Society & Culture

We’re In This Together: Battling 21st Century Hopelessness

Image courtesy of Upperleft Studios

Image courtesy of Upperleft Studios

Hopelessness has taken on a very specific, very personal meaning to those of us in our 20s and 30s. I am surrounded by beautiful friends, colleagues, and peers whom are plagued with a sense of defeat because of today’s uncontrollable circumstances. I’m talking about the recession, about education, about the weird twists our society is taking. Now more than ever it’s important to remember: There’s hope. Defeat is only our reality if we allow it.


These are the people I’m talking to, these are the lifestyles that seem only to multiply. First and foremost is to recognize that you aren’t alone.

• Graduates from colleges with mountains of suffocating debt. Academics. People who pursued honorable studies: things in the sciences, in mathematics, in medicine. Scholars & educators, lawyers, psychologists, chemists: professions that require higher education beyond a Bachelor’s degree. People who pursued their dream careers for over a decade with the facade of stability and prosperity on the horizon of their education.

• Otherwise-adults (higher education optional) with steady jobs in practical careers whom live at home because a single 9-5 steady job doesn’t cut it anymore. If they don’t live at home they live with several roommates. I personally know lots of people well into their 30s who live like college students with multiple roommates in quirky living situations because it’s really their only option (hello, New Girl!).

• Intelligent, qualified, disciplined people who compromise their career aspirations (i.e. university) because of fear of failure and/or debt. Friends of mine with beautiful ideas and creative innovations that don’t pursue them because the stakes are too high. They sell their ambitions short because Fear Of Failure or Fear Of Debt far surpass any confidence they may have had in doing well. Honestly, in a lot of ways I don’t blame them. To see your peers who shot for the moon now unemployed and shackled with debt doesn’t inspire a whole lot.

• This one is a bit of a classic: the Starving Artist Motif. However in “today’s world” (that is, 21st Century Recession world) the “starving artist” doesn’t really exist anymore. So, let me rephrase: Starving Artist 2.0 Motif. Determined dreamers whom sacrifice comfort, happiness, and health in the name of their art. I’m talking about the people who live in even more scary living conditions than the aforementioned “quirky living situations” because they lack the income that comes with those whom pursued “practical careers.” The Starving Artist 2.0 Motif also ranges to those who dialed it back, choosing not the career of an artist but rather supporting roles. I’m talking about critics, agents, arts management folks, publicists, and on and on and on. The arty kids choosing what even ten years ago would have been considered more practical careers in the arts. Now these kids can’t even get by.

If any of that sounded familiar the survival tips below are for you.


Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist, economist, or any other kind of human behavior professional. I’m a 20something post-grad from a liberal arts school. I’m on the inside. I’ve lived in a myriad of bizarre, “quirky” living situations just to get by, and I live deep in student loan debt. I’m an artist. I’m on the frontline of this generational epidemic. Not to sound dramatic: I’m one of us.

Below I’ve compiled two short lists for you, my comrades-in-arms, for combatting 21st Century Hopelessness:

5 Things You Should Not Do:

1. Do not, do not, do not compare yourself to others. I cannot stress this enough. Not your role models. Not your peers. I don’t know which one is worse, really. Role models (or mentors) are primarily people in older generations, people we’ve looked up to. Unless your role model was trying to find their life path and career in the Great Depression, I can guarantee that your role models and mentors were not faced with the same economic strife as us. And for peers: they are struggling, too. No, I know, in some cases that seems absurd. I’ll be the first to say that I struggle with this one a lot because it doesn’t seem possible. But really, truly, we all have our monsters to face and it sucks. The person you know who has an edge on something you wish you had, undoubtedly lacks in an area where you excel (and wishes they had your skill). Value your own strengths, don’t be blind to them. Keep your weaknesses in mind, too, absolutely. Just don’t compare them. It is not a way to improve yourself, quite the opposite, really.

2. Don’t ignore things. The problems are there. I can guarantee that ignoring it makes it worse. I could argue that I’m queen of running from problems & hiding from obligations. It doesn’t do any good. Unfortunately, the peek-a-boo games from childhood doesn’t transfer into adult life well: covering our eyes won’t make the problems disappear. If only. So take them on, you’ve got this.

3. Don’t just accept your fate. That’s letting depression win. Things changed in 2008, sure, but remember that things change all the time. If history is any indicator, our disaster situation is not a death sentence. Situations, all situations, are lucid. It’s difficult to keep yourself from embracing defeat, but believe me, it’s a fight worth having. This darkness won’t last forever unless you let it.

4. Don’t write your life story before it’s happened. That, my friend, is letting anxiety in. You definitely want to keep that to a minimum at all times. This is taking the “accepting your fate” situation a step further. I’m talking about people whom look at the grim, unsatisfying state of things and apply that feeling long into all future possibilities. To those of us doing that: stahhhp! Remember when your parents/mentors/teachers told you about self-fulfilling prophecies? Yeah, exactly. So knock it off. The future hasn’t happened yet, so stop mourning it.

5. Don’t live in regret. It’s not worth it. Keep your attention on what’s around you and ahead of you, not what’s behind you. Your degree? It wasn’t a mistake. The move you didn’t make? It wasn’t a mistake, either. “What could have been,” is only counterproductive. It’s happened (or didn’t happen). It’s in the past. If there is something you wish you had pursued, please, please listen up when I say:  it isn’t too late. I know it feels like it sometimes, but it isn’t. You’re still breathing, aren’t you? Complicated circumstances and current life obligations are not unavoidable road blocks. I’ll admit they complicate things, but last I checked success wasn’t a clear path. Not to sound like a total sap, but you’ve got this. In the wise words of Tim Gunn: make it work. (Yeah, I went there.)

5 Things You Absolutely Should Do:

1. Stay focused. That is, whenever the Doubt Cloud starts to make your life a little too dark and grim, remember: you’ve got this. Your projects and passions are not only valid pursuits but they are completely necessary to survival during this time of spun out hopelessness and confusion. However logical or romantic they are (or aren’t) they’re yours. The stuff you care about is worth fighting for, that much I know for certain.

2. Give yourself a breather. Have mercy! Staying focused and fighting for what you believe in is vital, I stand by that, but you’ve gotta take breathers. The pressure is on and the stakes are high. If you don’t give yourself time to rest and space to breathe, you’ll overwhelm yourself. All that fighting and determination will turn on you and progress will be compromised.

3. Find space for yourself and make sure you get it. Remember, you’re of value. Your projects won’t complete themselves. I know it’s difficult; there are only so many hours in the day. Making to-do lists and schedules does not guarantee that things will get done. Keep it simple at first, and just be consistent. If you have to disappear into a quiet private space to be productive, to practice, to study, then do that. Note: don’t wreck yourself with guilt if you miss a day or two of this. That brings us back to not living in regret. Just keep moving forward. Make time for yourself to do the things that matter to you. Even if it’s only for 20 minutes a day! That’s still something.

4. Take it one step at a time. I was watching beloved medical sitcom Scrubs one day many moons ago (yeah, no shame, it’s a cute show!) and heard the wise words of the chief-of-medicine tell a patient, “nothing in life worth having comes easy.” It resonated. I suppose I could have gotten this point across just as well by quoting Theodore Roosevelt, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” The sentiment is very much the same and worth remembering.

5. Treat Yo’self! …But seriously. You’re your own worst critic but also your own best friend. No one knows you like you do. It’s okay to order a double-whipped Mocha with Ibarra (mmmm) instead of the routine coffee every now and then. Do fun things on a whim. Give yourself room to work on your projects, but also give yourself room for fun. You Deserve It.

Image: Upperleft Studios



Renée Aubern is a California born, New York bred poet, writer of songs, and kook. Constantly on the move, she documents the world around her in photographs and notebook scribbles. @reneeaubern


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