'How about this for a New Year's resolution: bin the word "snowflake"'

The idea that young people today are less ‘resilient’ than their forebears should be left in 2018, writes Natasha Devon

What does snowflake mean?

When I will be describing 2018 to future generations, the polarisation of political views will feature prominently. Indeed, as a scientist I recently interviewed remarked, the more information one has, the more one craves a simple, binary narrative to apply, lest everything becomes overwhelming. In that regard, the internet has undoubtedly made us stupider.

This theory might explain the recent prevalence of the term "snowflake". It’s an insult regularly aimed at people like me – so-called "social-justice warriors" – who attempt to make things better by questioning our cultural use of language, imagery and role models. It has become shorthand for "perpetually offended" and is, I have no doubt, one of the most-used terms on social media and in the tabloids this year.

Piers Morgan has used it to describe just about anyone he disagrees with, including a guest on Good Morning Britain who pointed out that national hero Winston Churchill exhibited some racism. And it is a phrase most beloved among the right-wing press. The Sun’s celeb reporter, Dan Wootton, aimed the term in the direction of Keira Knightley after she revealed that she does not allow her daughter to watch Cinderella, for feminist reasons. Then, last week, the Star applied the word to…kids with mental health problems. Yes, you read that right.

"Snowflake kids get lessons in chilling" read the front-page headline, above a story about Longwood Primary Academy in Harlow, Essex, having a "meditation pod" for pupils and staff. The Sun also piled in, sarcastically using quote marks around the first word and randomly capitalising two others in their headline "'Stressed’ kids as young as NINE struggling with ‘daily grind’ to be able to MEDITATE at school". Presumably, we are meant to be outraged by the very notion. There is, of course, a certain irony in this.

'Ignorance is no excuse'

The head of Longwood, James Hollinsley, responded on social media in a direct plea to the Star: “Please don’t be part of the problem when it comes to understanding #mentalhealth. Ignorance is no excuse…Our children are waiting for your apology – so go headline that on page 1." 

He later told me the meditation pod was just one of a number of initiatives the school has put in place to support pupil – and indeed staff – wellbeing (the school is the current employer of the year, having received the accolade at the Tes Schools Awards). He said that he felt the Star article "undermines all that we are seeking to achieve".

You might very well be thinking it’s just "tomorrow’s fish and chip paper" and of little consequence, but the fallout from the publication of the article showed the extent to which much of the public has been influenced by the continual "snowflake" rhetoric. “Typical overreaction. You know what they were getting at,” said one commentator, after an open letter to the Star, co-signed by myself, National Education Union joint general secretary Mary Bousted and Labour MP Luciana Berger, among others, was published on the Centre for Mental Health’s website.

And therein lies the problem: we knew exactly what they were getting at. The implication, one of many narratives that run through the tabloid media like the words through a stick of rock, was that young people today are less "resilient" than their forebears. This is a notion that has been adopted into education policy itself, so widely accepted has it become.

'Older people aren’t more resilient'

As far as I can tell, the idea of children being less resilient is predicated on three things: the statistical rise in diagnosed mental health issues, the dramatic increase in young people reporting high levels of anxiety and the fact that millennials, as well as the two generations after them, have a reputation for standing up to everyday incidents of sexism, racism and homophobia.

Yet, mental ill health is on the increase in all areas of the population. Furthermore, a YouGov survey this year revealed pensioners are three times more likely than the rest of the population to hide their mental health problems. Older people aren’t more resilient, they’re just more ashamed.

Skyrocketing academic anxiety in pupils is hardly surprising in the context of a school system with a narrowed curriculum, huge class sizes, increased testing, and in which an estimated 70 per cent of teachers have had a mental or physical health problem directly related to the stress of their job in the past year.

So then we are left with young people’s tendency to call out sexism, racism and homophobia on social media. It’s hardly surprising that traditional media, which are often the source of, or at least a catalyst for, these attitudes are objecting to this being discussed via a modern medium that looks set to put them out of business in the next decade.

We must conclude, then, that the use of the word snowflake to describe a generation of young people who are, just like the rest of us, struggling to make sense of an increasingly fraught and daft world, is financially motivated.

And so it is that I declare that the word snowflake should, in 2019, be binned.

Natasha Devon is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner, and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here

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