From the baby boomers of the mid 1940s to the early 60s to Generation X yuppies who came of age in the 1980s – labelling generations is nothing new but as early as 1839 French Philosopher Auguste Comte wrote about the gradual and continuous influence generations have upon each other and how generational stereotypes hold firm.
For today’s millennials, who came of age around the early 2000s, the charge of “snowflake” has been attached to criticise their perceived sensitivity. The British Army even used the name recently to address young people in a recruitment campaign. One of the soldiers featured in the campaign has received hundreds of social media messages mocking his association with the snowflake poster. Despite this reaction from some people, the advert’s intention was to invert the label’s stigma and highlight the value of compassion in millennials.
Use of the term elsewhere has been uniformly negative. The English dictionary defines “snowflake” as a derogatory term to describe an easily offended person, or someone who believes they are entitled to special treatment on account of their supposedly unique characteristics. Members of the so-called “snowflake generation” are typecast as emotionally weak and lacking resilience.
Research has shown that labels such as these create stigma – and stigma’s role in mental health is an age-old problem. Amid the media furore around the poster there remains the disturbing statistic that one in eight children and adolescents and one in four adults in the UK will experience a mental illness.
Flippant stereotyping of a generation as weak based on their mental well-being contradicts efforts to reduce mental health stigma. It also undermines the goal of ensuring society values mental health equally with physical health.
From ‘can-do’ to #MeToo
The “snowflake” label contrasts with early published anticipation for the millennial generation. At the outset, millennials were met with encouragement, as a book published in 2000 by William Strauss & Neil Howe shows. Millennials Rising predicted a “can-do youth” which would recast young people from downbeat and alienated to upbeat, engaged and optimistic.
Since then however, global financial recessions, the rising cost of living and education, insecure work, climate change and a turbulent political landscape have all contributed to significant increases in poor mental health among young people. This has created a difficult environment for millennials to meet their potential. Rather than characterise them as weak, society should work together to help young people overcome these challenges.
In the UK, tabloid headlines have fuelled the problem. “Life’s too tough for snowflake worriers who spend six hours a day stressed out” reads one from the Daily Star in 2018. “Sheltered snowflakes with no idea how to survive in the real world are having to pay for ‘adulting classes’”, reads another.
A recent Daily Star headline from December 2018 prompted an open letter from mental health campaigner Natasha Devon. She condemned the headline: “Snowflake kids get lessons in chilling” and implored the media to recognise the ongoing mental health crisis and the need to challenge stigma, rather than labelling and stigmatising those in need.
What is perhaps more worrying is the ease with which this label is seeping beyond the millennial generation with the Daily Mail stigmatising even young children as “snowflakes”.
A quick Google image search of “snowflake generation” produces a slew of images that typify a hatred towards millennials, with derogatory jokes and memes. There’s also an association with words such as “weak”, “sensitive”, “triggered” and “entitled”.
Using “snowflake” as an insult was popularised by the alt-right during the 2016 US presidential elections in the US to negate the views of those considered anti-Trump, including liberals and leftists. This legacy does not reflect well on those parroting it in the UK media.
Debunking the ‘weak millennial’ myth
The label’s connotations need to be challenged. In reality, the millennial generation are resilient in bucking legacies left by older generations. Millennials are consuming less drugs and alcohol than previous generations and youth turnout at the 2017 general election in the UK was reported to be the highest in 25 years.
Ultimately, the snowflake label is unfair because it encourages stigma and evokes hatred. The word “snowflake” has lost its wistfulness as the harbinger of winter, replaced by insults to an individual’s capacity to cope in a challenging world. As a society, perhaps we need to ask ourselves – when has stigma and contempt ever helped?
Shelly Haslam-Ormerod, Senior Lecturer in Mental Health and Wellbeing, Edge Hill University.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.