The Disappointed Generation
Over the last several years, I’ve received numerous emails asking for advice about millennials.
People seem to think that, as a millennial, I have insights into my own enigmatic generation. These missives vary in tone from genuine curiosity, to confusion, to suspicion, to condemnation. People generally write out of a genuine desire to understand, to help, or to guide their young relatives, children, and parishioners. And they’re worried— they sense a profound angst in my generation, and a great dissatisfaction. Where does it come from?
And culture at large is fascinated by our trend beer drinking, trend bucking generation. Corporate America bewails the millennial aversion to big chains, which has supposedly caused the demise of restaurants like Applebees and Buffalo Wild Wings. Millennials ruin other things as well: Fortune reported that millennials are “ruining divorce,” partially because none of us are getting married. But we’re not just ruiners! We are also responsible for the resurgence of public libraries, local food options, and veganism. A lot of us live at home. We are the most depressed and anxious generation in recordable history.
I see myself and my friends in these statistics. But I also I think attempts to discover homogenised explanations for a whole generation will inevitably go awry. Statistics can’t capture the soul of a generation.
I do think there is something that unites us as a generation, a shared emotion: Disappointment.
There is an abiding sense of disillusionment, disappointment, and betrayal. A sadness, a regret, a cloudy resignation to an unknown future. Perhaps this is why most of our humour is so ironic and so dark: nothing is certain, and everything is up for ridicule. Don’t be too sincere, too earnest. Life will eventually let you down. What is it they say about laughing so you don’t cry?
Often, this presiding disappointment is identified as whininess. The message from many well meaning Baby Boomers and Generation X'ers is to pull it together, kids! Pull up your boot straps (whatever those are!), you’re not living through a World War or Vietnam, what’s your problem? Gain a little resilience! And perhaps, sometimes, we need that message. I know I certainly have at some moments of my life. But, you know what else is true?
In our formative years, we saw two economic crashes.
We saw one and now two Catholic abuse scandals, and countless evangelical pastors fall into disgrace—affairs, abuse, corruption.
We were born into a confusing war in the middle east that never seemed to have never really began, and never seemed like it would actually end.
We grew up in an era of unprecedented political polarisation.
We’ve watched the sky grow cloudier with pollution, the seas rise with heat, and species disappear at an alarming rate.
We grew up being told that if we worked hard and got good grades, we could be stable, have a job. And now that most of us have graduated, we watch as the price of living soars higher and higher while the average income hovers steadily over the the same line it did in the 80’s.
To put it as so many 90’s parents in the films we grew up watching…
We’re not angry, we’re just disappointed.
But, of course, there is a bit of anger in there as well. After all, with disappointment comes a sense of betrayal. Raisins in the cookie? not CHOCOLATE? How could you! The disappointment we are experiencing as a generation doesn’t stem simply from the fact that the world right now is kind of a bummer. It stems from being given a vision of life, set up to live into it, only to find it was impossible.
I was reminded of this recently while listening to the song “Change of Heart” by the 1975. In the song, he describes waking up blearily from some illspent evening, going home, and realising that a life he once thought would prove exciting, edgy, and satisfying was actually disappointing. The most striking lines read:
I feel as though I was deceived
I never found love in the city
Just sat in self pity and cried in the car
Oh, I’ve just had a change of heart
This references a song in their first album, whose resounding chorus is: “If you want to find love, you know where the city is.” The song “Change of Heart” references is one that promises excitement, fulfilment, and even transcendence by seeking a life in the city, full of people to love, drugs to do and money to make. The whole second album, and this song in particular, proclaims a resounding recantation of those sentiments. He didn’t find love in the city. All those things he thought would bring satisfaction turned out to be either unattainable or not worth it. Even the girl with a “face straight out of a magazine” proves disappointing, she lights her cigarette on the wrong end, now she just looks like anyone.
Life is lonelier, and harder, and way more expensive than we thought it would be.
When I listened to this song, I thought: Yes. That is what it feels like to be a millennial.
We were told the world would be a certain way. That if we lived a certain way, life would be satisfying, good, prosperous. But all those things are turning out to either be unsatisfying or unattainable. And it’s not just about the economy, or politics, or jobs.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of personal relationships.
Some were taught that sex is a big deal, but not that big of a deal. The only guidance they were given was to follow their hearts, to do what seemed right as long as it didn’t hurt anybody. But humans are complicated, and sometimes our hearts want stupid things. Even an enthusiastic yes can’t guard a heart from scars and pain. “I would have done things differently” one of my friends said to me, “but no one gave me any guidance.” So they bear scars they didn’t want, but didn’t know how not to get.
They were told a certain way of living would lead to happiness, and it didn’t.
But then there’s another crowd. The one who grew up being told that if they were patient, godly, good, that God would reward them with a happy marriage and a stable life. And hidden behind this promise was the looming fear that if you messed up— even once!— God would know, and you wouldn’t get your happy ending. But where are those happy marriages? There are 101 unmarried adults in America, which amounts to 45% of adults, the highest its ever been.
Was the price of purity too high? Did we all doom ourselves to loneliness?
I feel as though I’ve been deceived…
So, we’re disappointed. Economically, politically, personally. And you know what? Disappointment is a perfectly rational response to the strange world we’re inheriting. The world is often disappointing, sometimes our lives are disappointing. We can’t pretend it is not so. But our disappointment is not all bad news.
I think our disappointment could actually be a great force for good.
In disappointment there is also an opportunity for repentance, for turning away from the empty answers that got us to this point. When we reckon with our disappointment, when we look the world we’ve been given straight on and recognise its unsatisfying, unsustainable ways, it offers us the opportunity to make a difference, to choose something else. Disappointment offers the chance for, as the 1975 forcefully note, a change of heart, a turning away from empty ways towards something new.
I don’t want my generation to be defined by their disappointment.
I want us to be defined by what we made of disappointing times.
For the last several years, Wendell Berry’s writings have been one of my main companions in wrestling with disappointment and the question of how to live in our strange and confusing times. Wendell Berry is a man for our times. And one of his characters in particular speaks to me: Hannah Coulter. In her novel, Hannah Coulter, Hannah lives through a series of disappointments: her first husband dies in WWI, she struggles financially, she grieves as, one by one, her children choose to leave the agricultural life her and her second husband make. Hers is a story of disappointment. But throughout it all, there is a stubborn hope, a resistance of giving into the modern malaise. One passage in particular speaks to me:
“You mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: 'Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks.' I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.”
Hannah Coulter taught me that we can’t ignore disappointment by sinking into the passivity of false contentedness. You must reckon with disappointment, but you mustn’t sink into its murkiness forever. Our life will be decided by how we handle disappointment. Do we ignore it, slowly numbing ourselves from any real desires? Do we sink into a permanent state of griping, as bitterness takes over our personality and life like a parasitic weed? Or do we grieve, wash our faces, and stoop to pick up worn out tools, praying for new energy and creativity to make something beautiful with the shards and pieces we’ve been given.
We can’t turn our backs on the times we’ve been given, but we can make something beautiful from them.
So, when people ask me what defines millennials, I answer: we’re disappointed. But in that disappointment there is a hope. Hope for a change of heart, like the 1975. Hope that returns to the old paths, and digs roots deeper like Hannah Coulter. Hope that our disappointment will helps us put to death the idols of wealth, individualism, and false liberty that have led us here. It might look radical, it might cost us a lot, but we know the cost of emptiness, and nothing is worth that cost.
Millennials are disappointed, but in that, there is hope.
Friends, what will we make of the world?
This week I recorded a podcast about disappointment. I explored the themes in the post above through the work of the 1975, the film Ladies in Lavender (2004), and Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter (2004). Give it a listen, and check out the show notes below.
Change of Heart, the 1975
I really enjoy the 1975.
It’s sort of off brand for me. They’re an angsty, drug using, post modern, Mancunian (natives of Manchester England) punk band. I’m a happy, straight laced, Christian, North American academic. But something about them has always captured my attention. I’ve followed their band for about four years now, and this is what I’ve come to realize about them.
They feel dissatisfied (disappointed) with modern life.
They want something more out of life.
And I do too.
I don’t endorse their music as a moral guide or something to encourage one’s soul. However, I think that paying attention to artists that don’t share our world view can help us get a pulse on the passions, issues, and desires of the world around us. And I think this is true of the 1975. They are particularly insightful on the faults and desires of the modern secular world. And their evolution of thought can be observed through the difference between their first and second album.
First Album - The 1975
It’s black and white, harsh, ironic, sarcastic, edgy, cool, atheistic.
In this album, they are dissatisfied.
There is a sense that ordinary life is not cutting it. They want more. In some ways, this album feels very adolescent— they’re rebellious, cool, defiant, dramatic. They seek significance through rebellion, transcending the system, risky behaviors. What does life mean anyway?
All that will begin to change.
Second Album - I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It
This album is softer, questioning, playful, sad, desiring, agnostic, open, disappointed.
The edginess wore off, and Matty wants something more.
This album doesn’t have the rebellious rejection of everything traditional like the first album. This album is searching. He even writes a song to Jesus, the chorus of which is “I’m asking you Jesus to show yourself.” Perhaps this is only a rhetorical move in the lyrics, but I think, lingering behind all the irony, there is an honest wish that Jesus might show himself.
The song “Change of Heart” represents Matty’s disappointment with the life he’s been living, the people he’s around, and his desire to change.
BE FOREWARNED: not a family friendly song. I cut out the iffy parts in the podcast. So, if you’re bothered by adult content, just listen to that!
The 1975 are honest.
The life he’s been living has lost its sheen. The glamour of edginess is wearing off. He needs something to tie himself to. He’s disappointed.
Disappointment can be the gateway to repentance.
Repentance is a turning away from one thing and toward another. The prodigal son turned toward his home. That was the beginning of his salvation. Sometimes disappointment can actually be profoundly important. It can be the thing that turns us away from empty things, and towards meaningful things.
I think many people my age feel disappointed.
Many were told to follow their hearts and just not to hurt people, and found themselves in their mid twenties with scars and brokenness they didn’t bargain for. On the other hand, there are many who thought it they did everything right, life would be easy and blessings would abound, and been disappointed, sometimes, to encounter loneliness and years of waiting.
I think with both of these, disappointment is an opportunity. The opportunity to figure out what really is important. What does fundamentally matter.
To ask for a change of heart.
2. Ladies in Lavender
Ladies in Lavender is a story about sisters, memories, disappointment and surprise.
When a handsome, foreign musician washes up onto the shore of a pair of spinster sisters, excitement abounds. The sisters, who have lived a good, but boring life, find great delight, interest, and purpose in taking care of this talented young man. However, the unfulfilled desires of one sister’s youth jeopardise the delight of having the young man there.
The story teaches us that we must let go of our old disappointments to be able to properly enjoy the unexpected gifts that may come our way in life.
2. Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
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