I was admittedly not at my best when I first came across the glib “Happiness = Reality – Expectations” equation in Wait But Why’s now-ubiquitous “Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy”: I had just cleaned dog vomit off of a suitcase full of clean clothing. So I tried, sincerely, to take my desire to find and strangle the person who wrote the piece with a post-dog-vomit grain of salt. I mean, vom happens, right? I clearly needed to adjust my expectations so that I could be happy.
Except that NO. Because there are just so many things this piece gets wrong. And it does so stealthily, cleverly, and cutely, so that it comes across as optimistic coping advice based in humorous tough love ethics. And the more I tried not to engage, the more I knew I couldn’t let it lie (and lie, and lie), because this piece crosses the line from “poorly-written, vaguely trolling fluff” into “sinister, inaccurate, damaging misinformation” and keeps on going until it arrives at “reader-bullying strawperson arguments about things that did not actually happen with a side of apologism/denial re: a good many things that did”. And there it stays. And it’s really awful and depressing and infuriating.
So here is an alternate list of reasons why Gen Y yuppies are unhappy, with bonus extra-credit reasons why it’s maybe kind of stoopid to call us “yuppies” at all. It is based on reality, and features no rainbow-spewing unicorn adversaries. Sorry.
“Everything they told is us a lie.”
So let’s just get a couple things cleared up, here: I was not, repeat, NOT, raised, as WBW believes, with “a sense of optimism and unbounded possibility,” and precisely zero of my actual, workaday problems come from my “parents’ goals of a green lawn of secure prosperity” failing to “really do it” for me. Neither was this the case for all of the peers I take seriously and can stomach talking to because they are not parent-subsidized asshats. My peers and I are capable, generally employed (and if not employed, working hard to get there), non-wealthy, decently well-educated human beings. We were raised to think that if we worked hard and saved our money and made shrewd choices, basing our decisions on, you know, ACTUAL NUMERICAL DATA and SOUND MATHEMATICAL MODELS we’d seen work marvelously well for our grandparents, our parents, our childhood babysitters, and even some of our older siblings, we would be more or less okay – and that sounded pretty great!
So we used our data-based optimism and expectations to fuel our wild ambition. This is otherwise known in the psychological sciences as “good judgment and reasonable goal-setting behavior”. There is nothing “wildly delusional” about it.
Then, very abruptly, those mathematical models ceased to be relevant to us. Why? Because in a matter of days (or, you know, the time between the invention of collateralized debt obligation and the point at which it bore its incredibly obvious, and no less catastrophic, fruit) our entire economy imploded, based on some really, really irresponsible bets made by people most of us have never even met, let alone been able to influence. And what were they gambling with? Our future wages, our job prospects, our university costs, our student debt, our social safety net, and even – for some of us – the basic necessities of life. And the individuals responsible – being, as they were, too big to fail – went right back to their green lawns of secure prosperity (some of which had helipads!) while we were left standing on a dried-out patch of Superfund sludge with only a sinister glow-in-the-dark seven-leaf clover and a broken American Star bicycle to keep us company.
There is another name for this: a life-changing disaster which is still having a profound effect on how we work, live, and literally survive. There is, too, another name for how it was dealt with: utter impunity that broke our hearts and weakened our faith in the systems in which we’d more or less amiably participated for our entire lives to date. So yeah, I’ll give WBW “taunted”. But not by Facebook.
Gen Y yuppies don’t really exist.
What exactly are Gen Y yuppies? According to the piece, “a yuppie culture . . . makes up a large portion of Gen Y”. In fact, post-Recession, only a tiny percentage of us are able to participate in this culture, making the term “yuppie” woefully inadequate to describe a “large portion” of us.
Unlike our older and more established counterparts, for whom the “up” in “yuppie” meant “upwardly mobile”, which in turn meant, more or less, achieving increasing professional success and financial security by participating in hierarchical professional structures over multiple career transitions, “up” for us means maybe not getting laid off when others are, or finally finding a job after months of unemployment, or going from an unpaid internship to a paid internship at 30 years old with prestigious college and graduate degrees. Up means finally having enough money to pay our school loans and our mobile bill in the same month. Up means getting off a friend’s couch, which is the only place some of us have to sleep, and looking for a job no matter how bleak and hopeless everything seems. Up means, when a small bit of financial improvement is achieved, putting aside creature comforts and throwing every cent you earn at fixing your post-credit-default credit score, so that employer background checks stop flagging you as a liability, making you even less likely to find well-paying jobs. While the semantic value of the preposition is preserved, the orientational metaphor (WEALTH IS UP, HAPPY IS UP, HEALTH IS UP) is not.
As for people who are really just advancing and achieving consistently higher pay and status in their careers, and have more financial security, low – and decreasing – debt, and more prestige as a direct result of this trajectory, here’s the thing: in the post-Recession economy, the word for these people is not “yuppies” but “wealthy”. And if this piece was intended for that comparatively tiny percentage of the economy, it’d be fine. A cheeky little Style Section niche piece about how rich kids should be happy they have it so good, and not every day can be like summer in the Hamptons.
Instead, this is the thing that everyone’s pushy Facebook aunt posts to their page while they are trying desperately to find full time work. The piece our creepily pro-bootstrapping libertarian acquaintances plaster all over Twitter because we all should just buck up and take it! The thing that keeps getting called “good advice” for Gen Y-ers – all of them.
Financial hardship literally changes the way our brains work. So does trauma.
Decades of research on poverty and its cofactors have shown that those who experience chronic financial hardship and catastrophic financial loss tend to have more trouble planning for the future and setting realistic, future-directed goals. This is both because they are forced to be hyper-focused on the present to prevent disastrous consequences and also because there is little to no payoff for their constant struggle against adversity. Those living in poverty suffer higher rates of mental illness, addiction, poor physical health, and behavioral disorders than their wealthier counterparts, in part because of the daily suffering and hopelessness of their situations. Some cannot imagine a future because, quite simply, they see no place for them in it.
Recently published research on how poverty effects cognition goes even further to show the literally disabling effects of financial hardship. It has shown, among other things, that even people who started out non-poor are at a significant cognitive disadvantage – equivalent to 8-10 lost IQ points – when experiencing the stressors and distractions of financial hardship. It has also shown that, due to the fact that cognitive resources are finite, focusing on financial hardship diminishes the good judgment needed to make sound decisions.
Another experience associated with helplessness, cognitive exhaustion, poor judgment, and mental illness is trauma. And given the staggering scope of job losses, housing losses, medical care losses, and downright destitution as the economic crisis unfolded and continues to send violent shock-waves throughout all but the most economically insulated minorities of our population, the events surrounding the economic collapse can safely be said to constitute both profound financial hardship and actual trauma, and not just for those who were already living in poverty.
Our ability to cope with trauma hinges greatly on our sense of control and agency.
In attempts by social scientists to understand the sources of trauma, suffering, survival, and healing, researchers have discovered some fascinating things about how trauma and its effects unfold in the human psyche. One key finding is that people who have little control over the events that caused their trauma are much more likely to experience symptoms equated with post-traumatic stress disorder.
For example, accounts from WWI show that soldiers who watched their pilot friends bombarded from observation balloons would often experience more intense PTSD-like symptoms than the pilots who somehow managed not to die in the attacks. Why? Because the pilots had agency in the midst of their catastrophe, whereas those in the observation balloons – though actually much, much safer from their location than the pilots – were literally adrift, with no control over what happened to them, and no control over what happened to the doomed pilots.
Similarly, people who witness their loved ones die in natural disasters or terrorist attacks may have more PTSD symptoms than those who were seriously injured, but survived. Time and again, it is demonstrated that the psychological effects of having little control over what might happen to you – and perhaps even more than that, over what you are forced to bear witness to – are disastrous and long-lasting, and include depression, fear, anger, hopelessness, a sense of heightened alertness to potential danger, and difficulty thinking of a future in which things are okay.
We are not whining in envy, we are mourning a loss.
When a family farm is destroyed by a tornado, our first reaction is generally not to say, “What, did you think you were some kind of special, non-tornado-loss-enjoying person? Is that how your shitty parents raised you? What is wrong with you, you whiny losers?! Stop comparing yourself to people whose houses and livelihoods are intact!” Similarly, when someone we care about is diagnosed with a serious illness, those among us who are not assholes tend to steer clear of comments like “You *really* need to let go of your delusionally high ambitions of not being in a state of constant pain and dependency.” Why? Because that would be cruel, insensitive, inaccurate, and a terrible coping strategy to boot.
The rainbow-spewing unicorn whose nice, high bar on the graph little sad Gen Y Lucy looks up at, from her sad, low bar on the graph, is exactly this kind of wrongheaded nastiness. We are not, for fuck’s sake, sitting around bemoaning the fact that we can’t have a thing no one else has that never existed in the first place. We are mourning the fact that a once real and demonstrably present thing – financial stability and opportunity – that planning, data, and history indicated was well within our grasp, is not in our grasp any longer. And for the non-wealthy, this loss has changed the decisions we make, the dreams we allow ourselves, and pretty much every aspect of our lives.
In fact, our expectations were in line with reality, and then they weren’t. But we weren’t the ones who changed. Reality did. This is loss, plain and simple, and we are grieving, not kvetching.
The gaslighting. And the bootstrapping. And the gaslighting.
Now, I want to be clear that, with one in five U.S. citizens currently living below the poverty line and many, many more people than that living in unimaginable poverty worldwide, I understand fully that we certainly didn’t, don’t, and won’t have it as bad as some. That said, many of us experienced, as a direct result of the financial crisis, risk and hardship of an order and intensity we had never even come close to before. I know many, many stories of Gen Y yuppies who found themselves homeless – not “couch-surfing between grad school semesters” but real-deal, sleeping on the subway, not eating regularly homeless – and were taken in by other Gen Y yuppies who were only barely avoiding catastrophic financial events themselves, and had no guarantees of being able to do so in the long term (I was, in fact, one of the lucky ones: I got to offer my home, not search for one). I know of others who delayed treatment for serious illnesses or, if a little luckier, paid with credit and have yet to recover from the long-term effects of the awful choices they were forced to make, putting off or forgoing entirely: having children, completing education, caring for aging parents, or supporting themselves in retirement.
So, while there are certainly worse outcomes that could have befallen us – and having logged several years at a poverty research nonprofit, I know that chief among these is trying to get out of a financial disaster without a degree, community support, or the consistently better opportunities of non-poor people – it’s utterly wrong to suggest, as the article does, that:
- None of this bad stuff that caused our current situation need be fully addressed or acknowledged, and there is some other “our parents were too nice to us and taught us we were way too important” rationalization for why we feel the way we feel about the lives we’re living (gaslighting).
- We need to get our shit together, for through behavioral change and behavioral change alone we can make everything be okay again (bootstrapping).
- Criticizing us for our reactions constitutes healthy or helpful advice, and if we object it’s just because we’re so used to thinking we’re special and deserve awesome things always – or, in other words, we are delusional/crazy (gaslighting again).
The feeling I had, have, and will continue to have when reading about pretend strawperson Lucy and her pretend complaints about inaccurately summarized problems is that this kind of “help” reminds me of nothing so much as a favorite game of schoolyard bullies and cruel older siblings worldwide: Stop Hitting Yourself. You know the game? Where someone attempts to overpower you and make you hit yourself, with your own overpowered hands, all the while saying “Stop hitting yourself! Why are you hitting yourself?” The effect is doubly upsetting because in addition to being hit, you are out of control and someone is attempting to rewrite the very stuff of reality before your eyes.
And I don’t know about you, but when supposedly sage advice for living starts to sound like a dreaded childhood torture, I tap the hell out.
It’s probably because I think I’m special.