Thursday 8 December 2016

Why are millennials never happy?

A recent study found that millennials are susceptible to feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. Sophie Donaldson asks why?

Sophie Donaldson

Published 30/10/2016 | 02:30

Selfie-absorbed: 'Girls' creator and star Lena Dunham Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Selfie-absorbed: 'Girls' creator and star Lena Dunham Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Two years ago my best friend visited from Australia. In the year since I had seen her she was reduced to a shadow of her former self. Dejected and withdrawn, it took several cheap margaritas to get her to speak honestly. In short, she had just finished an arts degree but felt her life had no clear trajectory and would inevitably amount to nothing.

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Her solution was to return to university where she lurched from teaching to economics and finally science, with the intention of becoming a doctor.

This was not a decision made overnight. As she pivoted from one degree to the next she knew medicine was her calling. Her reason for not saying this out loud? At 23, she thought she was too old. Now 25 she has just been accepted into the medical program at Sydney University. We celebrated by sending each other doctor-themed gifs all morning.

I'd wager that most millennials reading this can relate in some capacity and that most baby-boomers are trying not to roll their eyes. However, a study released last week from Trinity College has found that my generation, the millennials, are hugely susceptible to feelings of anxiety and inadequacy due to the paradoxical environment in which we have been raised. Oh yeah, and our compulsive selfie-taking.

Over the course of four months masters student Aisling O'Connor interviewed groups of millennials (those born between 1984 and 1993) in an attempt to gauge just what we think of ourselves. For a generation constantly lambasted for supposed self-centred tendencies, she found there was very little written about millennials, by millennials. Non-fiction aside, HBO's Girls and RTE's Can't Cope Won't Cope are recent attempts by millennials to tell their side of the story through entertainment.

We are told we can have it all and when we try to do just that are chastised for our short attention spans. At the same time, the endless plain of opportunity that stretches before us - travel, work, study - can be overwhelming to the point of panic.

"A lot of people did say we know we are really privileged to have this opportunity and that's down to our parents' generation of working really hard and sending us to university," Aisling says.

"There was one girl in particular who did mention that she was in so much debt. Not financially, but she felt responsible to achieve as much as she could because of the things her parents have given her. That was adding to this urgency of getting as successful as you can, as quickly as you can." Suddenly, my friend's fear of being too old for medicine at 23 doesn't seem so unfounded. This "gravity of opportunity" has adverse effects. We venture into gap years without even a hint of wanderlust but document the entire year with pitch-perfect selfies. Degrees are undertaken with gusto and no desire to actually work in that field. We graduate and are faced with an abyss of uncertainty - is this it? Job prospects aren't permanent and pensions long extinct. We backtrack and apply for the masters because a bachelor's degree just isn't enough these days. Suddenly, you're 27. Your mother had two kids by now.

But we are busy, busy, busy. We are young. We are having it all and why aren't we happy? We certainly look it in the photos, of which there are thousands. All the while a gnawing sense of anxiety leaves tiny bite marks on our periphery, perpetuated by the enviable lives of our friends with all the nasty bits cropped out.

One of the most startling findings from the study is that millennials are aware of the negative impact of social media, and yet continue to breathe life into the very thing that makes us feel worthless. Why is logic trumped by likes?

"A lot of people said there's this constant need to curate a perfect image of yourself online and there's validation in that then to be seen as this wonderful, articulate, successful person," Aisling says.

"I'm on Facebook or Instagram because I want to be seen as relevant, or if I'm not on Facebook I'm not there."

We are the social media guinea pigs with Stockholm syndrome but there's hope yet. My generation is intelligent, aware and passionate with the ability to change the world as we know it, even if it's done one hashtag at a time.

'I am a Millennial… What am I?' by Aisling O'Connor, with research supervised by Catherine Conlon

Sunday Independent

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