The more I work with people in their mid to late 20s and early 30s, the more a pattern becomes clear. There are those who have embraced the direction set by previous generations - university, a job, a partner - and have followed our lead into the system that we have set up, towards a goal we describe as ‘being successful’.
There are, however, many people at this age who feel like they are in a small boat, out at sea, seemingly alone, without a clear view or set direction in which to paddle. They are reluctant to follow us (despite our urging) because from where they are, they can see a storm ahead. There is no other beacon to move toward, so they chop and change in the hope that a sign will appear, all the while feeling an expectation and growing impatience with their ‘stuckness’.
Many of those stuck in their respective boats, seemingly alone, are having similar experiences. They feel like they should be taking our lead - getting a job, settling down, building a career - but nothing really fits because meaning is important to them and sustainability is important to them.
They need meaning. We often scoff at that, but they have seen the impact of the ‘it's never enough’ syndrome: the exhaustion, the unhappiness and the burnout. We have shown them that. They have seen the impact our definition of success is having on the world around them - on families, friends, communities and the environment - and they are torn between wanting to follow us, to meet our expectations, and knowing that it will only accelerate our racing into the storm. They try many different things, hoping something will work out.
Their search for a meaningful occupation is often accompanied by bouts of despair and/or anxiety, and a dip in self-confidence often follows. They feel like they are letting down the people they love, and like they should have ‘reached success’ already. They look around them and compare themselves to people their age who have ‘made it’ in the world of progress, profit and power in line with ‘success’. Anything else is perceived as failure. There will always be someone closer to the target and those people are ahead of them so it is not easy to see the pain in their eyes, as the goal is reached but is not fulfilling.
The ones that I know who feel like they are in this boat all have something very special in common: a deep connection to the earth, sea, sun, mountains and rivers. They are all sensitive to themselves and the energy of people and things around them. They care deeply about the world and find joy in these simpler aspects of life, yet feel like they are exposed, being judged and found guilty. Guilty of not being enough. Guilty of not following us even though they can see that we may not be fulfilled. Even if we don’t vocalise our accusations, they sense them in the energy around us.
But what if their collective ‘stuckness’ is part of something bigger? Something neither they, nor the world around them, is aware of yet. What if their ‘stuckness’ is actually a (possibly involuntary) silent protest, with the unconscious intention of making us stop and pay attention to their ‘stuckness’. Maybe their reluctance to follow us should make us curious rather than accusatory, thinking we know better. Could their ‘stuckness’ be part of the seismic shift that we inherently know we need to make to restore some balance to our world?
What if we are still not paying attention despite the storms that have already hit us, with the intention of shifting our course and a clear message that the wind has already changed and those of us continuing to row towards ‘success’ have not noticed that the meaning of success has changed, too? What if we stop and listen to the message in their collective ‘stuckness’, that they can’t follow us in the direction we are going because they know that could destroy their future?
How would it be if we paid heed to this message? How would it be if we acknowledged that depression and anxiety is part of a natural rhythm in life, and that it comes and goes as much as curiosity, joy and passion are part of our natural rhythm, but that we have disturbed the rhythm in pursuit of a false definition of success? How would it be if we realised that the prevalence of anxiety and depression will strengthen its grip unless we change course and redefine success, for ourselves and for those who follow?
How would it be if, instead of expecting this new generation of adults to follow in our footsteps, we stopped to listen to them, stand beside them and work out a new way of being in the world? And if we slowed down and followed them in ‘going with the flow’ and exploring a new direction? How would it be to know that we have enough and that we are enough? Because enough is just that: enough.