Stressed Out: The Millennial Generational Anthem

Not only a breakthrough hit for the band, twenty øne piløts’s 2015 hit single Stressed Out has the potential to become the Hey Jude of a generation.

Oh, those darn Millennials. They eat avocado toast, they destroy all our industries, and they won’t stop complaining about everything!

Contrary to all the griping and hand-wringing about those darn Millennials, we haven’t exactly gotten a fair shake. Our parents gave us two expensive wars, student loans, and a massively deregulated financial sector, leading to the Great Recession, one of the most damaging economic shocks since the Great Depression.

As a result, our ability to get jobs has been stunted, our wages are stagnant, and many of us are delaying major milestones such as marriage, home ownership, and kids because we’re buried in debt for no real reason.

In the face of such bleak prospects, it’s a bit understandable that people around this age might start to collectively take an equally bleak view of adulthood in general. Enter alternative hip-hop/indie rock band twenty øne piløts, whose 2015 single Stressed Out is openly resonant with this dim view of adulthood. Stressed Out was one of the band’s breakthrough hits, reaching number one on the Top 40s and staying on the chart for a whopping 27 weeks.

But like All You Need Is Love was for the Baby Boomer generation and Smells Like Teen Spirit and Black Hole Sun were for Generation X, I deeply feel that Stressed Out could become “the” song of the Millennials.

This year, the song turned three years old. While it hasn’t yet become an enduring cultural symbol of Millennials, I believe looking back that it could be, or at least is a strong contender to do so. Of course, I don’t claim to speak for all Millennials here as I analyze this song, but if it resonates with you as it did with me, all the better. Considering everything that’s been going on in the news this week and in the last couple years, I thought it was timely to take another look at Stressed Out.

On Dreams and Reality

I was told, when I get older, all my fears would shrink
But now I’m insecure, and I care what people think

The song starts off on an autobiographical note for vocalist Tyler Joseph, but I’m sure I am not the only one who can nevertheless relate to this sentiment. Our parents told us things would get better as we got older, but if anything, our insecurities have just grown up with us.

We not only continue to care about what people think, like we did in middle and high school, but it may now appear to ourselves that we’re not becoming the people we imagined we’d grow up into.

Looking at our elders, we might have thought we’d have it figured out just like they seemed to as our parents and teachers, but instead we find ourselves second-guessing every step and wondering why we seem to be the only one who finds adulthood to be a challenge.

Wish we could turn back time
To the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep but
Now we’re stressed out

Stressed out, overtired, overworked, and at the end of the day, we don’t really have much to show for it. The rate of savings for Millenials is abysmal, with over two-thirds of our generation having saved nothing for retirement. A large part of that is the student loans and other forms of debt piled on us.

Another part is the fact that we’re basically saving up for our parents’ retirement, with large chunks of our paychecks going to pay off their Social Security and other safety net programs, leaving precious little for us to spend or save for ourselves. Statistical analyses project that many of us won’t be able to retire until we’re 75 years old.

It leaves us with a sense that our prospects are not only bleak in the future but in the present as well. And with the whole world seemingly actively against us, all we’re left with in terms of a refuge from the difficult present is our past, when things were simpler and our worries were fewer and smaller in scale.

Of course, none of the lines are as on the nose about these insecurities with growing up as the following:

Sometimes a certain smell will take me back to when I was young . . .

. . . it would remind us of when nothing really mattered
Out of student loans and tree house homes, we all would take the latter

I have mentioned before that nostalgia, especially in the 21st century, is not merely a matter of missing the good old days. It’s an exercise in regret, as we mourn the loss of potential and possibility. The die has been cast and now we’re stuck with the life we have.

Among other statistics tracking Millennials economics is that collectively, our generation is burdened with at least 300% more student debt than the Baby Boomers. Many of our parents were able to pay their way through college, at a time when their tuition for the full ride was as much as many of us paid for just one semester.

Many of us who went to college, got saddled with debt, and are now ultimately unemployed or underemployed due to the Great Recession may feel, like Tyler Joseph’s Blurryface, that out of student loans and tree house homes, the latter does seem surprisingly sensible by comparison.

This line of thinking manifests in the real world through conversations about whether college is even worth it anymore. Why get saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt for a degree that might barely be worth the paper it’s written on when you can either go to trade school or skip college entirely to just start a business?

Thus, we see the reason young people are so nostalgic for some vague golden era staring us right in the face: because of the false promises of adulthood. These were kids who did everything right, according to everything that their parents told them would ensure success and comfort: they got good grades, went to college even if they couldn’t afford it, worked hard to make the grade again, then got out and looked for a job that actually utilized their level of educational attainment. In many cases, it didn’t pan out.

Used to play pretend, give each other different names
We would build a rocket ship and then we’d fly it far away
Used to dream of outer space, but now they’re laughin’ at our face
Singin’, “wake up, you need to make money!”

This, to me, is the real meat of the song, the cold harsh reality expressed by the song. There’s an almost child-like scariness to having adults shout at you, “Wake up, you need to make money!”

It brings back images of being a child and being intimidated by all the big, tall grown-ups around you. To be an adult and feel this way about your surroundings is almost infantilizing, reducing us back into the scared children we were.

It also throws into relief the earlier line about wanting to turn back time to when your mom sang you to sleep. The world was big and scary then just like it is now, but at least then you had your parents to protect you or to assure you things would be okay. Now we’re on our own and defenseless, vulnerable, and nobody is helping us.

Looking Back But Pressing Forward

This is the anthem of Millennials. We grew up into the unfettered capitalism of 21st century society: unions are decimated, our environment is relentlessly degraded, our wages stagnate as prices go up, our jobs are replaced by robots, the social safety net is being dismantled piece by piece, and an increasingly shrinking proportion of people control ever-expanding troves of wealth.

That means all of our focus as adults is on the dollar: waking up because we need money, and yet never having enough to do more than simply get by. In its recognition of this, Stressed Out is an entirely hopeless lament for the circumstances we grew up into and the daunting odds an entire generation faces to ever escaping them.

But there is another, deeper message underlying all of this: there is so much more to life than this. It does not have to be this way. Our own forebears, who married, owned houses, and had kids younger than us, are proof of that. And with the impending arrival of automation, a post-scarcity economy, renewable energy, and a generation of people who believe in raising up those in need, there’s no reason society has to work this way and so many of us have to struggle.

We could soon be living in a society where everyone is provided a certain baseline of food, shelter, and clothing, and where most of the work is done by AI. We would not be dependent on work to survive, but we could work at what we are passionate about because it is personally fulfilling.

This is something that our parents and older generations don’t really get, but it’s what we stand for anyway. I know it sounds utopian, but most of these trends are already here or set in motion, so that it’s just a matter of steering conventional wisdom in the right direction. Stressed Out, ultimately, stands for the realization that if and when we decide to stand up for it, we can build that society and not have to live paycheck-to-paycheck but can actually lead comfortable and fulfilling lives. Get angry, and stand up for yourself.

Thank you all for reading. See you next week!

Do you relate to this song, or do you see it as wrongly demoralizing? Can we change things and turn our lots around? Share your thoughts in the comment section!


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Rabid Nintendo nerd, music lover, and film buff. I also like to write, hence why I'm here. I hope you enjoy my work.

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