The post-World War II babies of the 1950s were the teenagers and young adults who brought about the cultural and sexual revolutions of the 1960s. Theirs was a generation of optimism and change; they fainted during Beatles concerts, demanded contraception and held feminist protests. Restrained only by the hemline of their mod mini-skirts or the excessive fabric of their bell-bottom jeans, Boomers literally ran after politicians trying to kiss them [CBC News. “Vault Trudeaumania”]. Social activism was never sexier. The Boomers rode a high through college and university when the programs were less competitive and the tuition more affordable, graduating debt-free and with decent prospects for their future. In the 80s they continued to listen to David Bowie but traded in their socialist politics to take advantage of the economy, becoming the first generation in which bankers’ salaries soared past those in the traditional professions of engineer, doctor and lawyer. The money was good. The children of post-war immigrants drove new cars and bought houses in the suburbs. Women strutted through offices in power suits that triumphantly declared their intention to smash glass ceilings. In the late eighties and nineties these women had children; they had us—and we had the most privileged childhoods in the history of humanity. Then, sometime when we were in high school or college, our parents watched in horror as the financial system they constructed and bought into collapsed at their feet. Over a decade later, despite a slow recovery, the world is not the prosperous place we assumed we’d inherit—and we’re not teenagers anymore. As adults we walk a precarious line, cautiously planning our futures while wirily assessing the likelihood that various impending disasters will come to fruition during our lifetimes. We carry on as usual, intermittently posting selfies to Instagram and pondering the gravity of climate change, our own stifled careers, the global trend towards right-wing populism, instances of anonymously perpetrated electoral interference, the unaccountability of the giant tech companies to whom we’ve digitally signed over intimate details of our lives, and other such issues that imminently threaten Western liberal democracy or just the quality of life we feel we’re owed.
“Why is your generation so depressed?” a family member of my parents’ generation asks me. Certainly, the growing awareness surrounding mental health in recent years is not merely reflective of the declining stigma attached to it; social scientists and psychologists agree that my generation is more depressed and anxious than the ones preceding it [Mahmoud et al., 149]. It is bewildering to our parents, who gave us gilded childhoods and paved the path on numerous social justice issues. Even now, my Mom’s friend, a female CEO, emails her links to articles on how women can have it all. It’s an issue that to me seems outmoded but still holds particular relevance to the generation of women before me—the ones who recognized their mandate to enter the workforce, change gender roles, and create tidal waves of change through society. These are women on a mission. Millennials have no mission. Given that we have more opportunity than any generation preceding us, and that the world, though far from fair, is far less unfair than a generation ago, our parents’ question remains: what’s the matter with the kids, these days?
Putting aside, for a moment, the individuals in my generation who have actual diagnoses of depression, it is interesting to consider this question in its broadest terms: the culture of my Millennial generation. The optimistic, can-do attitude of the Boomers’ is a stark contrast to the ambivalent Millennial attitude towards the future and our diminished spirit of rebellion. Perhaps we grew up so privileged that we lacked purpose—and therefore meaning—and now are frozen on the precipice of true adulthood, with the greatest issues to confront humanity dangling on the horizon. Or maybe the issues are just too big to take on. When my female friends and I get together, the question is not “Can women have it all?” but rather, “Can any of us?”
In the last years of our twenties, my female friends and I sit around and discuss how unbridled capitalism has destroyed the natural world. We question whether our kids, by virtue of being Canadian, may be privileged enough to escape the devastating impact of climate change, and whether it is irresponsible to bring children in to a world that scientists predict will be irreversibly altered in thirty years [Astor, “No Children Because of Climate Change?” and Gillis, “Climate Change is Complex”]. It’s a moot point; our careers have not matched the pace of our parents’, and none of us can afford family housing in the city anyways. And we believe the scientists, but we don’t live as though we believe the apocalyptic nature of their predictions. If depression is the disease of not being able to see your future, then maybe that’s what Millennials have en masse. We carry on, becoming comfortable with the knowledge that we may not achieve the same level of material prosperity our parents did, with the precariousness of world politics, and with the fact that a global natural disaster will, apparently, peak shortly before our retirement. In the meantime, in a meandering sort of way, some of us get engaged, or buy affordable condos in transit-forsaken neighbourhoods. Others indefinitely postpone these final milestones of adulthood into our thirties. We move haltingly forth.
When asked why my so many people in my generation are depressed, I cannot help but think it must be linked to these broader global phenomena that leave us uncertain about our futures. The brutalist structures of the 1960s that once ushered in modernity now begin to crumble around us; monstrous demonstrations of the power of our parents’ youths that have become, like so many other things they created, seemingly too concrete to undo.
I would like to express my gratitude to Toronto photographer Dmitry Feirberg for allowing me to use his photograph for this article.
Astor, Maggie. February 5, 2018. “No Children Because of Climate Change? Some People are Considering it.”New York Times.https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/05/climate/climate-change-children.html. July 17th 2019.
CBC News.“Vault Trudeaumania – 1968.” Online Video Clip. Youtube. Oct 8 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38ccfU6ys7g. 17 July 2019.
Feirberg, Dmitry. July 10 2019. “Invisible”. Photograph. Toronto, ON.
Mahmoud, Jihan Saber Raja, Ruth “Topsy” Staten, Lynne A. Hall, and Terry A. Lennie. 2012. “The Relationship among Young Adult College Students’ Depression, Anxiety, Stress, Demographics, Life Satisfaction, and Coping Styles.” Issues in Mental Health Nursing 33 (3): 149-156. doi: 10.3109/01612840.2011.632708. http://resolver.scholarsportal.info/resolve/01612840/v33i0003/149_trayacdlsacs.
Gillis, Justin. May 31st, 2019. “Climate Change is Complex. We’ve Got Answers to Your Questions.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/climate/what-is-climate-change.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fclimate. July 17th 2019.