an era of text messaging, online shopping, and movies on demand, why would anyone do anything more than a day or two in advance? It’s not that we’re lazy or bratty or glib; it’s just that we’re fast. We know how to access all kinds of information, and we have absolute confidence in the tools at our disposal.

In fact, it was precisely because of this technological immediacy that the contest attracted such a large, wide-ranging pool of writers. When we first launched our website, we had two listings on Google; the next week, fifty; as of this writing, we’re at 1,130. Though at first we were concerned that certain groups or types of twentysomethings might dominate the collection—it would be a problem if everyone was from Albuquerque or played the lute or worked at Petco—we were bowled over by the breadth and depth of the submissions we received. We heard from prison inmates, soldiers, production assistants, corporate-ladder climbers, pastry chefs. And not only were the writers themselves diverse, but each offered a new way of thinking about a given subject. Is ethnicity tantamount to identity or is it a barrier to overcome? Should we be planning careers and families or living moment to moment? How do we negotiate our roles as both someone’s child and someone’s parent? Do we approach God with skepticism or trust? To what extent can we effect political change? What’s funny? What’s not? How can we make art that’s new, and do we even want to?

Because of this diversity, we had trouble discerning overarching themes in these essays. It seemed almost audacious to make any blanket statements about a generation that so consistently asserts its volatility, but we’re nothing if not audacious, so we gave it a shot. We began by doing what any incredibly anal person confronted with an overwhelming amount of information would do: we pigeon-holed. Having narrowed the field down to one hundred essays, we subdivided the finalists and slapped on tidy little labels—Ethnic Identity; Cubicle Culture; Born-Again Agnosticism; Indie/Underground/Post-Trip-Hop/Pre-Grunge-Revival; Deep, Philosophical, Possibly Drug-Enhanced Ruminations on Life; and, of course, Sex. Lots and lots of Sex. Some of the categories, like Gay Issues and Women’s Studies, even started to sound like 200-level liberal arts courses.

But ultimately our well-intentioned bigotry was for naught. For example, early on we relegated a piece about a Web-radio obsession to the Technology section. As we moved through the rest of the submissions, though, we saw that it could just as easily have worked under the heading Pop Culture or Career (the author listens to her favorite station to get her through the workday) or Family (she fondly remembers her father’s addiction to NPR). And this kept happening. No single essay, it seemed, fit snugly into a single category. It was like we were stuck using a Microsoft Outlook approach in a Gmail world. (For those not familiar with the difference, Outlook only allows you to sort each e-mail into a single folder, while the exceedingly brilliant people at Google figured out that you could cross-reference messages by an unlimited number of distinct labels.) Maybe it was just the sleep deprivation talking, but everything seemed to be about, well, everything. We didn’t know whether to jump for joy or weep in a corner.

The problem was that such “everything-ness” seemed to spoil any claims of twentysomething solidarity. Our generation has often been accused of political apathy, of lacking the unity of ideology and purpose that the Boomers—our parents—were so famous for. According to popular opinion, we are all supposed to be deeply polarized by the Red/Blue divide. Which side we land on, we are told, should dictate who we vote for, what we wear, how we feel about NASCAR. But, in reality, the spectrum is much wider and more colorful. We are not apathetic; we’ve simply learned to make more subtle distinctions. Because of the Gmail Effect, we can each adopt a multitude of personas that ebb and flow depending on context. And this, in our humble opinion, is very cool.

A mutual friend once commented that there isn’t a twentysomething out there, home-schooled hermits and bow-tied Republicans aside, who doesn’t love The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. And that was even before the Crossfire appearance. So, if we are such a diverse, nuanced generation, why is it that a late-night comedy show on cable TV has become our universal point of reference? Sure, the fart jokes and celebrity interviews don’t hurt, but ultimately we watch because Stewart and company have come to reflect our core values: a new brand of humor that recognizes that reality is itself a punch line, a categorically skeptical point of view, and a genuine engagement with the world around us. And these values are what enable us to make informed decisions and keep up hope in legitimately troubled times (i.e., recent elections, natural disasters, Nick and Jessica’s downfall, etc.).

The writers in this book recognize the problems, big and not-so-big, that our generation faces. With hope, intelligence, irreverence, and urgency, they show that we are not to be taken lightly (but not too seriously, either), that we’re finally ready to sit at the proverbial Grownups’ Table. Like the twentysomethings who have come before us, we’ve slogged through the absurdities of postadolescence/preadulthood and are prepared for anything the world might throw at us— except, God forbid, turning thirty.