To Generation Z and millennials: ‘Your life is not that tough, stop whining’
Lately, Univers editor Anne Grefkens more frequently gets annoyed by peers who complain that they have such a hard life: ‘Am I part of a snowflake generation? You know, those spoiled young people who can’t handle adversity.’
‘Madam, I really couldn’t turn in my essay yesterday,’ a former classmate said to a lecturer at the university several years ago. ‘Why not?’ the lecturer rightly asked. After all, we had had ten weeks to write it. ‘I was overworked and, according to my life coach, I need to learn to express my limits more,’ he explained. ‘Will you manage to turn it in next week?’ the lecturer finally asked helpfully.
‘You were standing next to me in the pub yesterday, weren’t you?’, I asked him later with a frown. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘But because of that burnout, I haven’t had time to start it on time and I don’t want a six.’ I felt bad for him. But somewhere it also felt unfair, because ‘a night out,’ ‘asking for a reprieve,’ and ‘setting your limits because you’re overworked’ didn’t rhyme in my vocabulary. Was there actually something going on or was he using the right excuse at the right time?
Besides, I also would have liked to turn in my paper later. But I didn’t ask for a reprieve. Instead, I spent evenings in the university library to meet the agreed deadline and then hit the pub. And I did that with full devotion because the trend to be satisfied with a six was not for me either.
Like so many others, I would like to be successful in life. And that requires checking a lot of boxes: high grades on your degree, a nice social life, a toned body, and regular trips abroad. Outside Europe, of course, because traveling on the same continent does not count. Young people like my former classmates and I are very busy. And that regularly results in a packed, compelling schedule.
Too compelling, it seems. Because more and more young people from Generation Y (millennials) and Generation Z (Gen Z people) seem to be resisting the urge to always be successful. The packed diary can occasionally get lost: that deadline, work appointment or lunch with friends can wait. Not so pleasant for the people counting on you, but oh well: at least you can set your limits. Your life coach will undoubtedly be proud of you, chapeau!
But how big is that pressure really? And are millennials and Gen Z people really expected to do more than the generations before them? Or are we dealing with two real snowflake generations? You know, those spoiled young people who can’t handle adversity.
Asking too much of students
Researcher Jolien Dopmeijer of the Trimbos Institute believes that these young people are not being sissies at all. In a recent interview with the NRC (in Dutch), she explains that many students experience psychological complaints and performance pressure because they are overloaded. In 2021, more than 28,000 university of applied sciences and university students filled out an online questionnaire. What emerged? Half of the students surveyed (51 percent) experience psychological complaints such as anxiety and gloom.
‘A student week is completely full. With studying, lectures and then a side job to make ends meet. The cost of living is high. In addition, they want to use every moment of their free time. To develop themselves. To see friends, do board work, play sports. There is no time for hanging around. Everything has to be useful,’ Dopmeijer explains.
To improve student well-being, Robbert Dijkgraaf, outgoing Minister of Education, Culture and Science, even wants to relax the binding study advice for first-year students. Unwise, thinks Tilburg University’s full professor of Victims and Mental Health, Peter van der Velden. He questions the research of the Trimbos Institute and doubts whether the mental health of students is really that bad.
If you compare the number of respondents (28,000, ed.) with the research population (822,800, ed.) you see that only 3.4 percent completed the survey. That percentage is too small to say anything about the entire research population,’ he explains.
‘It is a gross overestimation to say that more than half of students are doing badly’
According to the behavioral scientist, each generation has its own problems, and millennials and Gen Z people do not have a harder life compared to previous generations. Moreover, the Netherlands is not at war like Ukraine.
Van der Velden explains that the results of this survey, therefore, unfairly take on a life of their own: ‘It is a gross overestimation to say that more than half of the students are doing badly. It would not surprise me if mainly students who were not feeling so good about themselves filled out the survey. I suspect that other students didn’t know about the questionnaire or didn’t fill it out.’
It almost seems like we wish millennials and Gen Z people were not doing so well. After all, why do studies like this so often get a stage while we are not even sure if young people are really doing so badly?
According to Van der Velden, this has to do with the mediagenic nature of the study: ‘Such a Trimbos study is new, sensational, dramatic, and alarming. It’s about young people’s emotions and that sells. Not for nothing does the eight o’clock news program open with such a news item. People are sensitive to these kinds of topics. Even student unions now know how to make clever use of this: psychological complaints have become an important means of political pressure.
‘More attention is paid to mental well-being these days. That’s a good development’
‘Much more attention is paid to mental well-being these days than there was thirty years ago. That in itself is a good development. The stigma on mental health complaints and disorders is diminishing and that is good news for people who have it,’ Van der Velden explains.
But exactly for those reasons, some young people also know how to use such ‘excuses’ tactically. ‘And there’s nothing weird about that,’ Van der Velden argues. ‘Everyone wants to make some things in their lives as easy as possible. For example, if you live in Tilburg and go to Breda, you can go by bike, train, or car. Many will go by train or car because you choose the ‘easy’ way.
‘That’s true of more things in our existence. If a student has had too much to drink and has gone to bed too late, thus not finishing his paper on time, and knows that excuses such as ‘being overworked,’ ‘having a dead grandfather,’ or ‘being sick’ work well, the student might use them to get a reprieve. Because just like with people who watch the news, such excuses go down like hot air with lecturers,’ Van der Velden explains.
According to Associate Professor of Philosophy Herman de Regt, university lecturers should, therefore, not accept everything: ‘Students should be made aware of official routes they can take when they fail to meet a deadline, fail exams, or need a third opportunity. Too often, lecturers accept a student’s story.’
Being strict is necessary, De Regt argues: ‘Basically, a deadline is fixed, unless you have a doctor’s note. Then you can go to a study advisor and the Examination Board. They determine whether your reason is valid. Sometimes students go through an emotional phase of their lives, and there is nothing you can do as a university. That’s the bitter reality, but that’s also part of life.’
De Regt believes that more thought should be given to the university’s educational vision: ‘I think you can ask the question more often: what do we at the university actually have in mind when we educate young people to become academics? Can students also learn something from a difficult period? What happens when a grandmother, aunt, or pet passes away, a relationship breaks up, a loved one falls ill, or you yourself are not feeling so good for a while?’
Periods of great sadness can also happen to you later in life, and it certainly does not get any easier: ‘Especially in your professional career, people depend on you, and it is necessary that you continue to function as well as you can. Our students must learn to arm themselves against setbacks. You don’t do that by constantly rescheduling deadlines or giving away extra examination opportunities,’ said De Regt.
Look before you leap
According to Peter Van der Velden, millennials and Gen Z people experiencing stress and burnout are not doing all that bad. Herman de Regt, for his part, argues for an educational vision focused on academic character building.
I still wonder if my former fellow student ‘consciously’ abused an ‘easy’ excuse. Possibly he genuinely believed—empowered by media and life coaches—that he was struggling and needed to set boundaries. Not knowing that this was actually inappropriate. Yet I could also be completely wrong. Because, of course, it could also be that he was actually going through a difficult time.
‘If you can’t choose, stop complaining’
But what are we supposed to do with all these young people complaining loudly and setting their boundaries, when we do not know who is telling the truth and who is not?
‘Take responsibility for your own life and choices,’ I hear myself saying. You have to look before you leap because there are only twenty-four hours in a day. What is really important to you: cum laude grades, the perfect beach body, making a trip around the world, or staying connected with more best friends than you can count on two hands? And if you really can’t choose, at least stop complaining.
What am I going to do tomorrow? Work, go to the gym, have drinks with friends, and pack my suitcase for my vacation to Egypt. All wonderful prospects, at least you won’t hear me complain.
Translated by Language Center, Riet Bettonviel