Friday 24 January 2020

Tough old birds: Are those born in the 1940s and '50s emotionally more robust than the younger generation?

Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny

They've been dubbed the 'snowflake generation' - those young people born sometime in the 1990s, and now of student age: over-protected, highly sensitive to being offended, and more likely than previous generations to report mental health problems. 'Generation Snowflake' was a phrase coined by Claire Fox, the 56-year-old British libertarian intellectual from an Irish Catholic background (who ascribes some of her own robust attitudes to schooling by Irish nuns).

It's hardly fair to describe a whole generation as over-fragile. There have always been sensitive souls who got upset easily, and there have always been those with a tough skin. But the social studies do tend to claim that the 'baby-boom' generation (those born after the Second World War and into the 1950s) have hardier mental health than the generations born after the 1970s.

The British journal Psychological Medicine, drawing on studies of 19,000 people across the generations, recently indicated that mental health issues had increased among the younger generations. One academic, Dr George Ploubidis from University College London, underlined a higher than average level of "psychological distress" among those born in the 1970s - the forty-something generation now. And he suggests that it could get worse for younger generations in the future.

Although individuals vary enormously, it is my anecdotal experience that those of us who grew up in the 1950s and '60s are often emotionally tougher than the generations that followed. Is this simply because life was tougher, and we got less sympathy if we complained? I heard a discussion on the Joe Duffy programme last month in which it was denounced as horribly mean-spirited that refugees given asylum accommodation in Ireland were rationed to one roll of toilet paper a week.

I'm all for welcoming the stranger, but there's many who can recall old newspapers being cut up into squares and used as loo paper, and nobody thought it a great hardship. (Actually, it was a virtuous example of recycling: and a suitably humbling thought, to journalists, that our deathless prose would soon be wiping someone's derrière.)

Boring old parties have always gone on about, "When I were a lad you could enjoy a good night out and have change out of sixpence". But it is a fact that in old age you compare and contrast the conditions and values of today with those of your youth. And conditions were, generally, more exacting. Indeed, they are looked upon today as unbearably cruel - smacking (sometimes beating) of children, families of 12 children raised in two-bedroom homes, not to mention barefoot urchins in the streets of Dublin. Some of the hardships were just the way things were, but some were inflicted deliberately to toughen us up.

Not only did few people have central heating, but there was a real disapproval of such luxuries, lest it would 'soften' people excessively. At boarding school, we had chilblains every winter from the cold, and enduring coldness was thought good for our character. My recollection is that adults seldom expressed sympathy for young people - they thought nothing was worse than a 'spoilt brat'.

When I got expelled from convent school at the age of 16, the Reverend Mother saw me out the door with the words: "Sink or swim, now, Mary Kenny!" It never occurred to anyone that I was being unjustly deprived of an education.

If I could go back in time, I'd sue for human rights abuses, but we didn't have any concepts of personal rights then: you took what life dealt you. Hadn't we been taught St Paul's dictum: "Suffer in silence"?

And that generation often did, as we now know - and suffered much worse abuses than being kicked out of school. Many suffered in silence for wrongs they had endured, for years. But many also just got on with life, and overcame their setbacks, and in the process, very probably, got toughened up. Because life is tough.

The generation born after 1970 grew up in a world that sought to be kinder to children. I hated having to go to bed at a set time every night as a child, so I was much more permissive about rules like bed-time. I didn't see why they should be made to eat what they didn't like - I recalled being forced to finish a plate of tripe, as a child, which I thought quite sadistic. Why shouldn't life be nicer, if it could be?

But now we are told that this generation born in the 1970s rate higher on the 'malaise inventory': they more often feel "miserable and depressed, worried or easily upset and irritated".

All kinds of circumstances have changed, and for the next generation down, the millennials, the world has become quite threatening. They are exposed to so much. Nothing is hidden. The instant communications of the internet and of social media discloses and reveals everything, and puts every temptation their way, too.

There were all kinds of horrors occurring in the world in which I grew up - we just didn't know about them. That's the paradox. We were exposed to 'toughening up', but we were protected from so much else.

And maybe some of the practices associated with 'generation snowflake' - the 'safe spaces', the 'trigger warnings' against what is offensive - is just a protective cloak from the overdose of reality to which they've been subjected.


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