Why are Young People Unhappy?

by Benjamin Studebaker

I’ve noticed an interesting article floating around the internet. The piece, entitled “Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy” sees rampant narcissism and self-entitlement as the source of young people’s unhappiness. Does it have a case? Let’s take a look.

The piece opens with what it calls the “formula for happiness”. Happiness, it argues, is the quality of one’s reality minus the expectations one had for the quality of one’s reality. The piece argues that in the 50’s and 60’s children were raised to expect that, if they worked hard, they could achieve the American dream–steady employment, a secure income, a family, and so on. The baby boomers managed not only to achieve what their parents intended for them, but to achieve a considerably higher standard of living than that. As a result, their reality outperformed their expectations, and they were satisfied. By contrast, when these children themselves became parents and began raising their children in the 80’s and 90’s, they raised their children to believe they could do even better than they themselves did. The piece argues that, as a result, Generation Y has massively inflated expectations that its reality can never meet, and has therefore been led into unhappiness by its parents.

This amounts to a cultural explanation of youth unhappiness. Cultural explanations are seductive–they rely on broad, general claims that can often sound very convincing. They’re also very hard to prove, and consequently, to disprove. We can all think of anecdotal cases that seem to fit the bill of this argument. It certainly sounds plausible.

On closer expectation, however, it’s deeply flawed. The piece fails to ask one seemingly very obvious question–why is it that parents in the 80’s and 90’s thought their children could do so well? These parents saw tremendous improvement in their living standards between when they were born in the 50’s and 60’s and when they began having children in the 80’s and 90’s. These parents rationally projected out into the future continued improvements in living standards and opportunity along the lines of what they themselves experienced. From the perspective of someone born in the 50’s and 60’s, it was entirely rational to expect the 10’s and the 20’s to be as much better than the 80’s and 90’s as the 80’s and 90’s were better than the 50’s and 60’s. Parents expected at the very least linear improvement in living standards.

That did not happen. The economic growth we experienced in the 50’s and 60’s did not continue in the 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s:

The rate at which living standards improve is not exponential, it’s not even linear–it’s declining. In addition, what progress we do make is not translating into higher wages as it was for people in the 50’s and 60’s:

Adjusted for inflation, wages doubled between 1945 and 1970. Since then, they have remained flat. Furthermore, the old adage that if you work hard you can improve your economic station is increasingly no longer true–economic mobility has fallen precipitously since the 50’s and 60’s. The gap between the rich and poor in the academic resources they make available to their children has expanded vastly over the last 40 years:

The problem is not that young people were raised with unrealistic expectations, it’s that expectations that were at one point in time considered realistic no longer are. Now, young people are faced with a youth unemployment rate unmatched since the early eighties recession:

What happened here? Somewhere along the way, the opportunities and growth that young people’s parents rationally expected vanished. The youth are left in the lurch. They have aspirations to fit the economy that should be, but not the economy that is. Older generations not only failed to do their part to enhance the rate at which prosperity grows, they failed to maintain the rate of growth for future generations.

And, lest young people get any ideas about trying to invest their way into a better future, the older generations have locked down the majority of the state’s tax revenue in social security and medicare, programs that allow them to unproductively leech off the economy for increasingly vast periods of time. There’s no money available to give young people free college educations (let alone college educations at rates similar to those enjoyed by their parents) because the “greatest generation” is sitting in nursing homes and retirement communities consuming exponentially vast amounts of medical care in order to prolong increasingly poor quality lives by a few extra increasingly miserable years. And so Generation Y is burdened with supporting the very individuals who failed to invest in its own future, so much so that it cannot even invest in itself without taking on crippling student loan debt.

And, should young people attempt to change any of this, they will always be defeated numerically at the polls, as the portion of the population that is already done with college and into their careers will always vastly exceed them in number, and it is always in the interest of these old people to use the laws to further ensnare young people in a system that increasingly undermines their own ability to succeed. As we see healthcare costs rising and the baby boomers entering retirement, our unwillingness to put the kids first is very swiftly coming to bite our aging population in the rear. The wages Generation Y fails to earn will one day be the tax revenue it is never able to pay, and, consequently, the entitlement benefits the elderly never receive.

Who is narcissistic and entitled, the generation that expected to enter a world improving at the steady rate history indicated, or the generation that believes it is entitled to consume the majority of the state’s tax revenue without doing any work of any kind? A country that prioritizes the interests of the dead and dying over those of its young people feeds its strength to its own parasites, and hastens its own demise.

So why are young people unhappy? Young people are unhappy because the growth their parents promised them never materialized. That growth never materialized because their parents and grandparents made bad investments in the economy, squandering this nation’s wealth on inefficient, high-cost medical care for the unproductive nearly dead and on foolish investments into bubbles that have since popped. Yet these very people who inherited a system of such promise and such potential and wasted and destroyed all of that, these people have the nerve to write op-eds in which they accuse their children and their children’s children of narcissism and entitlement? Is the irony not lost on them? Have they no shame, or are they merely ignorant of the role they have played?


This post has done quite well, as my posts go. I would like to offer a point of clarification–some individuals commenting seem to have gotten the impression that I want to start dumping the elderly into mass graves, and are consequently dismissing my argument on the grounds that it’s dystopian. This is a misreading. I advocate drastically reducing the amount we spend on health care for the elderly and redistributing that money to alleviate college costs, but this does not entail mass killings–Japan spends less than half as much as the United States does per capita on healthcare for its citizens, who nonetheless have an average life expectancy that is four years longer. Japan has a rapidly aging population, and has consequently had to make its healthcare system spectacularly efficient. By shamelessly copying their superior system, we could potentially free up a lot of money for young people without throwing our elderly off the Tarpeian Rock.