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Sun May 19, 2013
by Shandel Slaten
Millennial loneliness and the search for authenticity
Nostalgia’s empty promise
My generation is lonely and seemingly hopeless. Just consider the statistics: antidepressant prescriptions have gone up 400% in a little over 20 years. The contents of medicine cabinets are obvious enough, but I see the symptoms in a few unexpected places as well: 1) hipster fashion’s nostalgia for the 1950s–60s outdoorsmen, and 2) changes in urban design.
Each gives us subtle insights into a generation’s abandonment of the American Dream and a longing for authenticity. Because the American Dream couldn’t deliver on its promise, there seems to be a desire to capture an idealized rugged individualism, as if nostalgia could change hearts or heal wounds.
Just pick up an Urban Outfitters catalog or look at people’s tumblrs. There is a decidedly ’50s–60s outdoorsy Americana tone to it, from scruffy lumberjack hipsters to more clean-cut, Mad Men-inspired fashions.
Malls of authenticity
I’m a pastor in southern California, an area known for its materialism and consumption. Interestingly I also see this same kind of longing for authenticity in urban design at South Coast Plaza. Projected to hit $1.5 billion in sales in 2012, SCP is the country’s largest mall in terms of sales. It’s even officially trademarked as “The Ultimate Shopping Resort,” almost cementing its place as a monolith to the consumption and materialism of the American Dream.
Here’s where the idea of “authenticity” comes in. In 1994, as the Gen Xers came of age, the LAB was built a mile down the road from South Coast Plaza. Billed as “The Antimall,” the LAB was urban in feel, compared to the polished marble of SCP, and featured used clothing stores instead of Versace. Then the next generation came along. This meant another shopping center, and across the street from the LAB came the CAMP. Instead of being urban in theme, the CAMP is desert-themed: dry grasses, low succulents, and Airstream trailers. Here’s the CAMP’s mission statement from their website: “[The CAMP is an] innovative retail campus dedicated to an active, healthy lifestyle mindful of environmentalism and supportive of the local community.”
Do you see the progression?
- The Ultimate Shopping Resort → conspicuous consumption
- The Antimall → “rebellion” against boomer consumerism
- The CAMP → authentic, healthy, caring lifestyle
Maybe you don’t have the above-mentioned kind of microcosm in your city, but you’ve likely seen that kind of shift in your people. No matter what the cultural expression is—consumer, rebel, or socially conscious and authentic—people always find their identities in what they buy (or don’t buy) and do (or don’t’ do). Sadder still is, whatever the identity, each will always fail.
If the American Dream can’t deliver happiness and you can’t go to the mall, desert, or back in time to the ’60s for some relief, what do you do? For some, they go to church. Even in the church though, many simply affirm the Millennial’s values of authenticity, environmental concerns, and community evolvement while attacking the consumption and political involvement of their parents. Here’s where I call bull.
Yes, Millennials value authenticity, but we have no idea how to be authentic. Just look at the social media habits. We spend the majority of our days adjusting our image online for our friends rather than being known by them. We text instead of have verbal conversations. As we saw above, we base our identities on the same things our parents did.
Yes, Millennials value being environmentally conscious. On the surface, this may be “better” than our boomer parents’ consumption, but while we might value creation, we don’t value the Creator God. Again, we’re in the same boat: consumption vs creation, but whatever worldview you choose, it’s still a counterfeit to worship of God.
The fashion is different, but it’s still the same. One again, people always find their identities in what they buy (or don’t buy) and do (or don’t do).
An authentic identity in Christ
Until Millennials come to trust Jesus, they will live life like Facebook: confusing connection for intimacy, and a self-edited presentation of themselves online for really being known. Until then, they will continue to confuse recycling for justification, simple living for sanctification, and gardening for the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.
Pastors and readers, Millennials need the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only when they understand the depth of their sin in view of the greatness of God’s love and the tremendous truth that through the cross of Jesus Christ their identity is now in Christ can they actually be authentic.
Only in knowing Jesus can we be fully authentic. Only when we are loved as we are, are we then freed up to love others without hiding behind a status update or the best version of ourselves on Instagram. Only Christ’s gospel can cure the hopelessness and aimlessness because, when you know who you are in Christ, you know what to do—and no resurgent love for a time period or active lifestyle can deliver that.