What's Wrong with Millennials?
Updated: Dec 10, 2019
We are called the Millennials, or Generation Y. Who are we? We’re the children of the baby boomers. We were born between the 1980s and the early 2000s. News articles, academic papers and older generations all like to talk about us, put us all in a neat tiny box. Apparently, we tend to be more liberal, to be more comfortable with modern communications and digital technologies. It seems we’re some sort of unknown group that needs to be defined, understood. What are our passions? What are our values? What are our dreams, they ask. Truth is, I don’t know if Millennials have dreams.
I know it is a bold statement, and that such a generalization cannot apply to a large population group from various different backgrounds. I’ve been talking a lot recently with my partner about how identity politics, or the idea that you can draw conclusions for a large group doesn’t make sense. So yes, I know I can’t make generalizations. Obviously young people all around the world have dreams, I know. But let’s pretend for a time, alright?
I do not think Millennials have dreams anymore, because that’s what I have witnessed around me. How many young people do you know that have gotten stuck in studies they do not even enjoy? How many young people do you know that have no clue what they would like to do with their life? How many young people do you know that can never commit to anything, that hesitate for so long that they get stuck in one place for way too long? How many young people do you know that are just so delusional, so pessimistic about their own future? How many young people do you know that battle with anxiety, depression, or some sort of anxiety disorder? How many young people do you know that have gone through rough times while everything around them seemed so comfortable?
This general malaise is real. It weighs on many young people I know, on many young people you know. You can see it in their arched shoulders, their tense muscles, their forced smiles. You can also see it in the statistics of young people diagnosed with some kind of anxiety disorders. The American Psychology Association said in 2011 that half of American children and adolescents “meet diagnostic criteria for at least one mental disorders by age 18”. That’s one out of two children.
It doesn’t make sense though, when you think about it. Older generations tell us we have it all, and it’s kind of true. We have security, a myriad of possibilities. We have family that supports us, the comfort of nice, warm homes, access to everything and anything we could ever think of. Travelling has never been easier – or cheaper. We can buy literally anything we could ever dream of without moving your ass from the couch. Yes, life is good, life is comfortable. Yes, we have it all, or so it seems.
Despite all of this, how many young people do you know that are just not happy?
I ask myself, what’s wrong with Millennials? What’s wrong with us?
There must be many factors influencing this massive group, that’s for sure. I assume one of them is easy access to everything: careers, technology, travels, information. Many of us have the amazing, ridiculous possibility to do anything, to go anywhere, to do whatever we want to do. I think that being faced with so many possibilities is also harmful. How do you decide between a thousand choices? How do you know it’s the right thing to do? How do you know that you’ve picked what’s going to make you happy, or at least happier than you are now? How do you know there’s not something else, just around the corner, that would fit better, would look better, would sound better?
I feel it too, I guess we all do. Should we call it pressure? Malaise? Anxiety? I don’t know. What I know is that it never really leaves, it’s always there. I am sure a lot of people have experienced and felt it differently. But I would hope that my own experience resonates with some, even if a few.
This fear of choosing wrong has been driving my every decision since I became responsible for my own happiness, which I would put at around eighteen. It’s funny, because I really feel like I did it right, you know? Similarly, to many others, I didn’t know what I wanted to do after high school. Nothing seemed impossible to do. I considered engineering. I considered business. I considered political science. But realistically, I felt I could have done anything. I was faced with a wide range of possibilities, and I felt stuck in fear of picking the wrong studies.
I did it right, I said. Instead of going straight to university, I decided to go abroad. I had always had a romanticized idea of travelling, of going to live abroad. I thought leaving my home for a bit would enrich me, provide me with an understanding of myself that I couldn’t grasp then. Going abroad was the solution, I was sure of it. Or so I thought. I moved to the lovely neighbourhood of Islington in London in September 2011 together with a Belgo-British family that needed a Jeune Fille au Pair to take care of their six-year-old son. I had a good time. It wasn’t always easy, to be put in charge of a child at eighteen, but I had fun. I took English classes to improve my speech, met a bunch of expats also looking to broaden their horizons. I passed the language test, and switched to a part-time internship to fill out my days. Thinking back at it, I was easily doing 50-hour work weeks, but I didn’t complain. I thought, you know, I’ll have it figured out after a year, for sure I will.
I didn’t though. June 2012 rolled in and that was it. I was then nineteen, better at English for sure, but I still didn’t have a clue about what I was supposed to do with my life. I felt a bit frustrated with myself. I didn’t understand what I did wrong. I had taken my time after all, I had worked my ass off for a full year, met new people and expanded my view on the world. Still, I didn’t know who I was. I had to take a decision. I remember thinking “well, I like travelling, I’m curious about the world and now I speak descent English”. I started looking at academic programmes in the Netherlands, which was not too far from my hometown. There were a few options that seemed to fit. How did I choose in the end? Quite randomly. Each programme had a description of the “ideal student”, the one that would fit right in in the specific programme. I compared them all and went with the one that seemed closer to me. I did European Studies. That seemed right, but truth is, I could have done anything.
Don’t get me wrong though. I liked my undergrad years. I learned, I developed skills that I didn’t even know existed. I met amazing people, developed a critical mind and good research skills. I learned to study – and work – on my own, to trust my own capabilities. I learned to manage my time, to prioritize tasks over others. I didn’t do too bad either. I wasn’t the best, far from it, but I was good.
Fast forward three years later. I had to decide, again. What to do now, where to go from here? I thought studying would tell me. I thought that if travelling and working wasn’t doing it for me, studying would. Ha. Not really. I had had a good education, but I didn’t know if I was passionate about what I had studied, about Europe and politics and economics. I was stuck. Again. For real?! The thing with me, is that I am really good to go along, to follow the trend, and so I went on to do postgraduate studies. It was expected, it was normal, it was what everyone was doing anyway.
I did International Political Economy at King’s College London, with no idea what the heck it was. I thought I would study economics, but I was wrong. International Political Economy was a whole field of study in itself, and so I dutifully tagged along the train. I can admit I didn’t enjoy those studies as much. A year is short, and I felt I didn’t have the time to process much. So there I was. 2016, 23 years old, two degrees in my pocket, but inside still so close to the girl I was at eighteen.
I took another break. I wasn’t ready. I felt like I had never been ready. I was confused, at a loss, trying to make sense of myself and of my future. What should I become? Where should I work? What should I do?
It is hard, and at the same time it isn’t. My life isn’t. I have a loving family, great friends, amazing opportunities. I was able to get almost anything I wanted. No was not a word I would often accept. But I couldn’t figure myself out, even at 23, even after years of studies, even with the comfort of my own home. I consider myself lucky still. I pushed forward regardless. I know some have not been so lucky. I know some have faced obstacles, discrimination, walls that seemed impossible to overcome. Are we so full of ourselves that we have become ungrateful? Unwilling to put in the effort? Entitled? Maybe. I still hurt as so many others do. Would you say our pain isn’t real?
I wish I could finish by saying that I found the perfect solution, but I haven’t. I haven’t found my way yet. I think I know myself a bit better. I’m definitely more at peace with myself. But more importantly, I realized that I might never know. As a kid, you have this ridiculous notion that adults have it all figured out. You believe they know, for sure, for certain. They don’t. Nobody never has it all together. Is it a human fatality? I don’t know. But accepting this truth helped me have a little peace of mind. It helps me get up in the morning, work forty hours a week, volunteer for two associations and write this blog. It pushes me to read books, keep learning new things, expand my interests. I pushes me to apply myself to what I do, to take time for myself too, to reflect on my actions and my thoughts.
Nobody’s perfect, nobody ever will. We are allowed to make mistakes, not to know where our path lies. And you know what? It’s okay. It’s okay. Everything will be okay.