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The Millennial Existential Experience

He stood out in a room of forty balding pastors. Most were old and graying with the settled paunch of a largely inactive lifestyle. He was young, covered in long pink hair, with “Black Lives Matter” emblazoned on his T-shirt. Sitting on the front row, it was clear that he was the only millennial in attendance to hear me speak about the importance of listening to millennials. So I decided to listen to him. Despite being a gay Unitarian Universalist minister, he was my God-given resident crap detector, a gift of authenticity. I had no idea how he would react to my presentation.

So I turned to him as I began publicly and asked him to hold me accountable. “I’m going to outline seven characteristics of millennials. Did I get them right? Or did I miss an obvious one? At the conclusion of this presentation, I’m going to come back to you and ask.” He eagerly agreed, looking for a constructive outlet for his rightful skepticism over a grandfather Boomer talking to pastors about his much-beleaguered generation.

And so I outlined the seven characteristics that are highlighted in my book The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church: 1) Secular, 2) Open, 3) Cross-pressured, 4) Experiential, 5) Relational, 6) Authentic, and 7) Haunted. It was evident that he was following closely and was in general approval. If way off base, he probably would have raised his hand in immediate protest. He didn’t suffer fools.

As promised, I turned to him and asked him in front of the entire audience. He said, “You were spot on, except that you missed one because you don’t live life as a millennial. The missing characteristic is Anxiety.” I immediately knew he was correct.

Once you look for this characteristic the research starts to jump off the page. One blogger wrote,

"This year during Youth Sunday, a sixteen-year old girl stood in the pulpit. She was barely visible, given her small stature. From my view in the choir loft, I could see her knees trembling. Getting her up there was a challenge, but now she stood before our congregation and shared about her struggles with mental health issues. I watched the faces of the people in the pews; many nodded their heads in agreement, others looked surprised at her openness. 'Anxiety is a relevant and personal battle many of us face,’ she said passionately. 'We need to start talking about it in the church.'”

The Berkeley Institute for the Future of Young Americans at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley released a study, “The Anxious Generation: Causes and Consequences of Anxiety Disorder Among Young Americans.”

"As the first generation raised on the Internet and social media, as a generation that came of age in the wake of one of the worst recession in modern history, and as a generation still grappling with increased economic uncertainty and worsening financial prospects, millennials are experiencing anxiety like no other generation."

This is the existential lens through which new Copernicans experience life. One survey conducted on behalf of Quartz in 2018 found that millennials (and some Gen Z) employees between 18 to 34 year old experience work-disrupting anxiety and depression at almost double the rate of older workers. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders among today’s adolescents in the U.S. effecting approximately a third at one point in their lives.

Scrawled on the grease board, Toby Lingle in Williston, North Dakota wrote, “I’m sorry. I can’t take the anxiety and depression any more,” before killing himself with his newly acquired Sig P226 Legion, so reports an article, “All-American Despair,” in RollingStone magazine. The Centers for Disease Control recorded 47,173 suicides in 2017, and there were an estimated 1.4 million total attempts. Suicides in America are dominated by white men who account for 70% of all cases. And the states with the highest numbers are generally red, Trump-supporting states: Montana, Alaska, and Wyoming all double the national rate of suicides. This January the Chicago Sun-Times headline read, “Deaths from Drugs, Alcohol, Suicide Hit Millennials Hardest.” Far more than their Boomer parents, the CDC found that millennials are the most likely demographic to die from alcohol, drug abuse, and suicide, the three “deaths of despair.”

John Auerbach, CEO of the Trust for America’s Health, cites “burdensome levels of educational debt,” the cost of housing and the challenge of building careers during the “great recession” in a gig economy, and the opioid crisis. Couple this with the survey results just released from a YouGov poll this week that found that 20% of millennials claimed that they don’t have a single friend. This millennial anxiety is tinged with a palpable sense of loneliness.

Anxiety and loneliness is a lethal combination that is now impacting a growing number of families. This week the Kennedy’s laid to rest 22-year-old Saoirse Kennedy Hill. It’s best to hold the “snowflake” comments. Boomer parents have not walked one day in the anxious shoes of their millennial children. There are no easy answers. But this much is clear: we’d better start talking about it in church. Empathy begins with listening. I owe much to my pink-haired, tattooed gay Unitarian crap detector. He was right. I gave him a hug as we departed.

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