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What’s bugging the Millennials?

Is the pursuit of happiness counterproductive? Credit: Getty

Is the pursuit of happiness counterproductive? Credit: Getty

January 15, 2019   3 mins

In many ways, the Millennials (people born in the 1980s and early 1990s) are a nicer, better behaved bunch than my generation (Gen X). But, to make a sweeping generalisation, they don’t strike me as being very happy.

It’s an impression reinforced by articles from Millennial writers like Juliana Piskorz, who describes her ‘quarter-life crisis’ in an essay for the Guardian.

I’m sure it had a lot of older readers snorting in derision – especially Gen Xers wrestling with the more familiar half-life crisis and Baby-boomers not so far from that full-life crisis otherwise known as death.

What is a quarter-life crisis anyway?

“Clinical psychologist Alex Fowke defines it as ‘a period of insecurity, doubt and disappointment surrounding your career, relationships and financial situation” in your 20s.’”

“…A LinkedIn study last year discovered that 72% of young Brits have experienced a quarter-life crisis, and 32.4% would say they are currently having one. Darain Fawaz, a career advisor at LinkedIn, tells me that on average the crisis hits at 26 years and nine months…”

The mid-20s are an age when the prolongation of youth becomes untenable and full adulthood beckons. Older generations haven’t exactly made it easy for Millennials to make the transition. On issues like higher education, employment and housing, we’ve made the opportunities that we once enjoyed much harder and more expensive for today’s young people to access.

But I think there’s more to Millennial unhappiness than economics – or politics for that matter. It can be argued that the national and international situation doesn’t leave much room for hope right now. But are things any worse in the 2010s than, say, the 1980s, when Gen Xers were growing-up in the shadow of a mushroom cloud? Looking back, the outcome of the Cold War might seem inevitable to us now, but that’s not the way it felt at the time. Mass unemployment wasn’t much fun either, nor was (what was presented as) the unstoppable march of HIV/AIDS. 

So is there anything else that might be demonstrably more unsettling for the current generation of young adults?

Piskorz quotes the psychiatrist, Dr James Arkell:

“As I struggle to articulate to Arkell the sense of disconnect I feel between where I thought I would be and where my life actually is, he suggests that the importance of religion, or the lack of it, has a large part to play. ‘One feature of religious belief is that your value is intrinsic rather than based upon performance or image,” he explains, “and as we move away from a religion-based society, young people are looking towards their careers to validate their sense of self.’”

Of course, most of my generation also grew up without much in the way of religion, as did the one before that. But with each generation that we move away from the shared religious past, the weaker that our ‘cultural Christianity’ becomes.

One doesn’t have to have a strong personal faith to grow up with understandings rooted in a religious tradition: for instance, the sense that one is not the centre of the universe; that there is an objective reality beyond one’s personal feelings; and, even, that there are more important things in life than being happy. 

These are the echoes of a once-dominant worldview, perpetuated down the generations long beyond the Enlightenment and the dawning of modernity. However, the signal is fading. More than that, it’s being actively jammed by a contemporary culture that is entirely subjective in its perspectives; that deals in personal truths rather than the truth; and which elevates feelings over facts.

Above all, happiness is held up as the highest good. That the most important country of the modern world has the ‘pursuit of happiness’ as its mission statement is no fluke. Indeed, if one wishes to provoke outrage without resort to politics, personal insult or obscenity, try telling people that happiness isn’t the most important thing in life. It’s guaranteed to get a reaction.

But could it be that the pursuit of happiness is counterproductive? Writing for the BBC, David Robson looks at the research that concludes that for many people it is:

“A detailed questionnaire, for instance, asked participants to rate statements such as:

  • How happy I am at any given moment says a lot about how worthwhile my life is
  • To have a meaningful life, I need to feel happy most of the time
  • I value things in life only to the extent that they influence my personal happiness

“As expected, the team found that the more strongly the participants endorsed those sentiments, the less content they were with their current life.”

It strikes me that we’ve taught a whole generation that life is all about ‘chasing your dreams’. The trouble is that sooner or later you wake up to reality. And then what?

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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