“One in four, one in four/ We must be the saddest generation/ Is there any hope for us at all?” sing Megan Markwick and Lily Somerville, aka rising indie-pop duo IDER, on the track ‘Saddest Generation’ off their debut album Emotional Education. Then comes the record’s defining line: “One in four, one in four/ Where is the emotional education we’re all looking for?”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five US adults, or 18.6% of the population, live with a mental illness. But what the “one in four” line refers to is the somehow unsurprising fact that young adults aged 18–25 years have the highest prevalence rate (25.8%) of AMI (any mental illness) compared to older age groups. Research by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) suggests that percentage is even higher for college students in particular. The same pattern can be observed when it comes to SMI (serious mental illness), which is defined as a mental disorder which “substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities”, with a 7.5% prevalence rate for young adults, compared to 5.6% for those aged 26–49 and 2.7% for 50 and older.
But what about depression in particular? A comprehensive study published earlier this year which gathered eight years of data from 600,000 people across the US found that more people in their 20s exhibit signs of major depressive disorder such as feelings of fatigue, worthlessness, and guilt, than the same age group did just a decade ago. The researchers concluded that there has been a steady rise in mood disorders from those born in the early 80s to those born in the late 90s.
So this isn’t just about young adults in general: it is about this generation of young adults, whether you want to call us millennials, Gen Y, Gen Z, or iGen. (Defining the age range of the millennial generation is tricky. Depending on who you ask, someone born in the mid-to-late 90s may be considered Gen Y – a millennial – or Gen Z, but someone born in the 2000s is definitely Gen Z.) We’ve also been referred to as the “anxious generation”, “a generation on edge” that’s suffering from an “epidemic of anguish”.
And it isn’t just about young adults in the US, either. A new study in the International Journal of Epidemiology looking at two groups of millennials in the United Kingdom, one born between 1991 and 1992 and the second born between 2000 and 2002, found an increased risk for depression in the younger cohort, despite the fact that antisocial behaviour and substance use were in decline.
But enough data (for now). Let’s go back to the music. IDER may be anthemically speaking for a whole generation on the song, as Lorde did on ‘Hard Feelings/ Loveless’ off her generation-defining masterpiece, Melodrama, but Lorde’s proclamation is playful and tongue-in-cheek as she reflects on a stereotypical perception of millennials: “We’re L.O.V.E.L.E.S.S. generation/ All fucking with our lovers’ ex/ Generation”. IDER’s chorus, on the other hand, uses cold hard facts, as if to say: here is a devastating statistic that illustrates what we’re going through, this generational anxiety. It’s not just a vague, subjective sense of a global mental crisis felt by a couple of crazy artists. Here, it’s science. It’s real.
Interestingly, this chorus is perhaps the only moment on the album that isn’t sung from a distinctly personal lens. In fact, ‘Saddest Generation’ is (again, and curiously, like the Lorde song) essentially a break-up song: its verses are direct attacks on an ex-lover, who is referred to as a “sad motherfucker” who “hated the world” and whose “brain is sick.” Now, that may sound insensitive if the person is indeed suffering from a mental illness, but the singers are quick to lump themselves into the same category on the chorus by using the first-person plural. (Side note: I’m in no way qualified to diagnose the duo; I can only point to a general sense of dysphoria that comes through in the music).
Indeed, on the song ‘You’ve Got Your Whole Life Ahead of You Baby’, IDER approach the same topic from a first-person point-of-view, and in more detail:
I’m in my twenties
So I panic in every way
I’m so scared of the future
I keep missing today
How did you do it?
How did it turn out alright?
I swear it’s always easier back then
Or is it just hindsight?
If that’s not relatable, I don’t know what is. Note the causal relationship between age group and anxiety smartly implied in the first two lines of the verse: “I’m in my twenties, so I panic in every way”. In the last two lines, the singer reminisces about a past, perhaps an era she never experienced as an adult, or her own innocent childhood. It’s not just living in this era that’s stressful: there’s something specific about growing into adulthood under these social circumstances that prompts some kind of generational anxiety. And there’s a sense of frustration, targeted, as I see it, at previous generations: “How did you make it work out?”
The singer then links her distress back to her generation, unsure whether to position herself as just an outlier or part of a grander pattern (“Could just be me or maybe our generation”), an intrusive thought she clings back to on the song ‘Swim’: “Is it just me? Are we all so scared?” Which brings me back to my earlier point about the chorus of ‘Saddest Generation’, that need for external validation: See? It’s not just a feeling. It’s not just me. It’s all of us.
“What is more personal is more universal,” writes therapist Carl R. Rogers on her book On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy, which IDER quote on their short essay for The Line of Best Fit about the power of the singular voice in music. By speaking about herself, she also speaks for every millennial who also feels the same way.
So let’s take a step back for a moment to look at the bigger question. What is it that makes young adults today more prone to experiencing depression? What makes us the saddest generation?
Jean Twenge, author of the book iGen and lead author of the aforementioned study on rates of depression among US adults, believes a drastic decrease in social interaction is to blame, mainly due to the rise of social media. “Face-to-face social interaction among teens has declined during the digital age, and that has mental-health implications,” Twenge says, because digital interaction doesn’t protect against depression the same way face-to-face interaction does. Not only do many experts agree on that point, but there is also recent evidence suggesting that there is a causal – not just correlational – relationship between social media usage and levels of depression and anxiety. “I see many young adults who say they are social, but their social interactions consist of talking with people online while playing a video game for hours,” psychologist Kathryn Moore tells Healthline. “These types of social interactions aren’t allowing for true sharing, connectedness, or feeling known.”
Many young adults are likely to roll their eyes when they hear this explanation, and it’s not hard to understand why. While there is certainly some truth to it, it comes off as a particularly lazy and shallow approach. Social media are not a barrier to connectedness – in fact, they open the door to new, previously unimaginable forms of connectedness whose foundations can be just as genuine and reliable – but they also potentially bring with them a whole host of compulsive behaviours and insecurities that may already be bubbling under the surface, such as what marketers call “FOMO” (fear of missing out).
On the opening track ‘Mirror’, IDER reference social media by pointing to a particular unhealthy online behaviour: “I’m trying so hard to forget you/ When were you last online?”. The internet has changed the nature of relationships – for example, by creating an impulse to obsessively check whether an ex is online – but nowhere does the duo indicate that addiction to technology is the cause of our generation’s collective distress. (For bleak commentaries of modern technology and mental health, look to songs like Father John Misty’s ‘Total Entertainment Forever’ or James Blake’s ‘Don’t Miss It’ – whose video features the song’s melancholic lyrics being written on a smartphone app.)
But no – there must be a deeper answer. Perhaps music can express it more eloquently than science. Is it that we lack some sort of “emotional education”, as IDER so poignantly proclaim? Not necessarily. Millennials are reportedly less stigmatizing and more aware of mental health than Baby Boomers. They are also more likely to talk about it. Still, while we may be more ’emotionally educated’, we aren’t as sensitive to and supportive of our own anxieties as we are of others’. Because despite having higher rates of mental illness, the percentage of young adults who receive mental health treatment is lower than older adults, according to NIMH.
Yet this speaks more to a lack of response to the mental health crisis than what’s inciting it. On the song’s final chorus, the last two lines are altered to “We must be the loneliest generation/ We don’t know what we are looking for”, with the final one repeated for the outro. What makes us “the loneliest generation” (a new poll found that 22% of millennials report having no friends), they perhaps suggest, is not social media, but a sense of uncertainty about the future. On the chorus of ‘You’ve Got Your Whole Life Ahead of You Baby’, they sing:
But they keep telling me
“You’ve got your whole life ahead of you, baby
Don’t worry, don’t stress, do your best”
What if that doesn’t save me?
They say, “If I could go back, if I was still young
I would’ve cared less, made more mistakes to learn from”
But you didn’t ’cause you had your whole life ahead of you, baby
Young people’s life courses are considerably more open and individualistic but less determined and predictable than those of previous generations. Because of this, even though options have increased, one can never really tell if a life choice is the “right” choice for them. “When the world looked smaller, I felt capable of more,” IDER sing on ‘Swim’. When the ocean is big and you feel small, it’s only natural to feel like you’re “losing touch, losing perspective”. As Caroline Beaton writes for Psychology Today, “paradoxically, our stress befalls the generation with the most optionality yet”.
At the same time, expectations are higher than ever:
It’s just when I think too much
I’m scared I might sink to the bottom
So I swim harder, move faster
We’re so afraid of failure, who created all the pressure?
That last line, another stab at the parent generation, hits hard. And again, the personal becomes the collective: the singer’s personal fears turn into a generational frustration at being handed a social system that puts pressure on being successful, despite the fact that definitions of success are as increasingly murky as they are useless. Some may blame so-called “helicopter” or “lawn mawer” styles of over-parenting for creating children that are overly ambitious but not resilient enough to face failure. But I’d argue it’s more to do with what they place value in – another study headed by Jean Twenge found that a few decades ago, most college students valued “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” over “being well off financially”, but today, that exact opposite is true, as more and more young people strive for material over mental well-being and outside approval over self-fulfillment. As IDER sing on ‘You’ve Got Your Whole Life Ahead of You Baby’:
I don’t wanna let you down
I don’t wanna disappoint me
I won’t stop looking at others
Thinking that’s where I should be
Not only does this has severe consequences for our self-esteem, it also leads to a profound struggle with identity: “I’m trying to enjoy myself, love myself/ Who the fuck is myself?” This theme is further explored on ‘Mirror’:
I can’t stop looking in the mirror
Do I really make that face?
Can you remind me what I look like?
The singer’s obsession with self-image hints at a deeper identity crisis:
Wake up in the middle of the night
And I look like a stranger in the bathroom light, I
I keep looking in the mirror ’til I see myself
Do I really laugh like that?
Do I speak? Do I move? Do I look like that?
I can’t remember what I’m good at
When we base not only our self-worth but our entire identity on achievements – on a false sense of financial security rather than emotional security, on career plans rather than a sturdy sense of self, on networking rather than genuine friendships, on being the best rather than being good, on extrinsic rather than intrinsic goals – it is bound to crumble, bound to “sink to the bottom” of this vast yet seemingly empty ocean. We become “so scared of the future” we “keep missing out today”.
“Is there any hope for us at all?” the duo ultimately ponder on ‘Saddest Generation’. In the age of daunting uncertainty, amidst a life-threatening environmental crisis, high unemployment rates, and an unsteady economic climate, what lies ahead for the saddest generation, the anxious generation, the loneliest generation? We might not be able to single-handedly fix all of the world’s problems, but if we take inspiration from IDER and “swim to each other” rather towards some unattainable, unfulfilling goal, we might be able to cope with it; “and if you think you’re drowning/ Well, I’ll meet you at the bottom.”