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The downside of ‘the world’s your oyster’

A while ago, Tim Urban of Wait But Why wrote a post called ‘Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy’. It’s worth reading in full, if just for the cartoons, but the tldr version is that our generation is delusional and entitled. While we may dream of becoming a Booker prize winning novelist, we’re actually a data entry clerk who sometimes writes Justin Bieber fan fic. And it’s this gulf between expectations and reality that’s making us miserable.

His prescription? Work really hard, ignore your peers’ blatant image crafting, and accept you’re not that special.

Urban’s words ring true to some extent. I mean, many Generation Y Yuppies ARE unhappy. We were primed to think the world’s our oyster, only to discover it’s not an oyster with pearls in it – it’s one of those oysters that gives you food poisoning and gets you ejected from your flatshare for monopolising the bathroom.

On the other hand, I wonder whether his argument rings true not because it IS true, but because it’s familiar. I mean, I’ve read some articles and watched some telly. I’m acquainted with Lena Dunham’s character in Girls. The narcissistic millennial – complete with her selfie stick, special snowflake complex and grandiose proclamations – is as much a trope of our times as the racist grandma.

Surely, though, it’s a bit of a fiction? I may be an anomaly, but don’t think I know anyone like that in real life. If you started talking earnestly about how you were planning on becoming the finest playwright of the 21st century, or singlehandedly bringing about world peace, you wouldn’t be left with any mates. You’re going to need that selfie stick.

Of course, generation Y is a broad term, perhaps too broad to be meaningful. Depending on which definition you’re using, it could refer to anyone aged between c. 20 and c. 40, meaning you could feasibly squeeze in two generations of the same family. It covers people who came of age without the internet, and people who socially snubbed their classmates by ‘unfollowing’ them. As someone squarely in the middle of that age range, I wouldn’t presume to pass comment on those a decade older or younger than I am.

For those aged 30ish, however, it’s fairly easy to see where the crushing sense of disappointment came from. After graduating uni, we were unleashed straight into a recession, and may have found it harder to get our careers underway than anticipated. Those a few years younger had to contend with top-up fees too as politicians reneged on their promises.

Whether or not we harboured, or continue to harbour, impossible ambitions, our sense of being cheated out of something is surely halfway justified. What were long considered the basic building blocks of adult existence (our own home, a stable job, the means to plan for the future) are frequently beyond our reach, and the hard graft we do put in is often tinged with defeatism.

Urban isn’t talking about that exactly, though – he’s talking about a cultural value shift in which ‘fulfilment’, not ‘stability’, is enshrined as the ultimate virtue. Even if we could afford a nice house in the suburbs, 2.4 kids and a job for life, would we want it – or, flighty millennials that we are, would we continue to chase our ‘passions’?

I was talking to my parents last night, and they were explaining how straightforward things had been in their day. Everything was clearly mapped out – you picked a partner from the fairly small pool available to you, you bought a house, and then you’d follow the child-rearing / breadwinning path determined by your chromosomes.

It was constricting, for sure – nobody thought about travelling the world or taking up a sideline career in coffee-tasting– but it was simple. And while I’m grateful I was never expected to spend my 20s donning a pinny and popping out babies, a part of me finds that kind of simplicity almost painfully appealing.

If anything, I think Generation Y Yuppies are unhappy not because we falsely think we deserve success and aren’t attaining it, but because we’re not sure what constitutes success in the first place. There are too many possible paths and too few roadsigns. As Urban points out, we’re typically looking to live our Own Personal Dream, as opposed to fitting a template. This means the onus is on us to define what that dream might be and work out a route for getting there.

So, if my parents’ friends at 30 were all living roughly the same life – settled into their second house with a couple of kids and earning just enough to support them – my peers at 30 are more like characters in the Big Book of Incredibly Divergent Possible Life Choices. There are some, for sure, who’ve prioritised home and family, and others who’ve shimmied up a linear career path. But there are others who’ve focused on travelling, others who are still studying, others whose day job is spent daydreaming about their creative vocation. As for professional coffee-tasters, I don’t know any yet, but if you are one, please let me intern?

Because of all the options seemingly on offer, taking any given route means shutting down others, and maybe feeling as a result like something’s missing. If you try to do everything, you’ll just burn out (‘having it all’ is a retro fallacy), so how do you pick the route that best encapsulates your ‘passion’? The same applies to finding a partner: how are you supposed to know which of your 507 Tinder matches is most worth going to IKEA with?

In short, I think the more prevalent mindset among my generation is not so much entitlement as bafflement. While we may or may not have been told we were special, we were at least told to be individual – to pursue our inner calling as opposed to following an established script. But when you can’t decide what this inner calling is (or when it doesn’t seem attainable) there’s a risk of succumbing to stasis.

As for Lucy in the Wait but Why post, she sounds like an annoying jerk. Don’t be like Lucy.


Categories: Millennial life anxiety

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Abi Millar

British freelance journalist living in the Netherlands

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