People who were twenty in 2018 start doing everything later than their counterparts did ten years ago, Statistics Netherlands (CBS) said last month. Were you surprised to hear this?
“Not really. I think it’s a response to globalisation and the increase in flexible employment relationships on the one hand, and the rise of social media and thinking in terms of identities on the other. One key concept in all of this is something Zygmunt Bauman calls ‘liquid modernity’. Many things we used to be able to count on in our existence – education, work, social contacts and relationships – have liquefied. Many people born one hundred years ago ended up doing the same thing their parents did. They met their partners in their own village or perhaps in the neighbouring village, and they knew pretty much exactly what the rest of their lives was going to be like, right until they were six feet under. When I ask today’s students if any of them have any idea what they will be doing five years from now, no one raises a hand. They have no idea where they will be working or what kind of relationship they will be in. They don’t even know where they will be living. The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa describes this phenomenon very well in his book Beschleunigung: people’s horizon of expectations is getting farther and farther away, even though the number of ways in which people can live their lives has drastically increased.”
So it’s hardly surprising that people who have so many options open to them are taking a little more time to decide on their course of action. Or do you think it’s a worrying trend?
“I completely understand why it’s happening. The only reason why it’s worrying is because we have become responsible for our own narratives. For a long time, a person’s options were largely determined by his or her background. But today’s meritocratic society revolves around the idea that success is an achievement. If you make it, it’s because you did a great job. If you don’t make it, it’s your own fault. Which means that individuals are now shouldering a tremendous burden.”
Never before have we seen so many young people suffer from burnouts. Does that mean that the burden is actually too heavy to bear?
“It’s very bearable for people such as songfestival winner Duncan Laurence, speed skating champion Ireen Wüst or rockstar scientist Robbert Dijkgraaf – people who emerge victorious. But societies are not exclusively made up of winners. Life has become such a rat race. These days, even a house in a major city is only affordable to the richest people in our society. But we also have a lot of people whose performance is average, or below average. And in many cases, it’s not even their own fault. Even if you’re successful in everything you do, you may suddenly fall behind – let’s say, because one of your parents died while you were at uni, or because you develop a chronic disease in your twenties.”
How did this rat race come about?
“I think the main cause is the fact that things are increasingly left up to the market, as well as the curtailing of the collective arrangements that used to provide people with security when it came to work, living and health care. The message we are receiving is: if you are failing, solve the issue yourself.”
But surely the fact that we are leaving things up to the market has brought us great prosperity, as well?
“Definitely. However, it comes with an unimaginable number of new things to feel insecure about. We could have another global financial crisis like the 2018 crisis any time now. Income inequality is widening all the time. We’ve gone overboard.”
You are very much emphasising the fact that society is changing. But it’s also said that the millennials we are talking about are spoiled, impatient and incapable of saving money. Don’t you think they themselves are to blame for their issues?
“If you blame the individual, you will once again step into the meritocracy trap. As a philosopher, I think that all individuals are largely shaped by external forces. Millennials grew up during a time of economic prosperity, with a mix of the self-actualisation that characterises the 1960s and the focus on individual wellbeing and prosperity that marks the 1990s. They grew up on the notion that they must make the most of themselves. And then there’s this idea that as long as they do their best, they’ll get there.
You may say they’re horrible kids, as Peter Sloterdijk is doing. Or you may say they’re not adults, as Susan Neiman is doing. But it’s important to realise that many young people are inclined to buy into that meritocratic ideal. I think society should be designed in such a way that it’s a pleasant place for more people than just that small group of winners. We must ensure that everyone is successful.”
What does that mean in more specific terms? Do we get rid of student loans, give people more generous social security benefits, have long-term sickness benefits for everyone?
“Yes. But it also means we need a fixed percentage of permanent positions. I can see in my own environment, at this university, what it’s like to work in an organisation where people are always leaving. It’s horrible. Neither organisations nor people can stand all these flexible employment relationships.”
So far we’ve been discussing work and social security. But young people have also begun to have relationships and sex later. Why is that?
“This is also partly due to people being responsible for what their own lives look like. In addition, social media are very much forcing young people into an identity discourse. It’s vital that you have your narrative – knowing who you are, sexually – fully written by the time you actually start having sex. You must pick whether you like men, or women, or both. You must determine what you want, what you enjoy and where your boundaries are. In my book Beminnen I tried to show that we’ve been talking about sex too much, at the expense of actually doing it and exploring things with your partner. Being playful is what teaches you who you are and what you are.”
It is time that we got adventurous again?
“It is. But it should be noted that sex symbolises bigger things in this regard. Young people don’t have enough opportunities for experimentation. They should be able to err and mess things up without their mistakes being plastered all over Facebook straight away. I think human beings refuse to enter many sidetracks because the sidetracks don’t fit in with the narrative they have written for themselves. We are saying no to so many options because we have to make choices at the earliest stage possible. It’s causing us to lose out on so many good things in our lives.”
Marli Huijer is a professor of public philosophy at the Erasmus School of Philosophy, as well as a former Thinker Laureate (2015-2017). Her writings include Ritme: Op zoek naar een terugkerende tijd (2012), Discipline: Overleven in overvloed (2013) and Beminnen: Nieuw licht op seksuele vrijheid (2018).