Ginsberg had no idea how prophetic that line would become in a few short decades. His words echo in my mind whenever I see a group of so-called friends going to dinner with their heads bent over their phones as if God could call at any second. Ginsberg’s there when so many beginning writers think they can only write well when they write about themselves. I look at an entire room full of people unwilling to think beyond their life in high school, looping the same brainless thoughts ad infinitum — and there he is again. When social media posts alternate between adventurous joy and crushing depression brought on by real life, I know Ginsberg was right. Millennials have descended into a new kind of insanity amidst the pulls of technology, social media and other contagious anxieties.
How did a generation of people so passionate and fortunate fall into such a state of blatant isolation and lacking creativity? We had one of the best standards of living in the world when we started out as kids. Computers and televisions became staples of our lives rather than a rarity. Media was created with such meticulous attention that whole networks and websites were devoted to us — first Nickelodeon and Disney, then YouTube and Buzzfeed. Education seemed prepared to take us above and beyond our parents’ standard of living. We had a sturdy springboard to launch ourselves into the world.
Then the Twin Towers fell, unnecessary wars began, and the economy crashed. College became even more of a long-shot than we could have imagined. Public education was de-funded and re-prioritized right under our noses. None of the adults we looked to for answers would explain what had happened or how it affected us, so we turned to technology for answers, instead finding a hiding place from the real world. Those brilliant screens and media became an addiction, our only safe space where the adults were always one step behind. We distracted ourselves from rampant economic backlashes and crises with cat videos and celebrity brawls. The stress of adulthood sucker-punched us right before we figured out we had to grow up, and we didn’t take our new responsibilities very well. The ensuing panic of adulthood and its expectation created a rash of anxiety and depression that we couldn’t stop scratching. We turned in on ourselves, hiding everything away under our anxious, apathetic masks.
Amidst the chaos, millennials lost something valuable: the ability to live with other human beings. We became less willing to understand others, substituting it with a strange, narcissistic sense of pity. Ever talked to a millennial about a problem? They’ll often say they’re sorry and tell you a story about how they’ve suffered a similar problem in the past. Maybe they’ll blame it on mental illness and recommend taking a trip to your local therapist. You can’t help but express pity for them — clearly they’re suffering worse than you are — yet you can’t help but realize that you don’t feel any comfort from them. It makes you regret saying anything in the first place.
Perhaps George Saunders’ “Braindead Megaphone,” an entity that screams loudly for attention although it has nothing to say, is telling us to grow up and face the world, and we’re wrong for wanting to do things differently. It could be the voices of our parents and elders screaming how, at our age, they had jobs and lives planned out with guaranteed success, and that we’re failures for lacking their drive. It may be our own fear of physically and spiritually dying alone in a crashing economy, because we wanted to pursue our passion. The oppressively rigid structure of our childhood may have prevented us from truly learning how to make friends. The advent of technology brought us just close enough to prevent the creation of any real bonds. Though each theory has its merits, all of these factors slowly infected us with enough loneliness to create an epidemic.
Some people claim to have answers. Stephen Marche blames social media: we become more depressed as we both observe everyone else’s wonderful lives and attempt to make ours just as great. It becomes a competition to determine who has the best life out of your alleged friends, and how you can one-up them. Over time, this competition creates a façade, something used to mask real feelings of isolation and emptiness. But everyone thinks you looked so happy on that hiking trip. Imagine how jealous they feel! Too bad they ignored your invitations to come, forcing you to go out alone in the first place. Surely one of those other happy people would be kind enough to share that with you.
The same concept works in reverse: if a friend is suffering, millennials think they have to feel worse. With mental illness becoming synonymous with millennial, misery and stress become our defining traits. Linda Esposito, a therapist writing for Psychology Today who specializes in young adult psychology, and her colleagues adore working with our tragedies and deciding how we should change ourselves to get “better.” Some parents pay $28,000 a month to put their children in facilities that force them to straighten out their lives and heads. Colleges have “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” to keep our brains cushioned and ready to work, yet we squander this care and necessity in favor of our friends’ pity. It’s okay — maybe those strangers on the internet will have some solutions for our problems. Even if they depress us more, nothing feels more satisfying than the “I’m here for you” comment on your news feed.
The world doesn’t want to hear another sobbing twenty-something cry for simultaneous attention and solitude. Amidst all of this mental angst and turmoil, millennials must face the small matter of adult life and growing into the real world. Facing a lower quality of living than our parents, crushing loans and the pressure to get a job and become successful, how do we stay sane? As we trudge out into the world armed with degrees and self-conscious panic, we realize nobody cares about all of our self-importance. The world has little room for anxieties and insecurities when it’s our turn to solve its problems. We’ve inherited enough of a mess, and we have to fix it on our own. For all of our talk of change and boasting about our own skills, we don’t have a clue where to start.
The best solution to this madness is the most simple, something nobody would have expected. It begins with talking less. Though our lives are important, they don’t deserve to be told in loops to everyone we meet. Some things should be saved for intimate moments. Once we have learned to be silent, we can learn to listen, focusing our attentions on the concerns of others. Take an interest in those other people. Ask more about their lives and see beyond their profiles. Learn new things about the world and ourselves, and use it to better the world. Our mutual interest must become mutual action directed toward improving our lives. We cannot sit back and cry about a problem while long-standing governmental, collegiate or parental authorities fix it for us. Our combined efforts have the potential to bring about legitimate change; when enough people are tired of the status quo, they become strong enough to make that change possible. Cooperation may not end the madness consuming our generation, but we may start to remember what it’s like to be sane.