The Most Millennial Way to Handle A Global Pandemic
As a Millennial, I’ve basically been bracing for a world crisis since childhood. Not in a paranoid, build-a-bunker kind of way, but rather, in a when bad things inevitably happen, I know it’s time to pay attention and act collectively toward a responsible solution, kind of way.
I’m generalizing here, but in the midst of this pandemic while Baby Boomers are priding themselves on their independence, and Gen-Xers are following the rules and staying home and flexing their self-sufficiency, Millennials are delivering the most impactful approach. I think this is because we understand a crisis as a plea to contribute to something larger than ourselves.
How to Make a Millennial Childhood Edition: Create Excessive Routines & Structure
I remember talking with my dad in sixth grade about how my generation was lucky because we hadn’t experienced a war. His father fought in WWII and he grew up during Vietnam, and while I’d technically been alive during the Gulf War, it felt incredibly distant. For the most part, I’d grown up with predictability and stability, maybe to excess. This was 1998: a year before the Columbine school shooting and a few years before 9/11. The millennium — Y2K — was the most concerning thing on the horizon, but I’d sneakily changed the date on our family computer from 1998 to 2001, and nothing happened, so I was pretty sure we’d be okay.
Everything changed during my first month of high school. A classmate told us a plane crashed into the Pentagon, where her uncle worked, and overnight, we entered an endless war. We absorbed the fears of our parents and our teachers. The concept of terrorism — that someone may have a plan to tear apart the comfortable lives we’d grown accustomed to — was ever present.
Abandoned vehicles were scary.
Duffle bags were scary.
Fear morphed into Islamophobia. My Sikh and Muslim friends were threatened. One legally changed his name; another cut his hair and stopped wearing the turban he’d worn since childhood so it wouldn’t be mistaken for a terrorist symbol. All of this felt terribly unfair and inhumane, but the nightly news affirmed that we were always at a red level threat.
Paranoia was the new normal. And every decision hedged on, is it safe? Is flying safe? Is visiting NYC safe? Is marching in a parade with my high school band safe? As teens, we sensed the panic, but we craved normalcy. The fabric of reality had been altered, but we obediently kept up with our regimented routines. We joined after-school clubs, worked part-time jobs, volunteered and applied for college scholarships as we were told to do. Fear was a background emotion, mostly unimportant and out of my control.
As students, we internalized the idea that if we acted like everything was okay, our teachers and families would be okay, too. It felt like our job to operate as normal, even though something terrible may be around the corner. We continued to carry on through our monthly Code Blue drills and increased security even though, at the time, it felt like we’d be teetering on the edge of existence and anticipating the next crisis for the rest of our lives.
How to Make a Millennial College Edition: Intro to Therapy
While I was in college, everything changed again. Climate change was gaining awareness and the gun violence epidemic was beginning to sound alarm. My classmates and I were deeply impacted by a neighboring college school shooting, but if you asked a Baby Boomer or Generation X-er what the most defining moment of the time was, they’d likely say the 2008 financial crisis and recession because it more directly impacted their careers and families.
To them, operating as normal continued to be the priority.
For me, college felt like the first time I fully exhaled.
In college, I had a high-stress job that exposed me to some difficult and traumatic situations, but instead of continuing to push down my fears and emotions while simultaneously bracing for the next catastrophe, I finally felt comfortable asking for help managing hard things. I learned about stress management practices and anxiety tools and healthy coping mechanisms. I discovered yoga and therapy and support groups. It felt healthy and human to share our collective fears and traumas and concerns. Difficult situations continued, but now we were communally anxious. And that was empowering.
With each new crisis, I was better equipped than before. My co-workers learned how to lean on each other. We checked in with each other regularly in-person and through gchat. It was comforting to be able to freely process our fears and trepidations instead of ignoring them. We learned how to work through experiences collectively instead of pretending we were prematurely okay, and that, to me, is the mark of a Millennial.
So how are we handling this new emergency (gestures wildly in the surrounding air that may be contaminated with Coronavirus) that’s awakening our Millennial collective crisis response?
We’re creating excessive routines and structure
If you’re familiar with the concept of bullet journaling, you know how Millennial brains work. We operate best with a carefully curated to do list, an excessively organized habit tracker, and endless lists that we create and then, often, promptly ignore.
Blame my over-scheduled Millennial education. For years, I moved through weekly rotations of class, after school clubs, dance classes or color guard (marching band), baby-sitting, homework, and sleep. While I claim to have stopped glorifying busyness in adulthood, I still see a semblance of this in my modern life: my overburdened work calendar, my gym schedule, the fact that when I hang out with my sister, we enjoy making a “Fedule” aka a FUN schedule, and, most notably, my reliable bullet journal.
It’s true that Millennials tend to be flexible, but we’re most comfortable knowing a blueprint exists. Now, with all of my pre-scheduled plans on hold, and without my usual routines, I’ve been feeling paralyzed and directionless. I have two settings: I either create intense daily schedules where I wake up early to write and exercise and meal plan or, I sink into the couch and play the SIMS for two days straight. The bullet journal pulls me back on track. When I’m feeling vulnerable and craving structure and consistency, newly drafted schedules, lists, and meal plans are filling that void beyond capacity.
Crafting a daily routine can create familiarity during a period of uncertainty. Medical advice tells us that we function best when eating and sleeping and exercising in a predictable rhythm, and maybe some of us are taking it a touch too far, myself included, but I’ve seen so many Millennials using these organizational skills for good. It’s true that we hate feeling directionless, but that means when we don’t have a task, we create one. We’re communicating and strategizing and filling free time by volunteering and sewing masks and organizing meal trains for neighbors in need. And for those of us who still have jobs, we’re working, a lot. In fact, we’re working significantly more hours than normal.
We’re Pretending Not to Watch The News
We say the news is too much, and that we can’t bear to watch it, or that we’re only looking at it once a day. But we’re watching it without even meaning to.
Millennials did not have the internet in our elementary school classrooms, but most of us were introduced to smart phones in our early twenties, and we haven’t let go yet. Our thumbs operate with muscle memory as we tirelessly open and re-open the Washington Post and New York Times news apps. We refresh the stats. We appreciate the transparency. We like being able to check the data and trends. It gives us both a thrill and sense of security to know how our experiences fit into the national and global picture.
So while we may not be actively making the decision to sit down and watch the news, but we’re still subscribed and plugged in and habitually scrolling through the headlines every morning. Which means we’re definitely looking at it. We’re looking at it a lot.
We’re glued to social media, but posting infrequently
We know that social media posts aren’t an accurate reflection of life, we know it’s not healthy to scroll all day, many of us have deactivated our accounts or taken social detoxes over the years, but with the pandemic restrictions, here we are, relying on this technology for our social interaction.
Our minds are especially frazzled right now. We’re always on the cusp of a new thought. We’re drafting it in our heads. We want to share because we crave reassurance and connection, but we’re cautious over-thinkers who are simultaneously starved for connection but oddly still concerned about our image. Case in point: this morning, I took 6 photos of my morning walk and drafted three different captions before deciding to post none of it.
We may not be posting, but we’re refreshing. We’re reading. We’re distracting ourselves from our pain and concerns by scrolling through memes for hours at a time. It may look like we’re not there, but we feel overburdened and we’re missing our usual routines and comforts and connections, so we’re over-relying on social media. We know that it’s addictive and we’re actively addicted.
We’re doing the right things and following the rules
Even though Millennials are independent thinkers, creative thinkers, and critical thinkers, when crisis hits, we are rule followers. We’re gamblers, but not with other people’s lives. We’re obediently following the rules and recommendations because we don’t want to cause harm and, in most cases, it’s the least that we can do. Mairead McArdle’s tweet summed it up perfectly:
“Millennials are not partying,” “We and our anxiety issues are holed up working from home, watching Hulu, and yelling at our parents not to go outside. It’s Gen Z you want.”
(Although, to be fair, Gen Z, we’re not blaming you. We know what it feels like to be identified as the root cause for society’s collapse.)
We’re following the rules because it’s the right thing to do. We don’t donate our time and money to worthy causes for credit and tax breaks, Millennials donate because we like being part of something larger than ourselves. In these pandemic times, even if we aren’t actively worried about getting sick, we are concerned about how our role may impact others. Following the rules feels like an act of love. It’s meaningful and empowering. I can’t speak for all of us, of course, but most Millennials I know are compassionately doing their part to stop the spread and that’s what I love most about us.
We’re sharing our worries with our friends
Just as we whispered fears to our classmates while our defining developmental years were punctuated with school shootings and general instability, we’re sharing our worries privately with our friends now. We’re worried about ourselves and our families and each other and the future, and we’re concerned about the Baby Boomers in our lives.
We’ve always been low-key concerned about our parents: their resistance to work through their own issues in therapy, the constant stress they’ve grown accustomed to ignoring, and now, their need to stockpile toilet paper and their refusal to acknowledge the risks that come with hanging out with a few friends during a pandemic.
I lost my dad suddenly a few years ago, but I think a lot of millennials just recognized that their parents are high risk and aging. And just as we’re not feeling like ourselves right now, our parents aren’t either. They may not be available to provide the emotional support we’re used to. They may be struggling financially. They may be worried about the future, and worry can take on unpredictable forms, like denial. Regardless, we’re concerned.
We’re relying on video chat more than we’d like
We’re video chatting on a regular basis. We moved our workplace happy hours online, and converted our gym sessions to live workouts we can follow from home, too, but it’s not the same. We’re fairly transparent people, but it still feels weird to invite casual acquaintances into our homes.
Even though these pre-scheduled virtual catch up’s attempt to compensate for the real life in-person hang outs we miss, we’re still feeling lonely and depressed and anxious. We while we crave reassurance that we’re not alone in what we’re feeling, we’re not spontaneously calling our friends, because we’re mindful of how they’re feeling, too.
We’re enjoying these scheduled authentic connections. We are. But the conversation topics aren’t exactly stress reducing. We’re feeling powerless as we echo each other’s fears. Well-intentioned games nights have dissolved into hours of discussing depressing news stories and sharing alarming statistics and projections. We’re also reconnecting with old friends that we haven’t talked to in 5 or 10 or 20 years because we’re bored but also scared to death. The fear of death makes you want to reconnect with your old friends, I think. It feels safe to revisit pieces of the life you had before the pandemic took over every topic of conversation.
More than anything, we feel like we’re not doing enough
While some generations may feel that the restrictions and lockdowns are invasive, most Millennials feel like we’re not doing enough. We’ve already lost loved ones prematurely, and we know how it feels to be unsafe, so we’re taking this seriously. We’re cancelling work travel and vacations and weddings. We’re checking in on our neighbors and only taking our share of food from the grocery shelves. We watched the world teeter toward destruction, so we’re doing everything we can, but feeling relatively powerless as the vision we had for the future slowly spirals.
And my experience is hyper-privileged. I’m witnessing the pandemic from the safety of my apartment and with the financial stability of a work-from-home income. Some Millennials are nurses and doctors experiencing unprecedented levels of stress and fatigue. Some of us are essential workers who have lost co-workers and continue to work in dangerous conditions. Some of us are exhausted parents caring for our children and worried about our own parents who we haven’t seen in months. Some of us are still living with those parents and feeling uneasy about the roles and responsibilities as the adult child at home. We’re living this from different angles, but, mostly, this chaotic world feels all too familiar.
I think the biggest difference is, compared to previous generations, Millennials view ourselves as global citizens. We believe we have shared experiences with strangers and we understand the value of teamwork, so when disaster strikes, we don’t see new guidelines as optional or restrictive, we see them as an invitation to use our collective strengths for good.
My fellow Millennials: I see you. I appreciate you. Here’s to doing our best.