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As a member of the generation that raised millennials, instead of distributing blame, I think we should think on our own sins, and the conditions we set up for them.
It has taken me a bit of time to write about it, because I had to think about it first, according to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Guilt, too, in this case; lots of it. I am, of course, talking about the shocking news that millennials are not doing well. They are burnt out, especially the women. At work, 64% feel overwhelmed on a daily basis and 74% is often stressed out. They are twice as likely to experience constant exhaustion than young adults 20 years ago, and only 4% think they are going to be happier than their parents. They are pessimistic about their future prospects and worried about the direction their (wealthy, developed) country is taking, as well as about terrorism and (world) conflict. This, according to the experts, is my fault. Well, not all of it, not personally, just my generation’s. Like in the poem by Philip Larkin: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They might not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had. And add some extra, just for you.”
Let me explain. The millennials, or Gen Y, were born roughly between 1980 and 2000. There are 4.95 million of them in Australia, or 27% of the population. They are about 25% of the workforce now, but that will grow to 35% in 2020. They were raised by either the tail end of the Babyboomer generation, or us, Gen X, born between 1960 and 1975-ish. Gen X is approximately as big as Gen Y, but very different in its outlook. Not only do they (I mean we, us, I, me) see the world through another lens, we look at ourselves differently too. This is because we were raised by what is now called the Silent generation, or the Builders. They grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s, then lived through WWII and the Cold War. All that conflict focused their minds: survival was aim number one, closely followed by saving money, being disciplined, working hard and raising a family. Us, the X-ers, who were supposed to be, according to the mores of the day, “seen and not heard”.
Childhood as we now know it – with children as full members of the family, with a voice and a valuable opinion – was only invented in the early 1970s. Too late for us. But because we had been dying to speak and remembered that feeling, we raised you, the millennials, as grown-ups as soon as you could talk. “What do you want for dinner?”, we’d ask, but also “What sort of school do you want to attend?”, and “What do you think about world politics?”
Worse still, we gave you what we had been craving: the trust that if you worked hard enough you could be and do everything you wanted. And our complete (and, more importantly, unconditional) love, that taught you that you were an important person, unique in the world. We also gave you choices, almost unlimited choices, and when you were sad or unsure of yourself we bucked you up and helped you out. And for this we are sorry. So, so sorry. Because this is what fucked you up, to quote Larkin. According to Thijs Launspach, psychologist at Amsterdam University and author of Quarter Life Crisis and The Millennial Manifest, this provided you with a toxic and explosive cocktail of stress and pressure to achieve.
What has made millennials vulnerable, lonely, depressed, fearful and burnt out, Launspach says, is the consequences of what we taught you. We said you were great and could do great things. You heard that you had to, that we would only accept successful children. We said you were one of a kind, the centre of the universe. You heard you were the be-all-and-end-all, in control of everything; not just of success and happiness, but also the lack of it. We said everything was possible. You heard that failure was not an option and that you had to be your best and perfect self all the time. We gave you the opportunity to stretch the time between puberty and adulthood by ten years. You took that decade to build up your stress levels and your expectations of what you and the world should look like. Then (and thank God we are not responsible for that bit) you put yourself on social media. Not your real self, of course, but the overblown, perfect version of it. And because you all did, you started to believe that perfection was possible and any kink in your armour a personal fault and unacceptable failure. Hence burnout, depression and worry.
According to Launspach and other experts, the biggest problem millennials are dealing with is unrealistic expectations. Of the world, and of themselves. Because what we didn’t teach you was patience and a sense of perspective. And that is a problem, especially in the world of work. As the Financial Times wrote a few months ago, you want the share options and the corner office now, but that also means that you get the burnout that goes with that now as well. In fact, you will get a more intense version, because the 50-something that used to be in your position also had a few decades’ more experience. He, or sometimes she, had time to learn to delegate, say no and be realistic about their own capacities and the price they were willing to pay for the corner office. You have none of that, but behave like “would-be masters of the universe, who tend to overdo it in their zeal to impress.” You exaggerate, and that type of “all-or-nothing devotion to workplace success can be a shortcut to ruin.” Of course, employers use your fervor to up the ante, asking for “passionate”, “committed”, “flexible”, “ambitious” workers who are always on call. They tap into your mistaken idea that you can start at the pinnacle of your career instead of the bottom, and drive you to put work at the centre of your identity. Which means that if you make mistakes (and can’t see those as natural and normal), you feel you are personally failing. Needless to say: those employers are mostly Gen X. We, I, us.
Of course, we are also the politicians who are messing up the world and making you, according to Deloitte’s Millennial Survey 2017, feel anxious and worried. That drives you to stay in jobs you’d rather leave. You’d love to work for yourself, get away from hierarchical structures and pushy bosses like us, but the universe is a scary place, so you choose certainty and the world of 9 to 5. It is a catch-22. “Many Millennials feel unable to exert any meaningful influence on some of society’s biggest challenges. But in the workforce, they feel a greater sense of control. There they are an active participant rather than a bystander.” Certainly, but a participant who can’t really reach the top, fulfill their own expectations or be as important as they think they should be. And when you try to opt out or get some rest, even that is fraught with danger and rules. The right way to meditate, unplug, be happy. And so you struggle on, always at least one step behind what you want yourself to be. And no understanding that this is normal, the way of the world, how we all feel. There is only one consolation I have to offer. I know you are postponing having children, but when you do, they will be called generation Alpha. Apparently, they are multi-modals, whatever that means, “upagers”; the “generation glass”. You will raise them completely differently from how we brought you up. You will do it better, I am sure, and will not have to say “sorry” in 20 years. Or maybe Philip Larkin was right all that time ago: “Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can. And don’t have any kids yourself.”