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Millennials are the most stressed-out demographic group on the planet — they are also the group most sensitive to sustainability issues.

I was searching for a word that best described the mood of the moment — the zeitgeist. Miserable came quickly to mind. From that came miserabilism.

Post the Second World War, “miserabilism” was used to describe everything from politics to art to social and economic misery.

Miserabilism comes from Miserabilismuscoined by the German philosopher Karl Robert Eduard von Hartmann in 1880. His idea of a perilous kind of pessimism — the impossibility of improving a person’s dire situation or indeed, humankind’s. In short: a dismal outlook! 

Mindful that a pessimist might also be someone who plans for the worst but hopes for the best.

And not everyone viewed miserabilism as a gloomy affaire. The French Romantics, for example, considered miserabilism a form of pleasure. As the French poet and novelist, Victor Hugo wrote: “Melancholy is the happiness of being sad.”

A new word for a new normal

But the word “miserabilism” just wasn’t enough to match today’s multitude of dilemmas. A crisis on top of the ultimate crisis, climate change, called for something more — a new word for a new normal.

I settled on “neo-miserabilism” or “neomiserabilism” — neo meaning new; miserabilism meaning a gloomy, stressed-out disposition — the inexplicable physical feeling of things being not quite right.

Neo-miserabilism thus defines the zeitgeist of today, the one that periodically creeps up on our doorstep and won’t go away. It’s about surviving the civilised world we have created. The crises that systematically follows the crisis. 

And although neo-miserabilism might ensue in the aftermath of a devastating drought, flood, firestorm, or pandemic, it’s more broadly a consequence of the overwhelming stressors of the everyday. Loneliness and depression are symptomatic of this century. Noreena Hertz, in her latest book, called this The Lonely Century.

In short: neo-miserabilism is the normalised state of miserabilism — the 21st century interconnected version that at times seems so socially disconnecting that it engulfs the entire planet.

Millennials in the age of neo-miserabilism

Being a neo-miserabilist might encapsulate a kaleidoscope of demographics — about one’s job, lifestyle, future prospects, motherhood or fatherhood, social media addiction, or the welfare of our planet — but it especially encapsulates millennials — worldwide. 

Neo-miserabilism has been increasingly dogging this highly-connected and highly-empathetic generation.

Millennials, more than any past or present generation, seek psychotherapy “… although no one can really agree about the millennial generation, one thing is fairly certain: They’re stressed out

As opinion editor at the Guardian, Bridie Jabour wrote last December during the firestorms: “every 31-year-old I know is miserable.”

“I think there is more of a nihilistic edge to millennials than any previous generation — not to sound twee but it’s hard to daydream about the future when I have been choking on bushfire smoke for weeks and rainforests are disappearing at a rate of 30 football fields a minute.”

Why so neo-miserabilist?

The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2020 surveyed 27,500 millennials and Gen Zs across 43 countries — covering those born 1983-2002. It found, that even faced with an unprecedented economic and health crisis caused by the pandemic, they expressed a resolve to build a better world. Here are the main findings:

  • Economic and social/political optimism is at record lows. Respondents express a strong lack of faith in traditional societal institutions, including mass media, and are pessimistic about social progress
  • Millennials and Gen Zs are disillusioned. They’re not particularly satisfied with their lives, their financial situations, their jobs, government and business leaders, social media, or the way their data is used
  • Millennials value experiences. They aspire to travel and help their communities more than starting families or their own businesses
  • Millennials are sceptical of business’s motives. Respondents do not think highly of leaders’ impact on society, their commitment to improving the world, or their trustworthiness
  • They let their wallets do the talking (and walking). Millennials and Gen Zs, in general, will patronise and support companies that align with their values; many say they will not hesitate to lessen or end relationships when they disagree with companies’ business practices, values, or political leanings

Millennials are thus neo-miserabilist with their current lot and suspicious of political and business leaders, institutions, and organisations. They will avoid a brand if they believe its sustainability bona fides are suspect.

Millennials are set to shape the world

Millennials are pivotal to the sustainability of the planet right now.

You might not know it but millennials (18-34 years old) are the largest demographic group on the planet — accounting for one in three people — and are therefore critical to a sustainable future.

They are also the first generation to have a 50 per cent chance of living to 100 — they might be living in the Age of Neo-miserabilism, but they’ll be around a long time.

And they are next-in-line to take up the challenge of a world under pressure — a world about to undergo an irresistible transition. Their actions and thinking will dramatically influence the generations to come.

And they are next-in-line to take up the challenge of a world under pressure — a world about to undergo an irresistible transition. Their actions and thinking will dramatically influence the generations to come.

They are also the most sensitive group to sustainability and environmental issues

As the renowned futurologist, Rocky Scopelliti writes: “Their [millennials’] proportionate representation in society — whether it’s as business leaders or policy makers in the workplace, government or institutions, or whether they are influencing spiritual, academic, scientific or technological advances — will only increase.”

Millennials, worldwide, are also the demographic group most sensitive to sustainability issues. They regard luxury and sustainability as contradictory. Even though this doesn’t necessarily stop them from buying luxury goods, it plays on their subconscious mind.

There is a cognitive dissonance occurring — the authentic inner-self is in conflict with the unauthentic outer-self.

Millennials are also the demographic group most concerned about environmental degradation.

Nielsen Consumer Analytics showed in a 2018 global survey that millennials, more than any other demographic group — 85 per cent compared to the next highest, Gen Zs at 80 per cent — “said that it is ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ important that companies implement programs to improve the environment.”

A recent study of London-based millennials found that eight out of 10 believe that the private sector has a principal role to play in a sustainable future; however, fewer than three out of 10 think that it will rise to the challenge. Their main concern was that a short-term capitalist mindset will ultimately undermine sustainability.

Organisations are missing out on millennials’ skills

One reason millennials are suffering from neo-miserabilism is that they believe organisations are not taking advantage of their inherent tech skills. After all, they are the digital generation, having grown up in the tech revolution.

A study into how organisations engage millennials in the energy transition, for example, found that “… with a few exceptions, organisations do not use interactive media and elements that millennials use, and in this, do not engage millennials to join in the energy transition.”

In short: organisations were failing to integrate the technologies that millennials use to communicate. And in an interconnected world, communication was critical to an organisation’s success.

COVID may have caused a spike in stress, but there’s hope for the future

A study by The Australian National University (ANU) in May of this year found that severe psychological stress in young Australian adults aged 18 to 24 increased from 14 per cent in February 2017 to 22.3 per cent in April 2020. In the group aged 25 to 34 years, it rose from 11.5 per cent to 18 per cent. 

On the upside, the same study showed that 59 per cent of Australians “feel hopeful about the future at least three to four days of the week”.

So, suppose you’re a Baby Boomer. If you are, it’s our job to recognise the generation of the future for their unique skills and strong sense of sustainability as they journey through the Age of Neo-miserabilism to an age of limitless imagination.

As Scopelliti reminds us: “Life is anything but predictable and uncertainty has become the new normal as we transition into the imagination economy.”

­Dr Stephen Dark has a PhD in Climate Change Policy and Science, and has lectured at Bond University in the Faculty of Society & Design teaching Sustainable Development and Sustainability Economics. He is a member of the Urban Development Institute of Australia and the author of the book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning.

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  1. The millennial generation has lived through the experience of neo-liberalism which fosters pessimism and the belief that markets rule and governments are powerless to create change. Little wonder they are pessimistic. In contrast, the baby-boomers lived through the rapid social change of the 60s and 70s which saw major improvements in health, education, social and political rights. This fostered the view that we can change anything for the better and solve all social problems. This has sustained me for 40 years, despite the obvious naivety of the belief in the face of reality. However, those early formative years created a lifetime belief in ‘relentless optimism’. Something that would be very hard to form growing up in this century.