I’m often asked to take part in panel discussions about my generation, talking about the trials and tribulations of being a millennial in 2019.
Most of the time I say no because when I don’t have a book or a project to promote, I do try my best to keep a low profile, so people don’t get sick of me. In truth, I think the reality of what it means to be a millennial is something too complex to explore in depth in a ten-minute radio slot, or indeed in one column! We all know the clichés about this generation of young people, born between the mid-’80s and late ’90s. They say we are overly sensitive and quick to take offence, that we can’t take a joke. That we are easily outraged but that we only take our outrage as far as Twitter for some hashtag activism.
This sort of rhetoric is silly, but every generation has received criticism from those that came before, and I’m sure millennials will find new ways to resent Generation Z (those born from the early 2000s onwards) once they come of age.
These clichés also don’t take into account the aspects of millennials that I think are the most appealing: Empathy, compassion, a burning desire to make the world a more equal, fair place, much of that generated by living their lives online and being exposed to ideas about race, gender, identity, sexuality, and body image that would have almost unattainable for previous generations. And dismissing millennials as whiny babies certainly doesn’t take into consideration the unique challenges that are being faced by an entire generation of young people, challenges with which we are ill-prepared to deal.
I don’t have enough column inches to go into all of these but below are the three main issues.
Anne Helen Petersen wrote a superb piece for Buzzfeed called ‘How Millennials became the Burnout Generation’ that went viral. (Closer to home, Roisin Agnew has also written on this subject for the Irish Times.) “Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done?” wrote Peterson. “Because I’m burned out. Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalised the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalised that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it — explicitly and implicitly — since I was young.”
This resonated with me.
I worked seven days a week, I hadn’t taken a holiday in years, I answered emails until I went to bed, I was constantly on social media curating my ‘brand’. And my reaction when my father told me I needed to take a break? I secretly felt I was lazy, and I could — and should — be doing more. That if I took a holiday I would fall behind and never catch up. I believed achieving would only be possible if it was accompanied with back-breaking, exhaustive levels of work and sacrifice.
If the reaction to Petersen’s piece is anything to go by, I’m not the only one of my peers to feel the same way.
For many people of this generation, the prospect of owning their own home is not only an improbability, it’s an impossibility. In a report for Joe.ie, journalist Carl Kinsella found that house prices have increased by about 536% in the last 30 years, an astronomical amount even when you take inflation into account, but the average salary hasn’t as much as doubled in the same period of time. With Dublin, in particular, facing a housing and rental crisis, you could forgive millennials — many of whom have to live in the capital to work — for feeling frustrated.
Anxiety among millennials is at an all-time high, with statistics showing that those presenting with mental health issues in this age bracket has almost trebled in the last number of years. There’s a reason why Caroline Foran’s excellent book Owning It, a guide to dealing with anxiety, was such a massive bestseller in Ireland. People needed help. Many blame social media and the ease it gives us to compare our lives with others, and while I do agree that could be a factor, it does feel as something more insidious is at play. I have far too many friends who are suffering with anxiety, turning to Crossfit, baking, or adult colouring books in an attempt to find some way of living with this overwhelming, crippling fear.
And why wouldn’t we be afraid? From political crises (do not mention the word ‘Brexit’, I beg you) to increasingly more plausible claims that the planet is going to implode in under 20 years if we don’t do something to stem climate change, the world can seem a rather terrifying place right now. Do not call us ‘snowflakes’ because we are perturbed by what lies ahead of us.
So, what is it that we want? Some sympathy would be nice, but it’s not essential. What is more important is that we see change. Real, tangible change. Not just for millennials, but for those coming up behind us. They are the ones that will inherit all of these problems — and more besides.