A recent study claiming 3 in 5 Millennials believe life to be more stressful than ever before has garnered no small amount of attention this week. This is the sort of clickbaity study that often serves to perpetuate small-minded prejudices instead of illuminate. That’s to be expected of the ill-informed that infest social media. It shouldn’t be expected of our national leaders. But, alas, we live in increasingly stupid times. Former governor of Arkansas and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee reacted to the study over Twitter by sharing the following with the world:
Let me say right off that I bear Huckabee no ill will. I had not heard that his wife was battling spinal cancer when he was twenty and attempting to pay his way through college. That’s terrible. But his comments display a certain level of generational bigotry that’s unbecoming of a former governor and aspiring national leader. Unless Huckabee has joined the Get Off My Damn Lawn party, he’d do well to remember no one generation is inherently any better or worse than any other—it’s what they make of the circumstances they’re born into. Now, on its surface, both Huckabee’s comments and the survey seem to suggest that Millennials are a bunch of pathetic weaklings whose lives are so unbelievably privileged that they’ve had to invent reasons they’re stressed out.
I have no doubt this is true of some Millennials—just as it could probably be said of some people in all generations. But when large swaths of a generation (3 out of 5, if the survey is to be believed) report that their lives are unduly stressful, might it warrant some deeper reflection than to merely dismiss the entire lot of us as crybabies? Is it at all possible there’s something more going on here than an inexplicable increase in the number of spineless wimps roaming amok?
What’s Wrong with the Survey
In my humble opinion, the survey does a disservice by attempting to chart Millennial stressors on some kind of peculiar top-twenty listing (which includes such laughable entries as “arriving late” and “washing dishes”). Those aren’t the causes of stress so much as various factors that can exasperate a person who is already exhausted. I can imagine a young Mike Huckabee being very stressed over arriving late to class because he had to stay behind to wash the dishes if he were also caring for a wife with cancer. The dishes aren’t the problem, it’s how they pile on to the problem.
This approach is also unlikely to provide any insight into unique circumstances that cause much stress. For example, if one of the respondents said their stress was mostly due to losing their car keys and taking care of a dying loved one, which of those two things do you suppose would most likely be paired up with another respondent’s answers? The list of (seemingly) trivial complaints are things we might all have in common and, therefore, make it appear these are the only worries Millennials are facing.
What the survey gets right—perhaps unintentionally—is found in the opening paragraphs:
“The survey also pointed to numerous causes of the frustration for this young segment. Many feel their overall stress level is caused by the accumulation of daily micro-stressors—seemingly trivial experiences—such as being stuck in traffic, waiting for appointments, or various smartphone issues.”
To truly diagnose the root causes of Millennial stressors we need a sociologist, or a social commentator, or a mental health professional, not a top-twenty stressors survey. I am none of the above. And, doubtless, there are numerous and complex reasons for a reported increase in stress that I am unqualified to explain. With those qualifiers in mind, however, I’d like to offer a few suggestions.
Do We Have It Better Than Prior Generations?
Millennials have come of age at a remarkably paradoxical time in our nation’s history. In some ways America has never had it so good—the world’s only superpower with an economy and military that rivals all others. In other ways, not so much.
Noah Rothman—who I had the pleasure of interviewing for the podcast earlier today—wrote about the oddity of political violence in the United States in his recent book Unjust. “Those who engaged in violence in 2016 and 2017 were born in the most fortunate period in the safest and most stable country mankind has ever known. They were born into stability and relative prosperity, regardless of their personal circumstances. Unless they have migrated from elsewhere, most have never known organized, state-supported political terror. But they have nevertheless romanticized political violence and, to some extent, welcomed it.”
This is hardly descriptive of Millennials as a whole, but it begs the question why do some born in conditions so good turned to violence? Much like the question of why our generation is reporting more stress than ever when our elders scoff because we’ve never had it so good.
I believe at the root of much of this lies the unprecedented alienation, loneliness, and loss of genuine community. Never before have the institutions of faith, family, and community been as shattered and maligned as they are today. Our material capital may be doing well, if we overlook the fact we’re buried in debt—another great source of stress. But our social capital has depleted considerably more than any generation past. And that matters.
Huckabee’s Social Capital
Huckabee pointed out the stressors in his life when he was our age—having to pay his way through college while taking care of a loved one with a life-threatening illness. But what part of that has anything to do with the generation he was born into? Do Millennials not have to pay for college? Do they not care for sick loved ones? I’ve done both—and those pesky dishes have been a great source of stress during the ordeal.
I hope—for Huckabee’s sake—that he had plenty of social capital to draw on in those dark days. I hope he had friends and family willing to drop by and help where they could by lending financial support or taking care of the little things so that he could get a break or just by being a listening ear. I hope he found peace and comfort in his faith tradition where likeminded worshipers came together. I’d like to think he went into that crisis with a thick layer of institutional fortitude.
But these are luxuries unattainable to far too many Millennials. And, even if they have a network of family and friends to fall back on in times of trouble, there is still a powerful sense of alienation that accompanies our cold, digital world.
The Loneliness Epidemic
The evidence of a growing loneliness epidemic and the beginnings of societal upheaval have been well documented in recent years in books such as Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, Timothy Carney’s Alienated America, Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West, Patrick J. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, or Senator Ben Sasse’s Them. In their own way, each work tells the sad tale of a world of growing social tension and animosity caused by societal, cultural, technological, and spiritual alienation. It’s perfectly understandable Millennials would feel stressed—even if they have trouble identifying the roots of their stress.
None of this is meant to be an excuse for weakmindedness. Each generation has its unique challenges—some greater than others. Each individual within their respective generation must learn how to deal with those challenges. The challenges that face us may be more nebulous than the challenges that faced prior generations—which makes it all the easier for people like Huckabee to dismiss us as lazy, spoiled whiners. And, in many ways, we have the misfortune of welcoming in a new age of digital transformation that will likely exacerbate these conditions—making it hard to put into words on the front end what exactly the true source of our stress is or what to do about it; not to mention the added bonus of our elders’ unwillingness or inability to understand our plight.
But we shouldn’t dismiss so easily those 3 in 5 Millennials who report their lives to be more stressful than ever before. Even if this is an exaggeration, it’s also an indication that there’s something there. The conservative views all generations as linked and equally valuable. We have much to learn from our elders, even as we forgive them for their lack of patience with us.