The depressing rise of social atomism
This year’s Prince’s Trust Youth Index on the emotional and mental wellbeing of my generation came out last Wednesday, with the news that one in 10 young people (16-25) feel they cannot cope with day-to-day life, and 28% of all young people feel depressed “always” or “often”. The deeply corrosive effect of unemployment and the ongoing financial crisis is at the forefront, and will certainly be seized upon by commentators. Money, or the lack of it, remains the subject on which young people feel most unhappy.
However the fall in the overall happiness index was not driven by financial concerns, but by worries over friendships and individual’s physical and emotional health. We’re now more worried about the weakness of our friendships, and our qualifications, than at any time since the survey began. This reflects the fact that the financial crisis isn’t just about money, but about exposing the loss of certainties and stability that the boom masked. What does it tell the 16 year old about education when she sees her 21 year old university-educated brother on the scrapheap? How do you keep a friendship going when the bus fare to their house becomes a luxury item?
The rock in the lives of many young people is their family relationships. This was the area that all participants were most happy about. Yet the economic model of Britain means that for tens of thousands of young people outside the South East of England, they have to abandon this touchstone, leaving their communities to find work in the Big Smoke. For those from backgrounds where their extended family lives in close proximity, the culture shock from seeing people who love you every day to existing in a sea of strangers is profound. Yet this isn’t merely the problem of transition, but of permanent transition. Each year one third of London moves. With jobs often temporary and rents volatile, many never get the opportunity to put down roots of any kind.
At home for Christmas I could only sit in wonder as my Nana rattled off the names, jobs and sexual histories of everyone on her road when she was young, as part of some longer narrative. How do I even get to know my neighbours’ names when they change each month? How do I form friendships with my work colleagues when we’re all on fixed term, 1-week notice contracts and spend our days propped in front of screens? How often can you run home when a return train ticket is three days’ pay?
It’s an atomised existence, and deeply damaging for social animals such as ourselves. Even if we have friends in the capital, they are often spread over such vast distances it’s as if they lived in another city. What do you do when it’s witching hour and it all starts getting a bit much? Well you reach for your own little place in cyberspace. More than one in five young people (23 per cent) claim the internet gives them a sense of community and friendship that they do not have elsewhere in life. This increases to a third among those who are unemployed. Far from being the cause of alienation as many older people presume, those little glowing rectangles are a lifeline for the 31% who say they “always” or “often” feel lonely, when they need a few kind words. That is not to say all online interaction is positive, nor that reading *hugz* matches getting one, simply that this is a lifeline for a great many young people physically distant from anyone they think cares. Sometimes it’s words on a backlight or oblivion from a bottle.
We all fall down sometimes, especially when we’re first making our way in the world. The fall has grown harder as the communitarian institutions of our parents and grandparents; churches, pubs, trade unions, and others have slowly faded from the public realm. The dark joke is that the system forces you to leave home, but prevents you making one of your own. A never-ending adolescence. No wonder we’re depressed.