Recently, I read a pretty widespread article here in the Huffington Post on why Generation Y kids – my generation, may I add – are so unhappy. This article has been linked to me more than once, and I’ve read it more than once – in fact, I’ve read it over and over, because for a while now I’ve been fascinated by what exactly it is that makes our generation – and even worse, maybe, the generation below me, the ones in Educating Yorkshire who seem to think that natural eyebrows are a kind of infectious disease – so miserable.
And we are miserable. Depression is on the rise. Phrases like ‘panic attacks’ and ‘anxiety disorder’, which would have been basically unheard of 20 years ago, are now commonplace – bordering on fashionable. Half of us don’t have jobs and the other half have jobs we don’t want. According to the Huffington Post, the reason for this is essentially that we all think we’re special, and that therefore reality can never meet up to our expectations. Stop thinking you’re so great, the article tells us, and life will kind of work itself out. The trouble is, I don’t think it’s that simple anymore.
I was a reasonably intelligent child in that I always did well at school, and didn’t smoke or get pregnant when I was thirteen, and I was brought up to follow a fairly well-trodden path of school-university-job. It wasn’t a fairy tale, nobody told me I was going to be editor of Vogue or the next Enid Blyton. The message – from my parents, from my teachers, from society – was simple; if you work hard, you’ll do alright. So I did. I got a job as an editorial assistant – for peanuts, obviously, but that was okay, I told myself I’d work my way up the ladder.
Unfortunately, I happened to graduate from university in 2008. Three months after I started work a weary manager took me into a meeting room and told me that she was really sorry but actually, they couldn’t afford to pay me anymore. I remember getting my monthly railcard refunded, feeling slightly shocked, thinking, ‘never mind, I’ll get back on the ladder again.’ The trouble was, I quickly realised, I couldn’t reach the ladder anymore. Us graduates stood around on the ground looking up hopelessly at a ladder hanging down from a house way up in the sky. We jumped, but we couldn’t get there.
I started out applying for editorial roles, but in the end, I applied for absolutely everything, and I know so many others who have sat in that chair, sending CVs into black holes, waiting for a rejection letter which will never come. Not enough experience to work in an office. Too much experience to work in a shop (you’ve got a degree, haven’t you? So you’ll never stick around). Even internships wanted experience, never mind to have you work for free with only the vague hint of a job at the end of it all. Telling your friends brightly about how you might go travelling soon, you’re enjoying a well deserved rest - then going home to stare at the Guardian Jobs website for half an hour, wondering if maybe recruitment was your dream after all. Trust me, after months of this – and it was months, for me, but for other people it’s even longer – I didn’t feel very special. I felt worthless. I got a job, eventually, but it wasn’t remotely involved in anything I wanted to do, and in a way, going down a path I didn’t want to go down made it even worse – I felt like as time went by I got further and further away from where I wanted to be, swimming helplessly against an impossible tide. So yes, I was unhappy.
Reality doesn’t meet expectation because we were told that if we worked hard, we’d get a good job, and lots of us didn’t, and so suddenly our life plans, all the lessons we’d learned – so well-taught that I would say they were almost forced upon us – fall to pieces. I remember turning to my Dad and saying ‘I just don’t know what else to do,’ and he felt awful. He felt that he’d given me bad advice or worse, false promises. I’d grown up to believe that the world was fair – always an element of chance, yes, but fair. He said ‘I want to complain to someone. I wish I knew who to complain to.’
So then yes, reality didn’t meet expectations – but I don’t think it’s fair to say that that’s because we expected too much, or more than our parents did. That’s true for a few people, certainly – people who have watched too much Made In Chelsea and think doing nothing for a living looks fun, or that setting up a business means idly saying ‘ooh, I’d like my own jeans line!’ and tweeting about it.
But I felt defensive of my own generation reading that article. More than ever, we’ve put the effort in. We worked hard at school, we jumped through hoops to get into university just to work even harder, because we were told by people we trusted that this would lead us into happy, meaningful careers. I think most of us would be prepared to keep working in order to make our way up the ladder. It’s just – like I say – that we don’t know how to get to that first step.
I do have a job I enjoy now, incidentally, if not one I ever thought I’d have - and I have the luxury of being able to write in my spare time, which isn't something everybody can say. I enjoy my life and so no, I’m not unhappy. But I wanted to stand up for the people in Generation Y who are unhappy. Maybe their expectations were different from their parents. But I think it’s important to remember that reality was different too.