Op-Ed: Are young people emotionally fragile, or do you just not care?

The older generation rolling their eyes at the sensitivities of young people is a tale as old as time, but maybe there’s value in being emotional.

Photo: Robert K. Chin/Alamy Stock Photo

There’s no better way to win an argument than to call the other person crazy. It’s Gaslighting 101, and it’s happening to young people on a generational level. “You’re too sensitive”, “you’re the problem”, “you’re overreacting” – the manipulative words of an abuser, or of an older generation trying to silence the young people highlighting the world’s issues? For as long as I can remember, we young people have been bashed for being too soft – so much so, that we’ve earned ourselves a nickname: The Snowflake Generation. It seems that caring about the world – or anything outside of ourselves – is cause for ridicule among the older generation… In fact, even caring about ourselves is looked down on. 

I’d feel crazy for caring if I was the only one, but I’m not. The New York Times recently asked young people to respond to a series of writing prompts about what they think older generations could learn from them. At the top of the list was the need to normalise talking about mental health, but this generation’s immense consideration for the people around them and the future ahead of them was clear in all of their responses. Respondents raised concerns about issues ranging from climate change to capitalism, but at the heart of it, all was compassion for others.

Amanda Jane Shallcross, aged 43, is a board-certified naturopathic physician at NYU School of Medicine in NYC. She has clinical and research expertise in affective and behavioural science, mindfulness-based interventions and emotional regulation. “Emotions are feedback”, she says. “They’re telling you something about how you are interacting with your environment, and with that comes the opportunity for greater understanding. If not for understanding, how do you navigate the world and make the best decisions for you?” Maybe it seems pointless to be mad or upset about things that are hard to change, but I would argue otherwise. The emotions we have about the state of the world we live in are important. If we don’t turn towards these emotions, we deny ourselves the opportunity to make decisions and transform society into one that aligns with our generational values – just like the generations before us did. Emotions are going to be the driving force behind change.

Yet, whether it’s on the topic of climate change, mental health or the economy, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard phrases like “you’ll understand when you get older”, as if I’m too young and dumb to have a real opinion on our malfunctioning society. I keep waiting for this supposed eureka moment – the day when I’ll suddenly wake up unencumbered by empathy – but it never comes. With each passing year, it seems I only grow more concerned about the state of our world.

I don’t necessarily think this is an age thing… It’s an experience thing. We have grown up in an entirely different context, with entirely different experiences than the older generation. We aren’t snowflakes. We’re a generation who have spent our formative years – from childhood to teenagehood – learning to navigate a society broken beyond Boomers’ comprehension. We’ve experienced societal trauma like no other generation before: we watched our parents grapple with poverty in the face of the economic crash; we watched the biggest civil rights movement of the 21st century unfold – and yet saw little change; we’re seeing the grip of the climate crisis across the globe, and all while we’ve been stuck in the confines of our homes for the last 2 years. These are genuinely challenging issues and having a stiff upper lip about it is not a sign of strength; it’s a sign of ignorance.

“There have been some very significant world events that have unfolded in the last 20 years that weren’t unfolding when I was growing up, they were not part of my generation’s experience. I was not exposed to those things”, Shallcross says. But the important difference of our generation’s experience is actually not the experiences themselves – although they are uniquely hard-hitting. The real difference is this generation’s unprecedented access to information. 

“It’s important to consider that there’s a platform where people are able to express themselves in a much less restricted and more easily accessible way than was possible for people in my generation”, Shallcross adds, bringing forward this crucial point. We are constantly being flooded with information that we might not otherwise hear about, if not for the internet and social media. It’s easy to misunderstand the scale of issues in our world if you’re not Very Online like most kids today. Of course, you’d think we’re overreacting if you’re not seeing events unfold in real-time like us. When the Black Lives Matter protests were unravelling in America, I was able to keep up to date with every new instance of police brutality and every protest through Twitter. I can’t imagine not feeling angry after seeing such injustices. The idea that we’re making mountains out of molehills is a conclusion that only the blissfully technologically ignorant could come to. The reality is that young people are faced with a unique conundrum: when we have the ability to educate ourselves, do we not have a social responsibility to at least try and inspire change?

Young people have instant and comprehensive access to information that not only makes us more aware of the issues around us, but also of the dialogues surrounding them. So, are we really more sensitive than older generations, or are we just more aware and more able to freely express ourselves? With platforms like Twitter allowing people to express their immediate thoughts on any given situation, we are constantly inspired to think about issues critically and with an open mind. Something as simple as reading the comments section on a tweet, YouTube video or Instagram post grants us a wider perspective on any given issue. We cannot just have one stagnant view. Our ideas are constantly evolving as they are challenged online. 

Shallcross argues, though, that a level of acceptance will be the key to shaping a brighter future. “Acceptance helps to facilitate self-care, self-compassion and the skilful expression of emotion”, she says, adding that these things will allow our message to be received well and facilitate positive change. To practice acceptance, she warns against getting too carried away with the negative emotions that stem from dealing with these issues. Though they may be understandable, Shallcross says: “When you’re hijacked and flooded with an emotion, your prefrontal cortex – meaning your ability to reason, plan, think creatively – goes offline. Your hindbrain is running the show, and that’s not when the most brilliant, skilful, insightful, adaptive ideas and solutions are going to come about.

Ultimately, what the younger generation has going for them is a much greater awareness – of emotion, of world events and of themselves. Shallcross argues that this awareness is part and parcel of acceptance: “It’s one of the foundational building blocks – you can’t accept that which you’re not aware of. I think there’s an awareness that hasn’t been present in former generations, truly.” 

So, maybe it’s time that Boomers take a leaf out of our books. Instead of trying to convince us that we’ll grow out of caring about the world, understand that the world today is different from the one you grew up in. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” doesn’t work when we live in an economy that’s so screwed, most of us will never own our homes and “push through it” doesn’t work when we’re facing a mental health crisis like never before. Maybe the Boomers’ way worked once upon a time, but now it’s our turn to forge the way forward. It’s time to stop silencing young people who are passionate about making the world a better, more fair and compassionate place. As Shallcross puts it: “the only thing worse would be to have all of this happening and not be talking about it.”

Fizzy is a culture journalist with words in Village Underground, the Cosmpolitan and more. Her writing focuses on first-person experiences, travel, social issues and more.

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