I hate the term 'snowflake'. Since 2016, it's become the go-to insult for anyone below the age of 30 with an opinion; a kind of derisive shorthand for calling young people hypersensitive or overemotional, and subsequently dismissing them from important dialogues.
Maybe I'm biased, but I'd always categorised young people today as undeniably resilient. In the midst of a global mental health crisis, climate change concerns and flatlining incomes, they've learned to celebrate the little things in life: artisan bread, freshly ground coffee, avocados. For the 'social media obsessed' youth of today, there's not a good hair day not
worth documenting, and if that's not resilience in the face of the challenges of which they are acutely aware, then I don't know what is.
And yet, sometimes I feel like we're in danger of cheating young people out of the experiences necessary to build this resilience. Teachers are discouraged from using red pen to marks pupils' work in case it damages their self esteem. The accessibility of technology in children's lives means they rarely have to confront uncomfortable emotions like boredom or restlessness, and opportunities for constructive feedback and self-betterment are denied to young people as a result of the growing tension between the spirit of competition and the everyone-gets-a-trophy mentality.
I recently attended a high school public speaking event where one of the judges attempted to tactfully reconcile this tension by announcing that there were no losers, 'only individuals who haven't won', and I thought to myself, is this really what it's come to?
The most concerning observation I've made since I started working with young people is that they are afraid to fail. They don't take risks. For so many of them, failure is unacceptable and there is a widespread misconception that the feelings of awkwardness or ineptitude inherent in the learning process are symptoms of inadequacy or incompetence.
I don't believe that semantically rewriting the fundamental realities of life is going to resolve this growing intolerance of uncertainty. Nor do I believe that allowing young people to opt out of experiences where they feel challenged or uncomfortable fosters a healthy or sustainable relationship with themselves.
There has been a huge increase in the number of UK school children and university students requesting help with mental health issues. One BBC report found that the number of students reaching out for help rose by 50% between 2012 and 2017. It's no wonder that we have a series of mental health awareness campaigns throughout the year, including University Mental Health Day, Mental Health Awareness Week, and Children's Mental Health Week, the fifth iteration of which is this week.
A huge contributing factor in counselling services' workloads is the debilitating fear of failure experienced by young people. Life is increasingly competitive, and more and more it feels like perfection is the new average. Receiving a 'B' for an assignment may as well be an 'F', an unexpectedly low response to a social media post can make you feel as though no-one likes you, and the fear of answering a question incorrectly is so strong that it inhibits us from raising our hands at all.
We need to normalise failure and struggle. Scores of history's most celebrated people walked paths marked by failure. Walt Disney's former newspaper editor told him that he 'lacked imagination and had no good ideas'. Stephen King's Carrie
was rejected 30 times before it was picked up by a publisher. Steven Spielberg was rejected from film school twice. Even Lady Gaga was dropped from her record label after three months because it 'just wasn't for them'.
Failure is endemic to the human experience, but rather than actively preparing young people for its inevitability, we are trying to shelter them from it. The recent college admissions scandal, in which over 50 people have been accused of buying their children's way into competitive American universities, might seem like an extreme case, but it shows how misguided and equally well-intentioned our efforts to shield young people from negative experiences can be.
Our squeamishness to failure makes it a more harrowing experience than it really needs to be. Academically, socially, financially, romantically, professionally – if we're doing it right, all of us will underachieve in each of these areas more than once. In today's impossibly competitive climate, the treadmill never stops, and we need to remind young people, and ourselves, that it's okay to fail. Failure inspires humility, forces us to think and move beyond our comfort zones and, most importantly, teaches us resilience.