Millennials are considered an anxious generation, and people are generally all too ready to give reasons why.
Simple explanations tend to revolve around the modern day obsession with technology. A lack of sleep is caused by watching one too many episodes of the latest binge worthy Netflix series; stress comes from an obsession with social media, which either paints the picture that everyone is out having fun but us, or has us checking how many likes our latest selfie has in the same anxious way we check how many pounds we have in the bank.
It’s an unsympathetic explanation, but then the terms Millennial or Generation Y are rarely used to introduce a compliment. Instead, Millennial is generally found as a prelude to a lot of negative feedback on students and young workers, including accusations as damaging as the idea that their problems, including anxiety, stem from a lack of work ethic and an arrogant and narcissistic sense of entitlement.
Other, less patronising explanations for Millennial anxiety include politics, which evokes either discontentment, or worse still, complete disconnection. It’s easy to see why. Last year Hillary Clinton tweeted, ‘How does your student loan debt make you feel? Tell us in 3 emojis or less’, which was the equivalent of talking goo-goo-gaga to a four year old.
When young people in Scotland tried to get involved in politics, turning out in mass numbers for the Independence Referendum, they found their opinions to be at odds with the rest of the population, as the ‘No’ campaign won despite an estimated 71 per cent of young people voting ‘Yes’.
There’s no doubt both these things have caused a disenchantment with politics, which in the current climate of elections is a fair cause for anxiety. However, just like the impact of technology, this is not an issue exclusive to Millennials, and doesn’t tell the full story of Millennial anxiety.
Instead, the answer lies in the fact that anxiety comes from uncertainty, and Millennials, as an age group and a generation, have plenty to be uncertain about.
Millennials spend longer in education, in differing jobs and in gap years, than any generation before them. They also marry later. As a result they spend longer at a stage in life where employment isn’t a guarantee, lifestyles aren’t built around rigid routine, and they can’t look ahead to the future with complete certainty.
There are milestones for the typical life which we are all aware of. Getting GCSEs and A-Levels, passing the driving test, moving away from home, entering full time employment, owning a house, etc. But there’s no doubt that attitude and access towards the things that society considers to ‘settle’ us, is changing.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the number of marriages taking place in England and Wales has decreased from over 400,000 in 1971 to just over 230,000 in 2009. People are waiting until they’re older to get married, with the average age having gone from 22 to 30 for women and 24 to 33 for men.
One reason for this is of course the greater social acceptance of couples living together outside of marriage, but even when this happens, it’s hard for Millennials to do so in a house which they own. The Office for National Statistics says on average house prices have increased by 7 per cent per year since 1980, with the number of first time buyers decreasing as these prices have went up.
As a result the average age of getting on the housing ladder is also well over thirty. Add student loans to this, and many of the things we consider part of the normal ‘adult’ life – marriage, a house, a solid and accessible income – can feel like a long wait away for millennials.
This has almost become accepted and for this generation, and for most people this age, these things have always seemed a long way off. The familiarity with debt through student loans means that hardships are not always met with a great deal of resentment.
Where the anxiety comes, however, is when the modern world changes, and expectations do not. The generalisation around generations is not only in what they do, but also what they are supposed to do and what they should be striving to do in the future. As such, anxiety for Millennials often comes not from what they do, but the idea that they should be doing something else, should be on a certain path, or should have already done more.
However, the opportunities and traditional life plan that was normal for previous generations are not as readily available or as straightforward today, and it’s not fair to undermine this generation because they are not achieving the exact same things as those before them.
Uncertainty over things as fundamental as careers, housing and relationships will naturally produce anxiety at times, and to suggest that these things should come as a standard at a certain time, or worse still to imply that Millennials are not reaching these targets because of laziness or a lack of ambition or dedication, is to make things worse.
There are new opportunities available for young people today, different to those society has been used to before. We see it in education, where more and more students are ignoring traditional paths and choosing other routes and seizing new opportunities.
It is evident in the working world, where developing industries and technologies are introducing new jobs all the time, and where the workplace is ever changing, with the classic nine-to-five no longer the primary ambition it once was.
What was once a traditional template for young people transitioning into fully fledged adulthood is no longer universally possible or sought after, and although we might occasionally be fed a new one – an image of young well-dressed workers in happy, open planned offices – the idea of a fixed template of what we should be is contrary to the freedom Millennials want.
Growing opportunities and options mean stereotypes and stigmas are beginning to fade. In an ever-changing world, fewer things are guaranteed, and changes happen more often and more emphatically than ever before. What is new can often seem uncertain, but to compare the different paths available today to past expectations is a mistake, and risks leaving young people wrongfully feeling like they are lagging behind.
In reality, the abundance of opportunities available today means that doing something different to what was once the norm is nothing millennials deserve to be made feel anxious about.