When he was 31, Mick Jagger said that he would not be “caught dead” singing Satisfaction at 45. But almost half a century later, Jagger is still belting out the anthem at the age of 78, his youthful determination apparently long forgotten.
The past, however, is a foreign country: today’s young people do things differently and this week, the 25-year-old tennis star Ash Barty shocked the public by announcing her retirement.
She said her success had not given her satisfaction. Instead, it had redefined what success meant for her. “There was just a little part of me that wasn’t quite satisfied, wasn’t quite fulfilled,” she said. “The time is right now for me to … chase other dreams.”
Britain’s reigning US Open champion Emma Raducanu, who has previously spoken about prioritising her mental health, said Barty’s early retirement illustrated “how personal everyone’s objectives and goals are”.
Actors Tom Holland and Jack Gleeson would agree: the Spider-Man and Game of Thrones stars, both in their 20s, have had a rocky relationship with early fame. Holland weighed up quitting the profession altogether last year to return to dance, while Gleeson spent six years away from acting after playing the evil teenager Joffrey Baratheon, but returned to television in 2020.
High-profile retirements – or disaffection with fame – are a reflection of conversations going on across the younger generation, said Eliza Filby, a former history lecturer at King’s College London who specialises in the study of generations. “These celebrities are picking up on their generation’s zeitgeist by rejecting guidelines bequeathed to them as to how to live their lives,” she said. “For today’s young people, what they do is not who they are.”
Almuth McDowall, a professor of organisational psychology at Birkbeck, University of London, said there had been “a collective process of fundamental re-evaluation going on among younger people about what makes their lives good and meaningful”.
She said: “They sacrificed two years of their lives for the older generations during the pandemic, which gave them enforced thinking time, and now this war in Europe is emphasising the uncertainty of life. The result is that they’re making significantly different lifestyle decisions to the generations before them.”
Brandon, a blogger and former software developer who has adopted the moniker Mad Fientist, saved enough to retire in his 30s. He believed the insecurity of the modern job market led to a millennial rethink of what it meant to work. “Look at the global financial crash, the bursting of the dotcom bubble and now the P&O Ferries sackings: my generation is very aware that financial security isn’t achieved via a 9-5 job,” he said.
Joe Olson, a teacher who saved enough to retire at 29, said his generation have conversations online about values. “We agree that there’s more to life than just work – and ideas discussed online can go viral and seep into the public consciousness very quickly,” he said.
Another reason for his generation’s shift in attitude, said Olson, was that they were very aware of mental health in what could be a brutal and dehumanising world of work. “A lot of people are forced to work in very difficult conditions, paying ever more towards basic necessities,” he said. “Young people aren’t wanting to disengage. They’re not wanting to quit. But they’re not exclusively interested in financial health any more: they want more balance, more happiness.”
Sherridan Hughes, an occupational psychologist, said younger people were a lot less materialistic than previous generations. This might be borne from necessity, she said, but the consequence was liberating. “They know that they can’t afford the house and the car, but they don’t want them any more,” said Hughes. “They’re perfectly happy to rent and that underpins a lot of their life decisions: they’re free to think ‘What do I really want?’”
Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology at the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing, said the younger generation’s soul-searching had come at the perfect time: Covid had proved that flexible working was possible, while Brexit had denuded the UK of a swathe of young, talented workers who had returned home.
“Companies are having to scramble to attract and retain young, skilled people, with entire sectors realising it’s a bottom-line issue and moving rapidly,” he said, citing the creation of roles such as happiness officers and directors of employee health and wellbeing, who often report directly to CEOs.
“The younger generation refuse to be an asset that their employer sweats,” he added. “They’re not prepared to tolerate a working environment that will destroy their life in the long run and, frankly, good for them. The world really is their oyster.”