In their prime, Indian millennials are earning well and raising kids, but their depression and suicide rates are more than any other generation. We discuss the socioeconomic reasons behind the unhappy Indian millennials, and the root of this problem as it connects to Indian history.
Millennials (24-39 year olds in 2020) are the infamous generation. We get blamed for everything around the world, like shrinking the housing and auto markets. Millennial like living in AirBnb’s, commuting in Uber and splurging on expensive coffee and avocado toast instead of saving for a house or car. We are also ridden with student loans, can’t find or keep decent jobs and ultimately, are the saddest generation.
And this is not just a sarcastic throwaway remark from me – it’s what the international media says about millennials. Business Insider called our generation, “Lonely, burned out, and depressed,” and Washington Times thinks our “self-obsession” can be associated with “clinical depression, anorexia nervosa and early death.” Independent.co.uk is, “Almost feeling sorry for millennials,” and that we’re, “Drowning [our] sorrows” with alcohol. A millennial writer on Huffington Post UK says that all of her best friends, “Have had anxiety and/or been depressed at some point.” And according to Vogue Australia, “Recent studies have declared millennials, especially women, the most anxious generation in history.”
Millennials, Depression and Social Media: Much Ado about Nothing
Millennials (or ‘Gen Y’) are the generation that come after ‘Gen X’ (40-55 year olds in 2020, who are our bosses and elder siblings); and our parents are the ‘baby boomers’ (roughly 56-74 year olds in 2020).
Millennials like myself know why we receive so much hate. Media publishes this because this is what people want to read. We’re young, carefree, tech-savvy and have revolutionized the rules of enjoying life. Rules that were carefully set by our parents’ generation and followed diligently by our previous generation. Despite living on measly salaries in tiny apartments, despite all our troubles, we try to make the most of it, traveling the world and working only for our passion.
But the truth still remains – depression is extremely common among millennials and we often feel sad and unfulfilled. In India, things are not much different than the rest of the world. According to a 2016 report by the Office of the Census Commissioner, India, suicide was the leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 29, or millennials. Millennials are the generation of people born between 1981 and 1996, generally speaking. According to consulting firm Deloitte India, our generation forms 34% of the total Indian population (at 440 million). We also form 47% of the Indian workforce.
The older generation likes to point out the many faults with our generation, especially with the working millennials.
People like to believe that unhappy Indian millennials are sad because we’re posting way too many selfies, setting unrealistic standards for a lavish lifestyle and outer beauty for ourselves on social media. However, I believe that this is the symptom, not the real disease.
Yes, seeing our friends post happy pictures in exotic locations, looking fashionable, toned and what not, certainly has some effect on us, but not enough to make us depressed. A 2018 paper published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, among many other studies, points out that mostly, social media affects teens’ mental health in the worst way. Millennials have many other responsibilities to worry about – a marriage, kids, jobs and more. We barely have any mind-space left to be as hugely affected by what our peers are posting on social media.
Millennials in India vs. Our Parents
Millennials in India, although exposed to the same social media lifestyle, food preferences and technologies as our peers in the rest of the world, actually have some very different reasons to be sad. Let me explain my personal theory.
The story begins in 1947 – the year India got its independence from the British. Much of our grand parents’ generation lost their homes, belongings, family members and most of their dreams during the partition, when they migrated from the part of our country that’s now Pakistan, or moved from other parts of the country in search of opportunities, shelter and basic amenities.
For that generation, the only dream was to have someplace to sleep and to earn enough to feed their kids, and if they’re lucky, to educate them and live long enough to see them grow up. Life spans were low due to lack of medical care, and poor unhealthy living conditions underlined by undernourishment and bad sanitation.
Our parents were raised to endure hardships. Living among 5-7 siblings in tiny homes was common. Forget your own room, they would have been lucky to even find space (or money) to study. Those who did part-time jobs to pay for their college managed to get decent jobs, learned to love spouses they had had to marry through arranged marriages, and despite their hardships, created a life where they could afford a fridge, TV, later, a car and home.
They became confident of their abilities, as they kept rising up the corporate ladder and the latest advances in healthcare helped them feel young as ever.
They gave their children even more luxurious things which they had never dreamed of being able to afford in their own childhoods – things like a/c, foreign vacations or expensive education.
After all this, they very badly wanted their children to have an even better life, earn even more. As far as they are concerned, millennials could have no reason to be unhappy. After all, we have our own rooms – with AC’s and PC’s – everything handed to us from gourmet delicacies to smartphones to cars. What more could we want?
And that, right there, is where the problem starts for Indian millennials.
Unhappy Indian Millennials and Why They’re Depressed
For every generation, there are things they grow up with, which are taken for granted. Everyone in their generation has these things and that’s why, they usually create their lifestyle but can’t be the reason for their fulfillment. And then there are things they desire because not everyone has them, but will, theoretically, make them happy.
For millennials, we grew up seeing our parents rise up the social ladder, celebrating promotions, purchasing cars, houses or other material things.
That’s why these are the things that don’t give us fulfillment as adults. That’s why salary and promotions don’t satisfy us in jobs.
We look for mid-level positions right out of college that are over-suited for our experience. For heavy responsibility or a chance to travel or move abroad. We want to make an impact, perhaps work towards a bigger planet-saving-level goal. In short, we want to do something more than what our parents did. We want it because our parents raised us to believe that we should want it and could achieve it.
Our parents kept us sheltered till a longer age than their parents kept them, since due to the partition upheaval, they didn’t have much stability to offer to their kids. Our parents, being financially independent and more educated than their parents, learned to lead. This confidence made them increasingly participate in our decision making processes, such as what degree we should get or what company we should join, much more so than their parents did for them.
Parents participate in the millennials’ decision making because they have seen success in tried-and-tested formulas that worked for them and even for our elder siblings (the Gen X). But those formulas refuse to work for us.
That’s why a lot of us don’t want to work for our dad’s business, or take up a job like our dad, whatever the individual case may be. We want to create our own independent identity and leave our own legacy. Millennials keep wanting to do something “different” – what that means, even we don’t know.
Are Indian Millennials Just Grown-Up Toddlers Still Trying to Get Validation from Parents?
For our parents, a diploma from a nondescript college could land a decent job with Saturdays off and a house with a garden. For us, entering the overcrowded job market wasn’t easy. In order to afford a tiny room in a shared apartment in an ugly neighborhood, we had to have a ‘certain’ degree from a prestigious college, and hopefully also a master’s degree.
And when we do land that job, promotions are nonexistent, because people from the older generations refuse to retire and leave senior-level spots in companies. Forget salary hikes for years. Unhappy Indian millennials are living in the shadow of their parents who achieved financial stability at a younger age than us. They made us dream dreams our economic scenario doesn’t let us fulfill. And in any case, buying expensive things doesn’t make millennials truly happy anymore.
Our parents took the time to help us study, take up hobby classes, and lauded us when we got good grades. We have the unfulfilled desire to be like the heroes we grew up calling our parents. Are we still competing with our parents? Or are we still trying to please them – good salary packages taking the place of good grades?
My Personal Experience
As a student, I was always the creative type. I got good grades, wrote poetry and made paintings. Every once in a while, I even did extraordinary things for my age – got my work published in newspapers, put up exhibition-sales of my paintings and made class-magazines. I went on to get one of the highest paying jobs among my classmates, helping my company build multi-crore projects and then got accepted into Harvard.
As overachieving as that may sound, my happiness dwindled from there on, just like the rest of my classmates – Harvard or non. Back in the real world, no matter how high paying jobs I landed, the salary was never enough to justify my Harvard degree, at least as far as my parents or the society was concerned. No matter how hard I worked in my jobs, my work was never extraordinary enough to please my bosses either.
Unfulfilled, I left my profession as an architect. I started my own digital media company, getting back to my original passion for writing and creating ‘magazines’. I worked day and night for five years, struggling to make ends meet. My company finally became profitable, but none of that seems enough. No matter how many millions of readers I have and no matter how original my writing may be, my family isn’t impressed. My earnings, after all, don’t match the investment they put in me. What I earn is no big deal, because my job paid more. My Harvard degree didn’t deliver the expected ROI.
Plus they feel I married embarrassingly late and still don’t have kids. And now I have another set of parents (in-laws) to please as well. They like me (I hope), but I can’t wash dishes as fast or cook as much, or wake up as early as I am expected to. Failure.
The details may be different, but everyone my age has stories that have more or less the same moral.
Adulting is Hard
While growing up, we were told we are special unlike our parents. We were told that no goal was unattainable. We had to reach for the stars because the neighbor’s kid had already reached the moon. Work hard in job, become a VP and get rich – this was our parents mantra… until we realized those aspirational positions were already taken by them and were unlikely to become vacant.
Out of frustration, we started creating our positions with startups. We got the fancy designations but not the monies. Those handful who made it big set our parents’ expectations so high that we were destined to fail in our own eyes.
Meager salaries, unfulfilling jobs, student or home loans, and childcare expenses (if we’re lucky enough to ‘afford’ kids, that is). These are what unhappy Indian millennials are facing in their daily lives. We know we’ll never be able to achieve what our parents hoped for us. Nor will our jobs ever make us happy, at least if they’re helping us pay our rent.
Indian millennials were raised with all the so-called luxuries. So we don’t even feel like we have the right to complain about feeling like a failure.
The secret millennial mental health epidemic plagues the country. And few millennials have the guts to admit it.
To forget the big troubles, we try to find instant gratification. So we wear branded clothes, getting expensive haircuts or owning an expensive smartphone to feel confident. ‘Likes’ on our pictures on social media and ‘views’ on our videos temporarily make us feel more appreciated. Social media is sometimes addictive because there, we can be the more successful versions of ourselves.
We live in a time where people have to project their professional success socially. In fact, even our prospective employers expect us to have a good social standing – digitally speaking. This has led us to overstate our achievements and therefore, subconsciously, envy each other’s success. We hate visiting such social networks and doubting ourselves every day. It’s no longer an overachievement to be a Director or VP of some company these days. Everyone is just as successful, if not more, on social media. Everyone seems happier and looks better than us.
Future of Millennials: Feelings of Failure or Optimism?
My friends sometimes report feelings of failure. And when I tell them I feel this way too, my feelings are both perplexing and understandable to them at the same time. Older millennials are now nearing 40, and this age brings wisdom. They’ve already started appreciating simpler ways of life, aspiring less and understanding how they can be happy. But for many unhappy Indian millennials, much wisdom is yet to be attained.
So I’m here going to end my article on a more optimistic note. Whether their jobs fulfill them or not, millennials are recognizing their true talents. They are slowly accepting that they don’t need to be superstars or extreme overachievers to feel successful. We’re slowly trying to create achievable goals for ourselves. Personally, I consider myself to be a happy person.
To quote a famous line in the Hollywood movie Fight Club, “You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap.”
My learning is that it’s important to have an ambition that we are actively working towards.
And we should keep updating said ambition as we grow in life. Compared to older generations, it’s actually more common for millennials to adopt habits that’ll improve mental health in the long run, like exercise, meditation, writing journals or seeking professional help.
So how can we solve the problem of unhappy Indian millennials going forward? By normalizing mental health issues – big or small. If you’re reading this as a millennial, it’s okay to admit that this is a common problem to face, even if it may not be an extreme issue every day. It’s okay to share your less-than-perfect moments on social media. It’s okay to talk to your friends or family if you’re feeling not-so-fantastic. You may be surprised to know they’re feeling the same way.
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Shilpa Ahuja is the Editor-in-Chief of OpiniOwn. She has a Masters in Design Studies (MDesS) degree from Harvard University Graduate School of Design, class of 2011. She is also the founder of Shilpa Ahuja Digital Media.
Fashion has traditionally been for the rich, white, thin woman. But Shilpa believes that fashion is for everyone, regardless of their age, gender, color, body type and background. So she translates runway fashion into easy style advice that one can incorporate into their daily lives.
Shilpa’s work has been published in the University of Fashion blog and Jet Airways magazine. She is also the creator of Audrey O. comics. She enjoys creative writing and world travel. Her art has been exhibited at Harvard Graduate School of Design and the Aroma Hotel, Chandigarh and been published in Chandigarh Times.
Originally from Chandigarh, Shilpa also has a professional degree in architecture and has worked in interior project management. She is also the author of the book “Designing a Chinese Cultural Center in India”. For feedback & questions, please email [email protected]