'Snowflakes': The term that undermines a generation

‘Snowflake’ is a derogatory term used to describe an easily offended person, or someone who believes they are entitled to special treatment on account of their supposedly unique characteristics.

The so-called ‘snowflake generation’ are too often typecast as emotionally weak and lacking resilience. But we are dealing with the pandemic, and so for many months we haven’t been able to see our friends and family members, or even go to school. We should be experiencing so many new things – travelling, going to parties, concerts or festivals – yet we have been stuck at home behind a computer screen in the ‘prime’ of our lives. So many stepping stones in our lives have been delayed. Essentially all normality has vanished, and the fact that we’re able to adapt and cope as much as we have is evidence of our strength and resilience.

Claire Fox, director of the thinktank Institute of Ideas, used the term in her book, I Find That Offensive, to address a generation of young people whom she believes are “easily offended and thin-skinned”. Fox is clearly a natural provocateur and has written about ‘generation snowflake’ in bulldozing articles for both the Spectator (How We Train Our Kids to Be Censorious Cry-Babies) and for the Daily Mail (Why Today’s Young Women Are Just So Feeble). As intended, both caused considerable debate – which is precisely what Fox claims ‘generation snowflake’ are losing their ability to do. Additionally, Fox was invited to make an appearance at a school in Hertfordshire where she stated that, “Several of the students said, ‘How dare you invite this terrible woman to speak?’ and said to me that I’d come there and upset them. They were giving a literal demonstration of my very speech.”

Although many may agree with Fox, her tendency to generalise all young people underneath one label is unfair. She does, however, address this, admitting that “obviously not every young person is a ‘whinger’” and the phrase ‘generation snowflake’ is more useful to “demonstrate the closing down of free speech and the demand for attention” – referencing what has been happening on university campuses in the last decade or so. Fox is appalled by the movement towards “no platforming”, in which speakers who have views deemed by students to be controversial or offensive, from Germaine Greer to Peter Tatchell, have been barred or disinvited from speaking events. Regardless of whether their opinions are objectionable or abhorrent, Fox insists we must hear views that do not agree with our own in order to learn how to tackle them. This viewpoint may have some merit, but it overlooks the fact that platforming harmful views promotes hatred and toxicity.

“I’m confused!” says Liv Little, 22-year-old Editor-in-Chief of the magazine gal-dem, who was recently selected as one of the BBC’s 100 most influential and inspirational women of 2016. Little finds the idea that she and her peers are self-obsessed and unable to cope with the world absurd.

“I don’t get what they want to happen. Do they want people to be quiet and suck it up? Do they want people to have breakdowns and be really unhappy and accept a political system that doesn’t represent them?”

Little makes the point that allowing harmful, discriminative views does not encourage freedom of speech. Rather, it promotes hatred and silences those opposed to such views; surely the opposite of freedom of speech.

The pandemic has proven the undeniable resilience in the younger generations, and using the term ‘snowflake’ to describe our generation now has a certain absurdity to it. The accusation that we are too fragile - with schools having to have safe spaces and much more mental health support than previously, for example - is arguably small-minded and backwards. Hence, Little challenges this: “do they want people to… be really unhappy?”

Furthermore, there have been numerous debates concerning the increased mental health facilities on university campuses. In Psychology Today, Loretta G. Breuning offers a different explanation, arguing that rising emotional distress is in part due to over-reliance on mental health services to alleviate natural emotional responses. As a result, Breuning says individuals fail to learn how to manage life’s disappointments and thus also lack self-reliance. Breuning also claims that medical professionals have overstated mental health statistics to justify requests for increased funding - a sentiment echoed by Jesse Singal in his article titled “The Myth of the Ever-More-Fragile College Student”.

Breuning and Singal’s flippant stereotyping of this generation as weak, based on their new mechanisms to cope with poor mental health, contradicts efforts to reduce the stigmas surrounding mental health. It also undermines the goal of ensuring society values mental and physical health equally. Students, particularly, have spoken about the detrimental effects this label can have.

A student at the University of Exeter explained: “It puts a sort of blame on the victim for being ‘over-sensitive’ and stops us from really thinking critically about the arguments at hand. It also suggests that we’re all just whining, complaining and passive so I also think it’s an insidious way of taking power out of our arguments.”

The argument that younger generations should not require mental health services that are in place, simply because they weren’t needed as frequently in the past, is out of touch. The reality is that they were always needed, but mental health issues were once perceived as ‘taboos’, which were inappropriate to discuss openly. Since mental health issues are something many people will experience, it certainly needs to be normalised.

Additionally, it takes strength to open up about insecurities and anxieties. Thus, it’s not the new mental health services which are the problem, it is the ongoing small-minded attitudes of those who will not attempt to comprehend modern developments and changes – which are unquestionably positive. Terming these positive developments as a weakness in society could cause many people to hide their feelings and push aside their mental wellbeing at the worst of times. Shaming a generation for showing emotion could have hugely detrimental effects. Continuously putting us down for our positive progression does in fact ‘take power out of our arguments’, labelling important conversations insignificant, constructing a toxic misconception that mental health is unimportant.

These critics, whether they make an understandable argument or not, never address the ‘snowflake’ label itself. They seem to point out the weaknesses of the ‘snowflake generation’ but never actually answer the real question: why is this label actually used? The label is toxic; a way for those resistant to change to cling to comfortable normalities and traditions. Headteacher of Wrekin College in Telford praised his students, who he stated were “putting to bed” the term “snowflake”, to describe easily offended young people with no grit or determination. The ‘snowflake’ generation has endured social withdrawal, interruptions to their education – possibly their future – fear, and countless other challenges but the way in which young people have adapted throughout the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the toughness of young people in contemporary society, he argues.

If the ‘snowflake’ label were applicable and we were too sensitive, then students wouldn’t be taking responsibility for their own situations, sitting at the computer every day participating in live lessons or using their large amount of free time productively. For example Tasmin, in her final year at the University of Westminster, states that this has been “the perfect time for me to progress my learning of Mandarin.” Thus, the resilience and strength of the younger generations is evident in all our actions and responses to such a destructive pandemic, and many students like Tasmin are using this extra time wisely, and to benefit themselves. Denigrating the ‘snowflake’ generation, after our clear demonstration of endurance throughout the pandemic indicates, to me at least, the resentment of a small-minded, stubborn mindset, attempting to repress progress.

The ‘snowflake’ label is unfair because it encourages stigma and evokes contempt. Ultimately, this label only serves to further stigmatise mental health. The Daily Star, quoted that: “Sheltered snowflakes with no idea how to survive in the real world are having to pay for ‘adulting classes’”. This patronising headline overlooks the challenges that younger generations are going to face.  After the pandemic, many future generations could be left with a broken economy, high poverty rates, and exhausted health care services. For example the World Bank states that “The COVID-19 pandemic is estimated to push an additional 88 million to 115 million people into extreme poverty this year, with the total rising to as many as 150 million by 2021.” Furthermore, young people faced disproportionate financial hardship during the pandemic with 1 in 3 18-24 year olds furloughed or losing their jobs, compared to 1 in 6 of the overall adult population.

Essentially, the ‘snowflake’ label encourages the stigmatisation of mental health as well as overlooks the very real challenges young people face, which have only increased due to the pandemic.