Another depressing study this week, regarding those of us under 35. A report by the Health Foundation thinktank warns that millennials are on track to become the first generation to have worse health outcomes than their parents once they reach middle age. Uncertainty over employment, relationships and housing – and the long-term stress, anxiety and depression associated with this – could make us more susceptible to “lifestyle” ailments such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. This, we are told, could erode the gains that have been made in improving health outcomes for previous generations.
I have been writing about generational issues for a good few years now, and there is very little positive news around.
I’m starting to feel like the millennial grim reaper, drawing attention to yet another pessimistic report, interviewing another round of case studies about lost, kind young people who are finding life difficult and just need a bit of a break. I recently wrote a feature about the potential mental health outcomes of insecure and unstable housing, something that this latest report also notes as a cause of concern. It probably raised awareness, like some of my other columns, but very little ever gets done.
Affordable housing remains unbuilt. Mental health services are still subject to swingeing cuts. Zero-hours contracts and insecure working practices continue. This is not for want of suggested solutions.
Although precise definitions differ, broadly speaking millennials are those people born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s. They are so called because they turned 18 in or after 2000. They are also collectively known as Generation Y
Listening to a round table of young women on low pay last week, organised by the Young Women’s Trust and the leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, it struck me how incompatible their day-to-day existences are with the media’s portrayal of millennials. These were young women – some with children, some who were young carers, others who were single – who all essentially wanted the same things: stability, job opportunities, childcare. Two of the young women were disabled: one couldn’t find a job because of persistent discrimination, the other had such difficulties getting benefits that her illness worsened.
These millennials were all on low or no pay. There are many more like them. And yet this metropolitan notion of the spoilt child spaffing all their money on brunch persists. Why? Is this because these are the sorts of younger people rightwing newspaper columnists come into contact with? They lament our overconfidence, the effect that our access to education, and being constantly praised by our parents, has had on our “smart-alex-ness” [sic] (paywall). We are evangelical about the rightness of our own opinions, apparently. This is simply not a picture I recognise, though perhaps the author spends less time with people who went to state school than I do.
Are most baby boomers buying this mendacious line? I hope not. Most parents just want to help their children, and do not want to see them suffer. There are systemic generational inequalities at work, but that doesn’t mean that the two generations cannot try to understand one another. Relationships are paramount, and what worried me about the Health Foundation report was some of the survey responses. Only 31% of respondents said that they had strong relationships and support groups growing up, 46% said they had enough financial and practical support, and 49% said they had emotional support from family. That’s a lot of people who feel they are without support. As ever, social media were highlighted, with 80% saying these put them under pressure to behave in certain ways.
According to the Office for National Statistics, millennials are the group most at risk of chronic loneliness. While the houses continue to go unbuilt, this is at least something tangible that is within our power to start changing. If you’re older you can check in with the millennials in your life, and see what is really going on beneath the veneer of their social media posts (in my experience, we tend to say we are fine even if we are not).
As for us, perhaps we all need to consciously try to spend less time on social media. We could delete the Facebook and Twitter apps from our phones. Or join Meetup (a quick glance at my local groups shows everything from “terrible footballers” to indie music and language exchanges). Or maybe we should sign up for volunteering, or just make more of an effort to see people face to face. I instant-message one of my best friends on a daily basis, but we don’t get to see each other as much as we’d like to. If you are the same, ask that person round for a drink.
Maybe it all sounds a bit lovey-dovey, and you’ve more of an appetite for continued railing against the older generation. But when circumstances are tough, working on personal relationships is one of the parts of your life that you can actually have some control over. Positive face-to-face communication, feeling part of a community, and emotional support are all crucial to our health. We must keep pressure on the politicians to address generational inequalities on a macro level, but the micro matters too. It could just save your life.
• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author. Her novel The Tyranny of Lost Things is published on 21 June