In 2012, Joel Stein branded millennials the ‘Me, Me, Me Generation’ for Time, describing them as ‘Lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents’. Less than forty years earlier, Tom Wolfe had written of the ‘Me Decade’ for New York Magazine, similarly describing the self involved qualities the baby boomer generation had come to possess. Every generation is adamant they have reasoning behind their downfalls; the generation preceding them being at fault, and the generation following reaping the rewards of their hard work.
While those born in the 20s to 40s – the silent generation – lived among an economic crash, their 50s and 60s children survived the repercussions of Vietnam and years of drug-fuelled changes in traditional prospects and attitudes. Millennials have no great war, nor anything beyond a somewhat unsteady political landscape, yet seem to be in a constant push-pull struggle with their mental health.
Why is it, that in a time of such prevalent empowerment of the masses, increasingly progressive mindsets, readily available technology, and less war and famine than any former generation has endured, are we now victim to an epidemic of young people caught in the throes of depression and anxiety? While former groups fought for survival, those born between 1982 and 2004 – currently aged 13 to 35 – find themselves living at a prosperous point in time where their great fortune affords the biggest threat to their wellbeing to be not from an outside source, but an internal one.
Suicide remains the third leading cause of death within this age group, while one fifth of young adults fit the criteria for binge drinking behaviours, and auto accidents, sexually transmitted infections, obesity rates, and instances of substance abuse continue to rise in the west, despite public efforts to reduce risks; and while it’s estimated that over half of all young people in Britain live with a mental health issue, the source of this widespread illness remains one of speculation.
Older generations often pinpoint millennials issues coming as a result of their reliance on technology and the internet, however the Independent report young people as having listed terrorism, conflict, and debt to be their main concerns, and those in my life cite nothing specifically 21st century as the most prevalent source of stress in their lives – with sex, work, school, and morality proving to be the most common among qualms aired. All difficult things to move past, yes, but none new human experiences by any stretch of the imagination.
So what is the issue here? Could it be not that this group has been dealt a poor hand and faced with greater struggles in comparison to those who came before them, but rather that how they deal with that stress has changed? Are they more tapped into their problems with the prevalence of social media – do they dwell longer on the necessity of maintaining a facade in front of others when given the opportunity to compare their lives in such great detail, especially when young and vulnerable? This feeling of being watched and prevalent awareness of societal norms opens doors to self doubt, second guessing, and a general feeling of underachievement. Comparison can be highly toxic, and millennials have been presented with a human experience that uses platforms to definitively rank themselves among their peers.
This heightened state of consciousness may be the core of the issue; it may really come down to an unsure future, heavy debt, and threat of extremism. Or perhaps this generation isn’t really more mentally unwell at all.
In light of blogging, vlogging, social media, instant messaging, email, and text, eye contact is no longer a necessity when owning up. The ability to admit to your struggle without the nerve wracking reality of sitting across from another human being and making yourself entirely vulnerable may hold great power in leading more people to feel able to do it. In the past, all that could come close was a handwritten letter or phone call – and even then, the audience would remain minimal, typically one to one. Now? The world is listening.
The absolute minimisation of fear and shame through a faceless confession combined with the luxury of time and a heaving demand for improvement on how we discuss our mental health may have led to an outpouring of the truth – we’re all miserable, and always have been. That might just be all there is to it.