I recently spent the better part of a week visiting various university campuses speaking to students. A poignant experience. Partly because I got to waft around other people’s arts faculties, remembering when I too had all that freedom and all that time ahead of me. But this was also the first time I noticed that generational differences now separate me from the current cohort of undergraduates.
I was taken aback (and also rather charmed) by how many of my interlocutors eagerly offered me earnest, unprompted explanations of their neurological and sexual identities. I also noticed a new, intense atmosphere of personal ambition. Students fretfully explained that “side hustles”, multiple internships and strenuously cultivated hobbies were no longer the preserve of a hyper-ambitious minority but the basic criteria of success.
I think the new mood I detected might be described as an ethic of exceptionalism. In the 1950s, only 12 percent of teenagers agreed with the statement “I am an important person”. Today, that figure is higher than 80 percent. Two thirds of modern students believe themselves to be academically above average, compared with about half at the beginning of the 1970s.
It should be said that self-belief is often an attractive trait and not to be deplored in itself — I was thoroughly charmed by everyone I spoke to. It is also true that the explosion of new sexual and neurological identities reflects a richer culture of personal expression. And nobody of a truly liberal sensibility can really object to that. But I do wonder whether these new freedoms of self-realization don’t carry with them a pressure to be distinctive and extraordinary that is rather punishing.
Modern society puts an unprecedented and flattering emphasis on the potential of the individual. From every angle, our culture feeds our dreams of outstanding personal significance. A recent study found that the phrases “believe in yourself” and “express yourself” occur twice as frequently in modern books as in those published 50 years ago.
Fantasies of specialness, uniqueness and non-conformity are the leitmotifs of all our media. The narcissism of celebrity culture, with its shallow celebration of looks and wealth, has been supplemented by social media which has diffused the pathologies of fame throughout society. Acting like you are uniquely important and interesting is regarded as obnoxious in ordinary social life. It is precisely the behavior rewarded by platforms such as Instagram, TikTok and Facebook.
In such an atmosphere, it is hardly surprising that few people admit to being normal or desiring a normal life. But you don’t have to travel very far past childhood to understand that there are few more potent recipes for bitterness and misery than a thwarted sense of exceptional destiny. And indeed, modern teenagers are unprecedentedly miserable. The majority of teenage girls — 57 percent — “experience persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness”. Since the beginning of the century, anxiety has increased by more than 60 percent in adolescent girls and almost 80 percent in boys. Over that same unhappy 20-year span, depression has increased by 137 percent in girls and 60 percent in boys.
Smartphones have been blamed. So have the threats of generational inequality and climate doom. Both explanations are convincing. But I wonder whether at least some adolescent unhappiness might be attributed to the collision of dreams of personal distinctiveness with the banal reality of life, which rewards only a few with fame and recognition.
The phrases “believe in yourself” and “express yourself” occur twice as frequently in modern books as in those published 50 years ago.
Indeed, anthropologists are long familiar with the fact that collectivist societies are often better at cultivating contentment than those that prize individual freedom — the reason rates of depression are lower in east Asia than in the West. I was intrigued by a recent study which found that the most unhappy cohort of all in the modern West was young liberal women. Liberalism, of course, is the ideology of the individual.
I think modern liberal societies are haunted by memories of the conformity of the 1950s. Society before the cultural revolution of the 1960s was much less individualistic but divergence from the era’s strict social norms was punished harshly. Homosexuality was illegal. Unmarried mothers were socially shamed. Women faced abysmally limited lives. But our enlightened horror of the illiberal past and the commendable modern instinct to celebrate nonconformity have prompted an overcorrection. “Normal” has become almost a synonym for failure.
The totemic text of my generation and the following one, Harry Potter, opens with a sentence explaining that the book’s unpleasant Mr and Mrs Dursley were “proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much”. What more needs to be said? I was similarly struck reading my colleague Hadley Freeman’s excellent new book that she was tipped into the despair of anorexia by a friend’s comment that she wished to be “normal, like you” — a testament to the dangerous power of a once innocuous word.
We must rediscover the idea that there is honor in the normal life well lived. Fantasies of exceptional destiny are cruel enough for the exceptional few who possess the abilities to fulfil them but are crueller still for those destined for normal lives. And a normal life, with its normal joys, its normal disappointments, its normal tragedies, is the fate most of us can expect. As fates go, it is not so bad.
James Marriott is the deputy books editor for The Times of London. He also writes editorials, opinion columns, and features