Image: Snowflakes from James Mann's Flickr Photostream

Dangerous myths in precarious times

You might have seen headlines about the “snowflake generation” or “generation snowflake”: a derogatory term to describe young adults in the 2010’s. It was made one of the “words of the year” in 2016 by the Collins Dictionary and “poor little snowflake” became the defining insult.  The assumption is that the current generation of young adults are less resilient, more easily offended than past generations. Typical examples of “snowflake” behaviour include the need for University lecturers to give “trigger warnings” before showing sensitive material or the promotion of “safe spaces” where marginalised people or groups can gather without hostility.

Another dimension to the “snowflake” is their supposed sense of entitlement. The term has been most frequently associated with members of the alt-right who have delighted in circulating “crying snowflake” memes following the defeat of Hilary Clinton by Donald Trump. However, the term is now moving into the mainstream with potentially harmful consequences (and yes I can see the irony of this argument!). Our young people are characterised as overly fragile and self-obsessed while at the same time they are bearing the brunt of precarious markets, cuts to social welfare, increased costs of education and endless living in high rent accommodation.

In some ways, the generational divide has never been starker. In the 2017 Election UK young people voted in greater numbers than expected and gave an unexpected boost to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. The Tories had done little to lure young people with cuts to housing benefit for 18-21-year-olds, excluding under 25s from the minimum wage rise and trebling tuition fees for higher education.

Theresa May offered nothing to young people in her manifesto. Their message was: put up with your lot. Under the Tories, young people were taken for granted and sneered at for being too lazy to vote.

This apparent political divide between young and old is not confined to the 2017 general election. It was first noted following the Brexit vote with younger people typically voting to stay in the EU in much larger numbers than older voters. The ‘leave’ result has apparently increased anxiety for young people to the extent that as many as one in three say their mental health has declined in the past year as a consequence of the Brexit vote. Young people are reportedly concerned about: their finances; their housing; and a generally uncertain future.  All of this begs the question, are we now experiencing a political, economic and mental health divide that is largely determined by age rather than class?

Low pay, insecure work and housing pressures mean young people are struggling more and more to make ends meet, which is having a terrible impact on their mental health. We are accustomed to each generation having more opportunities than the last, but there is a feeling now that things are going backwards 

These problems are not confined to the UK either. In Australia, the NAB Wellbeing report 2017 shows that while general levels of wellbeing have been increasing for Australians aged 50 plus since 2013 they have been falling for young people aged 18-29. Mental health problems are at their highest prevalence amongst young adults with anxiety being the most significant contributor. In an interesting report Gen Y on Gen Y part of the University of Melbourne’s Life Patterns program, details the lives of 515 Generation Y members, now aged 28-29.  The research documents their key transitions of education and work. Participants share their anxieties regarding employment and housing opportunities and how the challenges they face impacts on their relationships, but it is not all negative. As one participant explains:

One thing that I feel like might be a bit more unique to our generation is that I think we all feel like we can make a difference to the world and that I think is a positive thing. It means that we have our minds placed on something else rather than just our own wealth and security. I know there’s a lot of conversations there about environment and climate change, change in the media, things like that.

There is a great deal of concern about challenging the stigma of mental illness. Indeed Theresa May has pledged Government support to help challenge the stigma of mental illness but has not channelled significant funding towards this.  Research conducted by the Education Policy Institute Independent Commission on Children and Young People’s Mental Health identified that a quarter of young people seeking mental health care are turned away by specialist services because of a lack of resources. Waiting times for treatment in many areas are also incredibly long.

There are certainly other ways of supporting young people in distress that avoid the pitfalls of overly medicalising and marginalisation. However, we are in danger of normalising the insidious idea that an entire generation can’t cope with life. This can have important implications not least regarding directing funding towards young people’s mental health services. A recent cohort study of Swedish young people found that a precarious employment situation is an important risk factor for subsequent development of mental health problems among previously mentally healthy young adults. Writing off an entire generation as narcissistic self-serving “snowflakes” serves to marginalise the wider structural inequalities that contribute to the situation. While we can argue for more resilience and self-care amongst the young, there are bigger issues which should concern all of us and which must be addressed at a political level.