Life Health & Wellbeing

Thursday 17 October 2019

The millennial time bomb: how long before they stop being anxious and start getting angry?

No solid futures. No job security. Little chance of buying a house. These are just some of the issues being bottled up by under-30s right now. But, asks Emily Hourican, how long before they stop being anxious and start geting angry?

Celebrities like Dakota Johnson are normalising periods by talking openly about them.
Celebrities like Dakota Johnson are normalising periods by talking openly about them. "It’s really a traumatic thing, and it happens every month,” she said.
Amanda Seyfreid
Emma Stone
Geri Horner
Justin Bieber
Jennifer Lawrence

Emily Hourican

We all know we're facing a pensions time bomb. This is when the population of young people is no longer capable of supporting the retirement of all the oldies. It is there, it is a fact, and it has very obvious causes, rooted in birth rate and longevity patterns.

But what if pensions is not the only time bomb we face? What if we are also facing a social and emotional time bomb? Namely, the point at which these same young people - the millennial generation - stop side-stepping or internalising the issues facing them, stop 'sucking it up,' and decide to react instead?

By 'issues,' I mean the fact that they have no solid futures. No job security, little chance of buying a house, or even of securely renting an apartment; old political orders being dismantled; not to mention failing healthcare and large pay levies to support the various services of the State that will increasingly be divvied up among a smaller and smaller active population.

There is - there has to be - a point at which these burdens will become intolerable.

At the moment, the millennials are, largely, putting up with their fractured futures. They are happy to hot-desk, crowd-fund and sofa-surf, distracted by social-media popularity contests and fad diets, persuaded by the idea that the greater freedom they have compared with their parents and grandparents - freedom to travel, freedom from responsibility, freedom to organise their own start-up rather than get a job for life - is worth the uncertainty. But that can't last. At some point, the appeal of these freedoms will count as little in comparison with the enormous uncertainty. They will no longer accept that 'the new ways of living' are all they are cracked up to be, and they will get angry. Then what?

"I encourage them to get angry," says psychotherapist and author Stella O'Malley, whose latest book, Fragile, is subtitled Why We Feel More Anxious, Stressed and Overwhelmed Than Ever (And What We Can Do About It). "By which I mean 'healthy' anger. Because so far, they are just consumed with anxiety. They are scared of anger. This is part of their 'woke' attitude: that anger is 'bad', but anxiety is OK."

She is not wrong about the anxiety. The latest figures give anxiety disorder as the most common mental illness in Ireland, the UK and America, with a 1,200pc increase in diagnoses since 1980. Among the millennial generation, those figures become a runaway train, with some studies showing up to one in three people suffering, compared with one in six of the broader population.

As Warren Getler, journalist for The Wall Street Journal and author of a new novel, Panic, about a teenager struggling with panic disorder, puts it, "Young people today are navigating their way through an Age of Anxiety: social-media pressure to be perfect; job pressure in a very uncertain business climate where long-term job security is a thing of the past; and parental pressure to get top grades and get into the most selective schools as a ticket to future success."

This anxiety is manifesting at all levels - with even celebrities, those social barometers, going beyond the idea of mere stage-fright, to something more pervasive. "They are not just freezing up for a moment on stage, in the studio, on the sports field... they are dealing, in some cases, with a chronic, recurring issue of generalised anxiety that interferes with their ability to perform normal, everyday tasks at times," Getler points out.

And, of course, he's right. Recently, Justin Bieber and Ginger Spice/Geri Horner have publicly joined the ranks that include Emma Stone, Jennifer Lawrence, Adele, Amanda Seyfried, Dakota Johnson… the list is long and lustrous. And, just by the by, all those mentioned (bar Geri, who is 46) are under 33.

"They have it hard, alright," Stella O'Malley says. "I meet them, and they are fragile, anxious and badly want to do the right thing."

There are so many reasons for the anxiety, but really, the point is not 'why', so much as 'what next'?

Right now, the millennials are taking the pain, rather than dishing it out. "They each think this is their own private tragedy," Stella says. "They think this is their own private failing. They feel shame at their lack of success, and they are demoralised." And they are not helped by the unflattering comparisons they tend to draw with one another. In a world where their peers are highly sophisticated at 'branding', meaning putting their best foot forward and presenting a shiny, happy, successful outward image, it is all too easy to believe that you, personally, are failing.

At least back in the 1980s, if you didn't have a job or prospects, well, neither did anyone else. We met each other down at the dole office every week, where it was very obvious that we were all in the same leaky boat. We didn't have that persistent, gnawing sense of unease that we were alone in our misery while everyone else was doing great.

"The millennials have internalised the idea that they aren't making a success of their lives," Stella continues - an observation born out by the fact that the 'quarter-life crisis', typically hitting at age 25, is now a 'thing'. "What they can't see yet is that this is a global failing, a societal failing." And part of this failing is in the way the millennials were raised. They were, Stella says, "sold down the river by their parents' generation - the baby boomers who brought them up to believe, 'you can be anything you want to be' and other trite, unrealistic phrases. At the age of 20, they might still believe that they can be extraordinary; by 30, they have realised that mostly, they can't."

Because that, of course, is the nature of extraordinary - it's not something most people can be. And yet, the gut-wrenching disappointment of accepting that, when you feel you have been promised the opposite, is huge.

"Telling them they're special, and unique - it hasn't helped," Stella says. It has, instead, only compounded the shame they feel at having to settle for average lives, at best. For many, even 'average' (let's define that as a secure job and home ownership, although we are clearly going to have to come up with an updated definition one day soon…) is out of reach. And yet, instead of shouting and demanding, they choke down the pain and disappointment they feel. And it comes back up again, as anxiety and insecurity.

The insecurity - as well as the unrealistic expectations - is very obvious in their relationship patterns. Annie Lavin, psychology lecturer and relationship coach, explains: "The statistics on millennials suggest they are putting off marriage and children until much later in life, but the knock-on effect I observe in my work with millennial relationships is that they have much higher standards in relationships than generations before them had.

"In general, it is positive to want to acquire a fulfilling, happy relationship. However, the expectations that their partner should be their best friend, lover, financial equal and potential co-parent is not a realistic, nor a healthy one. The popularity of online dating offers a potential 'upgrade' and brings a certain disposability to people, and a fixation regarding the 'perfect partner' or 'perfect relationship'. The notion of there being a 'bigger and better' partner out there, can mean it has become even more difficult than ever to settle with one."

The question is: how long can they keep blaming themselves? Or distracting themselves by putting together beautiful Insta-stories? There is only so much self-worth that can be gained through social-media likes, and only so much sense of control that can be fostered by sticking to a vegan diet and posting #WorkoutGoals.

Really, I'm not being snide. "They have a lot to be anxious about," says Stella. "Anxiety is debilitating. It is also, by its nature, private and silent. You don't see anxious people on the streets, protesting. Which is why I'd like them to get angry. Anger can change things, in a way that anxiety can't."

This is where hope lies. In anger.

So far, this millennial generation does not engage much politically. Although millennials turned out in effective numbers for the referendums on the Eighth Amendment and Marriage Equality, in local and general elections, their investment is much lower than, for example, the baby boomers. In a 2016 poll conducted by The Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and the Center for American Progress (CAP), just 12pc of Irish millennials described themselves as 'very interested' in politics, well below 'being happy' and 'making money', with most citing as a reason 'lack of trust in politicians'.

However, some things are getting through their self-imposed barriers. Climate change, for example. The UK has Brexit and the Tory shambles as a rallying point. Elsewhere - Ireland included - by far the most galvanising fight the millennials are willing to engage in, is a call for action on climate change.

And perhaps this is the thin end of the wedge? Climate change is seen as 'ok' to be angry about. It has celebrity endorsement, it is altruistic - ie a 'good' thing to rage about, because it is for all humankind and not just themselves - and therefore, increasing traction. And perhaps it will be the gateway drug, the point around which a generation comes together and realises that there is a place for the kind of righteous anger that Aristotle described as being "angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way".

In other words, Gen Y: get mad. Get even.

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