The world to end; Millennials hardest hit


If Millennials strike many of their elders as rather feckless perpetual adolescents who live in the present and don’t think of the future, it might be because they actually think of the future – too much.

Last month, I reported on the public opinion research in the United States, which showed the following:

  • for one in two Millennials climate change is their biggest fear in life
  • one in five believes that climate change will bring about the end of the world in their lifetime
  • also one in five won’t have children for the fear about the future of the planet

Today, I came upon this story titled “Young people blame climate change for their small 401(k) balances”:

Lori Rodriguez, a 27-year-old communications professional in New York City, is not saving for retirement, and it isn’t necessarily because she can’t afford to — it’s because she doesn’t expect it to matter.

Like many people her age, Rodriguez believes climate change will have catastrophic effects on our planet. Some 88% of millennials — a higher percentage than any other age group — accept that climate change is happening, and 69% say it will impact them in their lifetimes. Engulfed in a constant barrage of depressing news stories, many young people are skeptical about saving for an uncertain future.

“I want to hope for the best and plan for a future that is stable and secure, but, when I look at current events and at the world we are predicting, I do not see how things could not be chaotic in 50 years,” Rodriguez says. “The weather systems are already off, and I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to be a little apocalyptic.”

Mental-health issues affecting young adults and adolescents in the U.S. have increased significantly in the past decade, a study published in March in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found. The number of individuals between the ages of 18 and 25 reporting symptoms of major depression increased 52% from 2005 to 2017, while older adults did not experience any increase in psychological stress at this time, and some age groups even saw decreases. Study author Jean Twenge says this may be attributed to the increased use of digital media, which has changed modes of interaction enough to impact social lives and communication. Millennials are also said to suffer from “eco-anxiety,” according to a 2018 report from the American Psychological Association, with 72% saying their emotional well-being is affected by the inevitability of climate change, compared with just 57% of people over the age of 45.

Meanwhile, two-thirds of millennials — defined by Pew as the generation born between 1981 and 1996 — have nothing saved for retirement, according to the National Institute on Retirement Security. The millennials who are saving had an average balance of $25,500 and were contributing 7.3% of their paychecks as of the second quarter of 2018, figures from Fidelity showed. While most millennials say they are not saving because they simply can’t afford to, for others it’s about the feeling that they may not have a future to save for, says Matt Fellowes, chief executive officer of United Income, an online retirement investment platform based in Washington, D.C.

“There is a certain fatalism in this population relative to more recent generations,” Fellowes says. “Psychologically, this population has had more shocks to expectations about their futures than past generations. From a perception point of view, I hear a lot of cynicism about the ability to build retirement savings or whether they will be able to retire at all.”

Panicked about the end of the world. Not procreating. Not saving for the future. Granted, it’s a minority of the cohort, but it’s not an insignificant social and economic phenomenon.

Coincidentally, also today I finished reading Bart D Ehrman’s “Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth”. Ehrman, a prominent and bestselling religious scholar from the University of North Carolina, is an agnostic, but unlike many non-believers he is quite certain that Jesus was a real historical figure and not a self-serving invention of the early Christians or a myth, perhaps borrowed from other contemporary religious traditions in the region. Unlike all believer, however, Ehrman sees Jesus not as a Son of God – this is, after all, a matter of faith and cannot be scientifically or historically demonstrated – but as a Jewish apocalyptic prophet. According to Ehrman, Jesus believed himself – and his followers believed him – to be the widely expected messiah, who would rule Israel upon the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. This, for Ehrman, is the key fact – following Jesus’ teachings, the early Christians expected the end of their world to occur within their lifetimes. This at least partly explains the new religion’s complete disinterest about and contempt of all the basic realities of life – the government, work, family. Why concern yourself with the mundane when it was all going to end any time? Far more important to prepare oneself spiritually for the new life than belabour the old one.

Whether Ehrman is correct or not (two thousand years of Christian thought and belief is against him here), all this reminded me of many people today, particularly young people, except in a completely secular context. If the end is nigh, due to the catastrophic human-induced climate change, why bring children into the world? Why worry and plan about the personal future at all if there might not be any future to be had? We’re all rooted. Of course, if the current prophecies of doom don’t come to pass – either because the science is not after all settled or because human scientific ingenuity overcomes this challenge as it has overcome others in the past – there will be a lot of regret, gnashing of teeth and finger pointing. But that will be the extent of it, because it will be too late to do anything else, anything practical and positive to remake one’s life.

So maybe that old saying is a good piece of advice in any context: pray as if you were to die tomorrow, work as if you were to live forever.