Smashed avocados and Generation Rent: Working therapeutically with Millennials and Quarterlifers
The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank based in Washington, DC, has defined Millennials as people born between 1981 and 1996 (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/01/17/where-millennials-end-and-generation-z-begins/). Broader definitions span from the early 1980s - 2000s. Either way, in discussing this demographic we are talking about a wide age range, with the oldest in the bracket fast approaching 40. This often comes as a surprise to those under the misconception that the term refers either to those born in the year 2000, or solely those in their twenties. For the purposes of this article, I will be using the definition of the Pew Research Center in discussing the Millennial generation.
A complementary term for this generational cohort, ‘quarterlifers’, has given rise to the notion of ‘the quarter-life crisis’, a phenomenon that has become more recognised on this side of the Atlantic in recent years. A 2017 LinkedIn survey found that of approximately 6000 25-33-year-olds questioned, across the US, UK, Australia and India, 75% experienced a quarter-life crisis, defined by clinical psychologist Dr Alex Fowke as ‘a period of insecurity, doubt and disappointment surrounding your career, relationships and financial situation’ (Independent, 2017). If we view this through the lens of the Maslowian concept of self-actualisation, we are reminded of what needs should be met for a person to be able to self-actualise, which is the direction towards which so many young people seem to want to move. When we see clients who are lacking in self-esteem, a sense of belonging and/or a sense of safety - be this physical or psychological - we start to understand in a different way the challenges they are coming up against in trying to run before they can walk.
‘The hurrier I go…’
As with clients across the age range, where our young clients have unmet attachment needs, unresolved trauma, a history of developmental trauma or abuse, and/or underdeveloped social and interpersonal skills (amongst other difficulties), their struggles with self-awareness, self-regulation, the ability to reflect and mentalise and the capacity to develop real, meaningful relationships often results in the compensatory development of manic-type defenses, where they must ‘do, do, do’ in order to ‘achieve’. However they often end up more stuck than ever, as summed up by Lewis Carrol’s (1865) seminal words: ‘the hurrier I go the behinder I get’. The pressure to ‘achieve’ is usually measured by external loci of evaluation, largely proven by home ownership, marriage, and having children. Indeed Sarah Paton Briggs, Psychotherapist and Director of The Grove Practice, W1, finds that: “Young professionals around the age of 30 form a noticeable client group at The Grove. Many are coming to terms with what they imagined life would be like at the perceived milestone of reaching 30: career, sex and relationships, ambitions. At this age, there’s often an adjustment of expectations, as well as filtering values absorbed from parents or peers in defining identity and ethos” (personal correspondence, 2018). Subsequent failure to attain in a way that has been laid out as an expectation, perhaps even almost a given, can result in an ‘expectation hangover’ (Hassler 2005, p.62), and subsequently increased stress, or symptoms of more severe anxiety and depression, perhaps tapping into and retriggering earlier experiences, thus resulting in more severe and complex presentations.
At the other end of this spectrum there is avoidance, which I often see masquerading as ‘mindfulness’, ‘positive thinking’, or being ‘laid back’; I find that these current buzzwords and techniques can be misinterpreted by young people and taken as ways to avoid difficult feelings, conversations, and making decisions, and absolve themselves of responsibility or commitment. A client wanted access to their child, yet was finding all sorts of reasons to avoid engaging fully in the process, on the basis that they were ‘laid back’. I pointed out the dissonance between what was being said and the client's unsettled emotional state. I then said that I, conversely, experienced them as anxious and frozen, rather than ‘laid back’. The client sat bolt upright, looked me straight in the eye and declared: ‘You’re right! I’m always anxious! I didn’t realise I was anxious, I just thought I was relaxed!’ Of course, this is just one example, but such levels of avoidance and absolving of responsibilities are not unique to the Millennial age bracket; I see a common thread in how this avoidance is ‘branded’ as normal in anecdotal lived experiences of Millennials.
It would feel wrong to write this article without at least a nod towards social media and the impacts on mental health and relationships. ‘We’re lonely but we’re afraid of intimacy’, writes Sherry Turkle. ‘We’re designing technologies that give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.’ (Turkle, 2017, p1) However, we also need to consider whether Millennials are even capable of truly connecting with others.
Polyvagal theory states that, ‘the social engagement system can only come into play once defenses have been worked with’ (Porges, 2015, p119), so if Millennials have not had the opportunity to become fully aware of and work with or through their defenses, either in their every day life or therapeutically, how can they be expected to wholly engage and relate in a face-to-face context?
However, before we can truly connect with others, we need to be able to connect with ourselves. When working with Millennials, I often find them to be out of contact at a corporeal level, either unable to tune into their emotions and bodily sensations at all - let alone use them as a guide or barometer - or more used to quashing any sensation or emotion for fear of actually feeling. Against a backdrop of uncertainty regarding the trajectory of their life path, Millennials are looking for control and it is through living in their cognition and their analytical minds that many attempt to do so.
I work with Millennials in my practice in individualised and nuanced ways, as I would with any client group. I find that working in a short-term way can form an effective stepping stone between short and long-term work, with long-term foci being raised and named, thus giving the client a clearer idea of what therapy can ‘do’, what it may look like, and what they can hope to get out of it. When working within a short-term framework, I will often contract with a client to work on a ‘chapter’ of their story, or may use EMDR to address a particular issue before the client transfers into longer-term therapy elsewhere. At times the counselling can feel more like coaching, especially if we are working with career options. Through remaining client-centred and open to the process, while at the same time holding a strong frame and ensuring ethical practice within the time constraints, I find that deeper therapeutic approaches and more solution-focused approaches can be interwoven throughout the course of therapy. When ending with a client in my service, I need to remind myself to trust in the process and in the client’s autonomy. I am hopeful that they will access longer term support and find their path, as I so strongly believe they will. But then again, when, as a therapist, does a bit of CPD training in, ‘trusting the process’ and ‘being with the unknown’ ever go amiss?
An abridged version of this article was first published in UKCP's New Psychotherapist issue 69, autumn 2018.
Beth Glanville is one of the co-Editors of Contemporary Psychotherapy. Beth is a UKCP reg. Psychotherapist / Counsellor / Supervisor and EMDR practitioner, specialising in psychological trauma. She currently works as a Psychotherapist at Transport for London’s Occupational Health Department, and also has a private practice.
Carroll, L. (1865). Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, London: William Collins
Dimock, M. (2019). ‘Defining generations: Where Millennials end and Generation Z begins’, Pew Research Center [online]. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/01/17/where-millennials-end-and-generation-z-begins/ [Accessed 22 April 2020]
Hassler, C. (2005). 20 Something, 20 Everything. California: New World Library
Hosie, R. (2017). ‘The age you’re most likely to have a quarter-life crisis’ Independent [online]. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/quarter-life-crisis-age-most-likely-job-work-relationships-linkedin-career-house-money-a8054616.html [Accessed: 22 April 2020]
Porges, S. (2015). ‘Making the World Safe for our Children: Down-regulating Defence and Up-regulating Social Engagement to ‘Optimise’ the Human Experience’, in Children Australia, 40(2) 114-123
Turkle, S. (2017). Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books