The story of a ‘creative’ but stressed-out generation
Recently I’ve seen a documentary that was both confronting as comforting: The Dutch documentary: ‘Alles wat we wilden’ or translated in English: ‘All we ever wanted’ by Sarah Mathilde Domogala. It felt confronting, as I recognized the phenomenon as a member of this particular generation the documentary is all about, and comforting as it gave me the feeling that I’m not alone.
For an impression, watch the trailer below (in Dutch), or watch the entire documentary online here (hopefully English subtitles will be provided soon as it is a must-see):
The documentary illustrates in an artistic way what I experience as the subtle struggles of a (my) generation. Artistically the documentary is brilliant, as it captures the colors (beautiful visual editing) and sounds (dreamy soundtrack) of what it feels to come of age (ranging from 25-34 years) during these ‘liquid’ times and negotiate “who you are” and “what you have/want to become”. Just as the generation itself, free-spirited, beautiful, dreamy and creative, as in the saying ‘the sky is the limit’, so are the lurking and ubiquitous anxieties and sleepless nights.
The title ‘All we ever wanted’ refers to the notion of growing up in an era where you live out and become your ideal self, you follow your dreams, you ‘make it’. Not only has this been engraved deeply in the collective consciousness of our times, but it is also ‘expected’ of us. The far reaching meritocratic ideals that lurk at night, preventing some from falling asleep. This generation grew up in a household, were parents provided a daily dose of self-esteem enhancers: “You can do it”, “You can become everything you want to be”. Higher education was (and still is) for the most of us (caution: I’m speaking for myself) not optional, but rather a natural path to take. Prolonged student years of explorations of ideas, friendships, relationships and dreams. A ‘state of the art’ study loan debt, that now has to be proven to the self and society to be ‘worth it’ every penny, as every penny was invested in the trampoline for the reaching of our fragile blossoming dreams. This generation thinks of itself as being ‘free’, and compared to other generations, can be seen indeed as relatively more free. A freedom that comes with a high psychological cost. This psychological cost materializes itself in many forms: as many experience anxieties, panic attacks at night, low self-esteem because of social comparison (comparing oneself to peers that ‘have’ accomplished ‘it’ (whatever that ‘it’ might be)), the fear of failure -one of the many carried irrational fears additional to all the myriad of “what if’s” vocations- the ever-going quest of finding one’s true self, the fear of binding oneself to an ‘ordinary life’, restlessness, mood-swings, hyperactivity, compulsive thinking, irrational sadness, perpetual daydreaming, depression, burn-outs, perfectionism, being freaking hard on oneself and the need of medication to calm all this, just to name a few of the psychological paralyzing distresses the documentary zooms in. In this sense the documentary contributes to more balance in the array of existing discourses on the new generations and of our contemporary time (late Gen X, Gen Y, MTV Gen, Gen Millenium etc.) where the positive attributes are more highlighted (e.g. greater freedoms, education for all, talents, creative, participative culture, pro-sumers) and other archetypal struggles these new generations face are left in the dark (high rate of depression, insecurities, the feeling of ‘not fitting in’ etc).
The burden side of the freedom to be whatever you want to be, making choices
The idea behind this paradox is that more choice doesn’t mean better options or greater satisfaction, according to Schwartz. In a nutshell: the growth of options and opportunities for choice has three, related, unfortunate effects:
- It means that decisions require more effort
- It makes mistakes more likely to occur
- It makes the psychological consequences of mistakes more severe
If we invest in different talents, and even hobbies are considered passions, how are you sure that you have chosen the right career path? One of the creative Gen Y-ers in the documentary describes the pressure in ‘becoming’ as follows:
If you do something, then you want to be very good at it, if you aren’t that, then you have to find something where you are better in (translated from Dutch)
And what if you still don’t know yet what that ‘dream’ is you want to pursue, and you linger between different dreams as one other Gen Y-er in the documentary describes. Or you discover that you are not that special or unique as you thought of yourself or as others think of you? These are all thoughts that lurk at night and prevent us from sleeping, you become harder on yourself and this common unsaturated satisfaction in the self leads sometimes to periods of depression, hence the title I have chosen: “a moleskine full of dreams and anxieties”. The popular black notebook manufactured by the brand moleskine symbolizes the creative generation full of dreams, a notebook for their unique ideas and emotions, to be carried always by their side,” just as Ernest Hemingway did” (according to Moleskine). Moleskine describes its brand and products as:
Culture- imagination-memory-travel- personal identity. Moleskine® is a brand that encompasses a family of nomadic objects dedicated to our mobile identity: flexible and brilliantly simple tools for use both in everyday and extraordinary circumstances, ultimately becoming an integral part of our personality. (extracted from Moleskine’s website)
The black notebook and its content is for me a sociological symbol for the negotiation of identity in liquid modernity (book here). Liquid identity as notion coined by the sociologist Bauman desribes how we must negotiate identity in a context where we have “moved from a solid to a fluid phase of modernity, in which nothing keeps its shape, and social forms are constantly changing at great speed, radically transforming the experience of being human”. Bauman warns us of the speed in which everything changes, so do our identities and there is no much time allowed to reflect, as everything keeps moving fast:
(…) the liquid world of fluid identities in which finishing quickly, moving on and starting anew is the name of the game, the world of new commodities spawning and brandishing ever new tempting desires in order to smother and forget the desires of yore. Freedom to move on is the prize, but one option we are not free to choose is to stop moving (extracted from Liquid Identity; 2004, p.70)
“Identities” (intentionally plural!) as concept and process have always been ongoing: the shaping and re-shaping of who you are, how you become who you are is the core to our existence. What makes the process heavier is that it now happens in a context where everything changes very fast. Identity-formation has an intrinsic element of reflection , but now it feels as there is less time for this, and that the ones who reflect stay behind. I guess for the ones who cannot adapt their identities anew with the speed of light Bauman describes here, are the ones who somehow are more sensitive to the burden side of freedom Schwartz talks about. They suffer from the typical anxieties of liquid modern life. I confess, I have my fair share of such gloomy days.
An advice to my generation
Don’t take part in the rat race. Be true to who you are, and if this means taking a whole lifetime to find that out, go and experience it. Take it as a journey, reflect, experiment with many forms: don’t be afraid of choosing, dare to experiment, dare to learn (there is no such a thing as failure), cultivate and nurture your dreams as herein lies all the creative energy. Dreams themselves change of form but the substance they are made of remains the same. For dreams to become reality it takes only one thing: that the dreamer believes in them (everybody else doesn’t matter). And most important, during the process: be mild on yourself.
keep writing and sketching in the moleskine, it’s yours!
- Documentary “All we ever wanted“ by Sarah Mathilde Domogala (2010)
- Bauman, Zygmunt (20o4). Identity: Coversations With Benedetto Vecchi (Themes for the 21st Century Series)
- Bauman, Zygmunt (2000). Liquid Modernity
- Schwartz, Barry (2004). Paradox of Choice: Why less is more