The real reason why millennials are unhappy and anxious

Millennials are the therapy generation.

At least, that’s what the Wall Street Journal has to say about American millennials. This group of people, born between the mid-80s and the late-90s, shows the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s. No wonder they’ve made a lifestyle out of discussing what a hot mess they are.

If you’re a millennial in the eastern world though, tough luck. While Indian millennials claim some of the highest stress rates in the world, 75% wouldn’t pursue therapy because of the cultural stigma surrounding poor mental health. Japan doesn’t look too good either. It has more than half a million “hikikomori”: young people who have become modern-day hermits by staying in their rooms all day and refusing all social contact.

gif: millennials depression, anxiety and poor mental health

A caveat

To understand millennial depression and anxiety, we need to examine how the social and economic conditions of our increasingly globalized world have warped our minds. Before I go further, I need to get 2 things out of the way:

  • Every generation has its share of hardships to shoulder. I’m not claiming that millennials are more burdened than others. I’m just explaining the particular set of hardships that millennials are facing.
  • A lot of pressures that millennials face are to do with being young(ish). Hopefully, we can get over them with age and maturity.

Now that’s that clear, let’s look at all the ingredients that have brewed together and produced our millennial mental health crisis cocktail.

The 3 Horsemen of Unhappiness: History, Economics, and Moral Studies

The economic world order started changing considerably in the late 1970s and 80s. The dominant political and economic ideologies in the US and Europe at the time (classical liberalism and Keynesian economics) had failed. If you don’t know what those terms mean, it’s alright. Stick with me here.

Anyway, the UK and the US were both experiencing economic crises, and a new system had to be cobbled together somehow. Once Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan came to power, they ushered in a new era of “neoliberalism” in their respective countries. The World Bank, The World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund then imposed these same policies on other countries – sometimes even without their democratic consent.

Neoliberalism 101

To the uninitiated, neoliberalism is what happens when capitalism goes on steroids and becomes a moral philosophy. Neoliberalist ideology doesn’t just stop at relentlessly promoting free-markets, deregulation and privatization. It also reveres competition, worships ambition, promotes the individual over the group and marries self-worth with professional achievement.

This is the ideology that is responsible for the financial crises, job insecurity, exploitative work hours, and declining wages that have left millennials in some western countries poorer than their parents. It also has us convinced that we are solely to blame for our failures in this economy.

Margaret Thatcher: Economics is the method; the object is to change the soul. Neoliberalism led to millennials depression

Millennials and those born after (Generation Z) were the first to have grown up under this system. We have never known anything else, so it psychologically affects us more than it does older generations. Let me explain how it has caused our collective decline in mental health:

1.   The Rise of Bullshit Jobs

In an ideal society, what would our best and brightest minds be doing? Working on further improving the world and transforming lives, maybe? Well, the brightest millennials currently work 60-hours a week to get people to click on more Facebook and Google ads. In our society, there is no worthier cause than keeping shareholders happy.

Through a viral post and then a book, David Graeber (a professor at the London School of Economics) explained how this extraordinary explosion of bullshit jobs has put a “scar upon on our collective soul”.

What exactly is a bullshit job? A job that has no real purpose or meaning, even to the person performing it. Examples include telemarketing, corporate law, private equity management and all sorts of middle management positions where you just shuffle around papers all day. Bullshit jobs may be high-status, but they mostly exist to give people a career path and keep them satisfied. There would be minimal impact on society if these jobs suddenly disappeared overnight. In fact, in the case of telemarketers at least, society might even improve.

Why have bullshit jobs proliferated? Let me quote from Graeber himself:

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour workweek. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshalled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless.”

The Crisis of Meaning

Obviously, there is no supreme judge of what constitutes a bullshit job. It’s up to each person to decide for themselves if their job has any significance. The statistics are alarming: worldwide, only 13% of people are engaged in their jobs. As much as 37% of British workers feel that their jobs don’t even need to exist. Millennials especially want purposeful work: half of Canadian millennials say they would take a pay cut for a job with more meaning.

Dilbert comic strip of bullshit jobs make life feel meaningless. key cause of millennials depression
Source: Dilbert by Scott Adams

This is the great paradox of neoliberalism. It is supposed to end inefficiency in work, but has produced an abundance of nonsense instead. It promises us free choice in the pursuit of our happiness, but is promoted with the slogan “There is no alternative” while producing wage slavery and a mental health crisis.

We can trace this crisis to one of the foundational ideas of neoliberalism: that people are completely rational, self-interested creatures who work only to maximize their advantage. In that case, nothing would make us happier than getting paid to just sit around and do absolutely nothing of importance all day. And yet, this has made us depressed and disillusioned. Maybe it’s because we have been taught a theory of human nature that doesn’t match actual human nature.

What we do know from psychology is that we can afford to be less cynical about humanity as a whole. One finding is that people absolutely need to have some source of purpose in their lives. We also have a human need to make positive connections with other people and feel like we’re in control of our lives. Bullshit jobs that don’t engage us, invade all hours of our lives and don’t give us the freedom to do anything else just make us feel depressed instead.  

2.   The Myth of Meritocracy

On the surface, meritocracy sounds Utopian. What could be fairer than a society in which you determine your status through your abilities and hard work? A meritocratic society ensures that those who are deserving get into the top schools and universities, then into the top companies where they will do the top jobs making top money. Lazy people fail. Life is fair.

Nah. The reality, as always, is more complex.

What meritocracy implies is not just that we believe the cream deservedly rises to the top, but also that people who are at the bottom deserve to be there. This is a dangerous thing to believe for 2 reasons:

  • Meritocracy is by its very definition, a system that is pre-designed to have only a few winners. This means that everybody else has been set up to fail, no matter how hard they try.
  • It is impossible to exclude the role that luck and chance have to play in the final outcome. There will always be bright kids born into poor, abusive or negligent families who are not able to reach their true potential. And there will always be inept and lazy people cruising through life on their family’s wealth.

A strong belief in meritocracy poisons our attitudes towards others. We judge them harshly for their failures. Inevitably, that judgemental attitude turns inwards as well. When we fail at something, as we all do sooner or later, we feel like we were never good enough to succeed in the first place. As the philosopher Alain de Botton noted, back in the day people at the bottom of society were called “unfortunate” i.e. literally not blessed by the gods with luck. Now, we can no longer fall back on the comfort of that idea. We fail because we are fundamentally “unworthy”.

The Lie of Success

Meritocracy is why it is no accident there are primarily 2 kinds of self-help books. The first type promises to give us all the “secrets to success”, while the second helps us cope with our depression and low self-esteem.  A society that worships “merit-based success” is also a society that has an epidemic of depression and anxiety.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t work hard or try our best at what we do. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t take responsibility for our lives or adopt a victim mentality. I’m just questioning the narrative that merit, status or even achievement are the keys to happiness and what our lives should be all about. From what I’ve observed in myself and others, even the people who supposedly succeed in a meritocracy aren’t happy. They wake up every day a prisoner to their own ambition. Their fuel is an unshakeable low-grade existential anxiety. No amount of success or achievement, no matter how great, is ever enough to create contentment or peace.

The saddest part of all this is that meritocracy is mostly an illusion anyway. Being born rich is still a better predictor of adult success than intelligence or working hard at school. From birth, children of the skilled “meritocratic” class are conditioned for success in a way working-class kids are not. They have the cumulative benefits of their parents’ resources, connections and know-how from the time they are placed into their competitive pre-schools till they network their way into fancy jobs . The myth of meritocracy acts a smokescreen to perpetuate social inequality.

3.  The Myth of “You can have it all”

Another bit of propaganda that works hand-in-hand with meritocracy is the idea that no structural barriers stop us from achieving our dreams. It’s a heart-warming and inspirational message – “You can do anything you want, and you can have all that you want, as long as you work hard enough”.

Now, even if we completely ignore how the politics of ethnicity, gender, class, caste or sexuality can affect our opportunities in life, the statement still rings hollow. Why? Because neoliberalism turns everything it touches into a commodity, including ourselves. It transforms “You can be anything” into “You have to be everything”. If not, we are disposable.

In the Professional World:

At work, it’s no longer enough to be just hardworking and responsible. We must also show “passion”, “commitment” and “innovation” for even the most meaningless and underpaid of jobs. We must constantly schmooze, network and promote ourselves, all while remaining “humble” and “grateful”. Even if we’re dealing with an existing workload that never lightens up, we should regularly seek opportunities for professional growth and development . And above all, we must do and we must be all these things effortlessly.  We’re afraid that the mere suggestion that we may be struggling can destroy us in our dog-eat-dog world.

millennials depression and anxiety because of never-ending work expectations

In Our Private Lives:

We must subject our personal lives to constant optimization as well. Things we should work towards having include:

  • A fairy-tale love story with the partner of our dreams.
  • Two and a half kids that excel at whatever they do so that we can bask in their reflected glory.
  • A body that looks like it has been photo-shopped to runway model standards.
  • A circle of close-knit friends that would be ready to die for us. Or at the very least, agree to hang out with us when we ask them.
  • Interesting and cool hobbies so we never look blank when someone asks “So what do you in your spare time?”
  • Picture-perfect vacations to exotic locations that demonstrate how cultured and worldly we are.
  • Carefully curated social media profiles that show how we’re both successful but care-free.
  • A carefully curated list of imperfections to (strategically) reveal because being too perfect is also a flaw.

No wonder then are millennials depressed and burnt out. A set of continuously expanding metrics means that we are a source of never-ending guilt and disappointment to ourselves. Turns out that treating ourselves less as human beings and more as products or brands to constantly market and improve upon, with no actual guarantee of success, isn’t great for mental health. Depression in this context is just self-protective: a withdrawal from unwinnable and ceaseless competition.

4.   The Cult of Individualism

Another idea that neoliberalism holds sacred is individualism. It’s the concept that nothing should be more important to us than ourselves and our achievements. The opposite of this is collectivism – the idea that the well-being of the group we are in (e.g. our families, societies, countries etc.) is more important than our own well-being. Neither extreme is good.

Our increasingly individualist societies tell us that we are special, talented and should have big dreams and expectations of life. We believe this so much that we see being ordinary as a failure. Even now, most of the millennials reading this are thinking “I really am special though. People just don’t realize how different I am.” This is the problem.

individualism, feeling like you're special
Source: xkcd

Statistically, almost all of us will go on to live very ordinary, “unspecial” and unexceptional lives. This is when the anxiety and insecurity start creeping in, particularly for high-achieving people. Are the thoughts of “I’m letting myself down” and “I’m not living up to my potential” familiar?

Millennials of course, experience this the most. From childhood, we didn’t just have to deal with neoliberalist individualism, but also contend with the rise of the self-esteem movement in western countries. We heard things like:

  • “You’re a very special boy Billy, and you have a very bright future waiting for you.”
  • “Jessica, remember to shoot for the moon so that you can at least land among the stars.” (Side note: This is not how space works.)

Globalization and Hollywood exposed even millennials in developing countries to some of this messaging.

The shattering of expectations

This increasing individualism meant a lot of millennials grew up at least partly believing that if they kept their aims high, they could be anything and do anything. And then… they became adults and figured out that those things weren’t likely to happen. There’s a particular kind of pain in realizing that our expectations of life have sharply diverged from reality. It hurts when we register that we will never achieve our childhood dreams. This is something that adults of all generations have gone through, but the sadness and anxiety generated have been magnified exponentially in our generation.

This is also why the frequent accusation that millennials are self-absorbed and narcissistic lack nuance. It is undoubtedly true – no group of people who feel the need to constantly post pictures of their food on social media can be said to low on narcissism. But there’s a lot more to it than simple vanity. Millennials are self-absorbed because they feel they have to be. Our insistence on trying to show how amazing we are, and how “perfect” our lives come from a justifiable belief that it’s what society expects from us. We fear that we will be torn to shreds as failures otherwise.

So what to do now?

I realize this post has been pretty doom-and-gloom, so I want to end on a positive note.

1.Let go of the rat-race

Millennials know we’re behaving like hamsters with a treadmill addiction. We have run ourselves into a mental health crisis trying to avoid feelings of failure, where we define failure as us not living the absolute best life possible. On some level, we know this is bullshit, and completely unsustainable. But while it’s a logical truth, it’s not yet an emotional truth for a lot of us.

Millennials depression at being stuck in the rat race : The trouble with being in the rat race is that even when you win you're still a rat.

I want to shake things up. We were raised to believe that all hard work will be justly rewarded, so let’s flip that around. I can tell you that with a lot of self-reflection and courage, it is possible to free ourselves from the mental shackles of neoliberalism. We may not be able to change the system or free ourselves financially/economically from bullshit jobs and wage slavery, but we can liberate our minds from much of the emotional tyranny.

It is possible to lead a happy, content and meaningful life without taking part in the rat-race of material wealth, prestige and status. We can feel like we have both worth and virtue without having to prove it through our professional accomplishments. There is peace in knowing that we are not any more special than anybody else while living an entirely ordinary life.

2. Figure out what success actually means to you

This deprogramming of our minds starts by examining our deeply-rooted ideas of a successful life. How much of these ideas were just what we were conditioned to believe? How much pain are they causing us as we follow them without question? We need to work on figuring out what it is we truly want out of life – a more sustainable and kinder philosophy of success.

(Note: My article on motivation may be helpful to you here. It also provides you with a list of values and a way to rank them so you can figure out what’s truly important to you.)

I’ll go first. I now base my personal idea of success off Maya Angelou’s definition:

Getting rid of millennials depression: "Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it. "

So… get thinking. What is your new personal definition of success?