“Rhiannon’s life, compared with mine, seems very wobbly. She can never feel quite safe in her home or work; she is generally anxious and suffers from what her mum calls “impending doom scenarios”. … I’m not surprised. I’m only surprised by her and her friends’ general determination and resilience, and their lack of animosity towards people of my age. They confirm my belief that much of the “antagonism” between our generations has been whipped up by whoever labels us and lumps us all together as baby boomers or millennials in the first place. Those ridiculous terms are not helpful, and I can only wish Rhiannon and her friends luck. They’re going to need it.”
– Michele Hanson, ‘Baby Boomer,’ in “A millennial and a baby boomer trade places,” The Guardian
I read this stuff and I feel like people don’t believe it. In fact, I know people don’t believe it. I know even fellow millennials think anyone who is not getting ahead is just entitled and lazy. (Just go read the Urban Dictionary definitions of millennial.) But I do believe it, because I’ve seen this sort of anxiety and misery–my fellows just scraping by–and I know I myself am lucky to be where I am.
I also know people think I am ridiculous for reading so much about my generation, but in reality my heart aches so much. I feel so helpless because I cannot fix it, or even do much to alleviate even a moment of anxiety for anyone else. I want to shout, “Let’s pull together–let’s encourage each other and share our resources and our free time and our homes and our food–let’s comfort each other for the life goals that seems so beyond our reach.” But it’s not that easy. Shame hangs over it all. Shame for wanting these things, shame for not being able to achieve them, and shame for not being able to deal with the emotions that come with the absence of these things.
The reason people long for things like homes and marriage and steady jobs/income is because these things scream stability. And no matter how much stability is ridiculed, you don’t know how terrifying it is not to have it until you don’t have it. No one is there for you when you’re down. Your car breaks and you’re afraid your mechanic is cheating you and you don’t have the money anyway, but you need your car. You’re at the end of a temporary contract at work and no new positions are coming up. Your rent skyrockets. And over it all hangs this impenetrable darkness of anxiety.
“She makes me look at the chaos and instability of my own existence and feel suddenly tired. Not to mention far, far too old for it,” Rhiannon, the millennial, writes of Michele in The Guardian article above.
Cue grinding anxiety, exhaustion, and no sense of what comes next.
Because the question is, if the normal markers of adulthood seem so out of reach, what should we be doing with ourselves instead? The usual markers may not be inherently meaningful in and of themselves, but the little checkmarks of success they bring to your life feels like progress at the very least. What sort of goals, or signposts, should be substituted? How do you know you’ve got somewhere, and what can you use to bolster yourself while fighting the general opinion of society that you’re not succeeding and you’re not doing anything meaningful?
It’s clear why people–millennials even–just dismiss this experience. Once you achieve something (Yes! A job!), you really do feel as if it’s you who did it all by yourself. You made it through the struggle, despite the anxiety (or without it, even), and you don’t want to think about it. And in one sense you did do something–and yet there’s always a bit of random circumstance involved that you have to acknowledge. Something fell into place for you somewhere. So why disdain those who can’t get a break? Because to do otherwise is threatening to your own sense of achievement?
For me, I spent two years doing temp work and several months before that job-hunting after I finished my degree, before I landed a stable part-time position doing something related to my education (which I love). And don’t get me started on how long it took me to find what sort of ‘higher education’ I should even pursue. So I know I’m lucky. I know most people don’t even get here. So many people I went to university with work in areas completely unrelated to their education, or their interest. So many go back for more and more education (and debt) because they can’t get a foothold in the working world… and the working world increasing overlooks education for work experience.
So many work below their skill level. So many who haven’t done higher education struggle to find something that pays enough to live on, even without the debt that comes from school.
And yet I still believe the solution is to come together. To face down our shame, and declare our anxiety, and not hide it. It’s not each one of us singly facing the darkness alone. We understand each others’ experience. And people from every generation understand it… things haven’t always been easy for everyone. We can’t let those who’d scoff at the idea that things are hard get us down, or make us believe what we feel isn’t real or worth listening to. It is worth listening to. And we won’t get by on our own.