Sean Moncrieff: Is this a great time to be young? No

Constant happiness has turned into both a right and an oppressive responsibility

Rates of anxiety and depression among young people have swelled dramatically over the last couple of decades.

Rates of anxiety and depression among young people have swelled dramatically over the last couple of decades.

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Young people today. This is a golden time for them. They’re well-educated, well fed and clothed. They are listened to. Never before in human history have parents put to so much effort and guilt into trying to ensure their kids develop into happy, undamaged adults. Our culture devotes most of its attention to the young, to bolstering the idea that their age is the best age. 

Yet the young are miserable.

Rates of anxiety and depression among young people have swelled dramatically over the last couple of decades.

During 2016/17 more than 10,000 third level students in Ireland sought counselling. A study carried out last year among second level students in Cork and Kerry revealed that a quarter of them had symptoms of anxiety. 

Something is going on, and while there is an abundance of theories as to the cause, or causes, there is as yet no firm consensus. In part, this is due to a degree of bafflement among their parents and a strong temptation to be unsympathetic; after all, we had it much harder when we were their age.

We weren’t listened to; we weren’t parented. We had far fewer opportunities and more obstacles. We weren’t told we could be whomever we wanted or do whatever we wanted. If you got a job in the bank or the civil service, you took it. No one felt the need to teach us resilience.

But perhaps this is misplaced guilt, an unspoken fear that by wanting to give our kids a nice childhood, we made it too nice, too insulated from harm and stress. If we have a generation of snowflakey wusses, then we made them that way.

Relax, parents: it’s not all about you.

Given that all humans are a mysterious mixture of nature and nurture, there’s at least 50 per cent of your child’s psychological make up that came pre-packed. And as for the nurture part, yes, you did have some influence, but so too has every other person your child has met. So too have friends, TV, peer pressure, social media, music, school. It’s virtually impossible to take all the blame. Or all the credit.

So instead, let’s entertain this mad idea; what I’ve said so far is nonsense. This isn’t a golden time to be young. It might not look like it, but it’s tougher now for young people than it was for their parents at the same age. 

Social media

Part of it must be the way we brought them up. With the very best of intentions, we told them they deserved to happy, that they could be whatever they want to be. Given that range of choices, no one wants to take over the family plumbing business; they’ll want to be a zillionaire Instagram star, because those people don’t even work. They just film themselves going to the shops and people love them for it.

Constant happiness has turned into a right and an oppressive responsibility. You have to be happy, and if you’re not, you better keep it to yourself. Because if you’re not happy all the time there’s something wrong with you.

Social media didn’t cause this discontent. Instead it has acted as a massive amplifier, a place where people pretend to be happy and scramble after a few crumbs of the approbation that they believe will deliver them the happiness they already pretend they have. 

But mostly it’s the culture we live in now. We are all immersed in it, and it never shuts up. In the last decade, the human race has produced more information than in the history of the human race prior to that. News and music and Netflix and Amazon Prime and Snapchat and movies and Instagram and Twitter and online shopping and real shopping and pre-debs and debs and the Leaving Cert holiday. No wonder they feel overwhelmed. There’s too much of everything. 

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