Type “Why do millennials...” into Google and it will suggest “...believe in astrology”. Theodor Adorno answered that question back in 1953 when he wrote that astrology appeals to “persons who do not any longer feel that they are the self-determining subjects of their fate”.
A study published in The Lancet Psychiatry this month found that people aged 18 to 24 and 25 to 34 have sustained the biggest hike in mental distress since the pandemic began – what’s more, the New York Times reported surges in traffic to online astrology content during the coronavirus peak in March. Bracing (and bracing, and bracing) for the biggest crisis in living memory, is it any wonder that we’re looking to the stars for answers?
In 2020, “looking to the stars” takes many forms. Every publication from Cosmopolitan to Dazed and Refinery29 has a dedicated astrology section, promising deep dives into the implications of Venus moving in Virgo, the full harvest moon or what Mars can tell you about your sex life. Meanwhile, zodiac apps like Co-Star and The Pattern are installed on every other iPhone; the other day, my friend told me she wasn’t getting back together with her ex because he’s a Scorpio.
For millennials and Gen-Zs, the pandemic is just another in a long list of destabilising forces beyond our control: the planet’s on fire, university costs nearly £10,000 a year, and the alt-right is having something of a moment. Trump straddles one side of the Atlantic, while Brexit hurtles ever nearer on the other — neither was voted for by us, but that won’t stop their consequences impacting most of our adult lives. And, while it’s hard to predict the long-term effects of that background anxiety, one result has been very well reported indeed: millennials love horoscopes.
Although the latest vogue for horoscopes arrived around 2016, long before corona reared its tiny, hideous head, astrology’s role in explaining an otherwise inexplicable universe has been with us for millennia. Faced with a path categorically not paved with Adorno’s “self-determination”, my generation did with star charts what the 70s folks did with that weird avocado colour. We splashed the zodiac over everything from mugs to necklaces to memes – and then came all this.
While my cohort are favourably lined up when it comes to the virus itself (stats vary, but there’s no question that the average twenty-something is more likely to shrug off Covid-19 than their parents), we were hardly sitting pretty before its wave hit the economy. Between March and August this year, 2.7 million people were claiming benefits for being out of work or on very low incomes – a rise of 120 per cent. And the largest leap? Among 16 to 24-year-olds.
Two thirds of millennials lost income during the first few months of the crisis – it doesn’t require a statistician to notice that the people who work in hospitality and retail tend to be younger. Those jobs, as everyone who’s worked one knows, tend to be precarious, badly paid, and designed to make the employee disposable. Zero hours contracts were enough of a plague on my peers before the pandemic – and there’s no such thing as furlough if you weren’t “employed” in the first place.
I’m keen on the phrase “no atheists in fox-holes”. While horoscope adherents would likely protest my lumping them in with “theists”, the sense of the old saying still stands – when things get tough, scepticism is a luxury. Who can bear to confront the wildly skewed scales, the careful eroding of privileges our parents enjoyed, by their generation and at our expense – let alone the last-in-first-out lore of pandemic employment – when one could just consult their natal chart instead?
It’s easier to blame Mercury in retrograde than a political system which subtly undermines you at every turn. But we need to face the real issues at the heart of generational instability if we’ve any hope of tackling them. Throwing one’s hands to the sky is like throwing them in the air – “Hey, what’s it to do with me?” Which is not to say that’s not a valid question (answer: absolutely nothing).
It’s just that we ought to feel clear about precarity’s political origins. It’s not that your moon sign is incompatible with that of the person who didn’t hire you: it’s that the world is becoming less and less of a meritocracy every day. You haven’t run out of money because of Saturn: student loans and rising unemployment are more likely to blame.
To bring another idiom into play – this is a real chicken and egg problem. Young people have paid the pandemic’s highest price in terms of mental health; partly that’s about social lives evaporating, but it’s also because the fragile way we live required the lightest of breaths to topple. Squaring up to a global crisis, we never stood a chance. A million pieces like this one have been written since the financial crash in 2008, asking what it is about our generation that makes stable employment so hard to come by? Why don’t we buy houses, or diamonds, or holidays? And maybe, 10 years in and suddenly adults ourselves, we’ve stopped trying to supply an answer – especially when it feels so blatantly obvious.
When people ask what my star sign is – and they do, all the time – I don’t know what to say. Well, I do (Gemini, the worst answer, amirite) but I sense that what’s really being requested is a blueprint. A shortcut for all the impossible nuance of real life and hard truths. My Sagittarius cousin keeps switching jobs and fantasising about moving to New York, or Saint Sebastian, or wherever. She believes the inclination towards change is down to her birth chart; I’d put it down to living under impossible circumstances. I say potayto, you say potahto – but this confirmation bias is exactly what makes the horoscope world go round, and that reaches far beyond the ostensibly frivolous arena of dating or casual acquaintances.
It finds fingers in the deepest parts of our psyche, but easy answers do more harm than good. Coping requires engaging; even – or especially – at our most weary, we’ve got to question others and ourselves, too. Insist on autonomy, now that it’s further from our grasp than ever. Don’t abdicate – but do feel free to have a good cry, because god knows it’s warranted.
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