mental health

[OPINION] Julian Martir and the unending anxiety attack we’ve imposed on the youth

Marguerite de Leon

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[OPINION] Julian Martir and the unending anxiety attack we’ve imposed on the youth

Alyssa Arizabal/Rappler

'It’s like people these days have to sacrifice every bit of what’s good in their lives – their comfort, their free time, their peace of mind – to feel like they are worth anything, to be the hero of their own narrative, to be immortalized in society as someone who did something'

By now, many Filipinos online are already familiar with the case of Julian Martir, the 20-year-old Negrense tricycle driver’s son, who claimed to have been accepted to at least 30 universities in the UK and the US with scholarships amounting to around P106 million. 

However, this piece is not about the avalanche of doubt and ridicule that had buried Julian deep in the past few days, when it turned out that his story was far from plausible; nor is it about the incompetence of the news outlets that sang his praises without checking the facts – and that quickly unpublished their erroneous reports without the faintest mea culpa. 

While both these issues surely warrant reflection from us, what jumped out at me more was why the act of students hoarding scholarships – and, in relation, multiple internships and multiple orgs and accolades, accolades, accolades – has become something worth celebrating to begin with. Julian’s story, however false it may be, is a reflection of how young people today feel compelled to oversaturate themselves with accomplishments while still in school, fearful as they are that if they don’t, they don’t stand the slightest chance of getting into a decent college or job. 

And what bothers me so much is that, to a significant degree, it’s true: it seems that in recent years, it has become harder and harder to convince colleges and companies that you are what they’re looking for. A cursory glance on social media, such as local Reddit discussions, bares how difficult it is now to be accepted into anything decent, with HR or college admissions departments frowning upon even the slightest gaps between employment or schooling, or giving less leeway if you’re not from a well-known high school or one of the “Big 4” universities, or making the slightest flub in your cover letter or resume. 

A climate of extreme anxiety appears to have pervaded young people’s lives. Again, if you go on Reddit, issues such as the following are very hotly discussed: Can I become a professor in a top university if I come from a no-name school? Will HR recognize my online courses? I’m a fresh grad – should I start trying to upskill? If I resign, does that mean I’m a failure? To people who switched careers/fields, are you happier? Should I work abroad? What course should I take? Did I enter the wrong school? How do I avoid burnout?

Just scrolling through the topics alone gives me anxiety and makes me question every choice I’ve ever made – and I’ve been working for 16 years. 

Ultimately, despite it sounding so very cliché, I believe the culprit is social media. More specifically, the fault lies in the culture of comparison that we – yes, we, definitely me and definitely you – have created by allowing social media to be a platform of such unhinged, unchecked self-aggrandizement. Not only have we embraced the practice of 24/7 self-promotion, but we love patting each other on the back for it – and doing breathless news reports on those who go the extra, extra mile.  

I’m fairly sure the issues with discriminatory HR and college admissions departments were also happening during my time as a fresh grad in the ‘00s, and even way before that, but we have since created an environment where it is so much easier for these admissions departments to judge people unfairly or far too stringently, because we have imposed upon ourselves – especially upon the youth – higher and higher standards for what constitutes an “impressive” or even “competent” individual. (Sure, you have good grades…but you only have ONE org?!!!? Sure, you’ve worked at top companies for a decade…but you DON’T have a Masters???!!!)

Productivity is a lie

What fills me with a bit of relief, however, is the recent narrative I’ve been seeing among Gen Zs and millennials online about being kind and patient with yourself, and not equating your self-worth with your productivity – a sort of anti-capitalist mantra with a twist of Zen, recited calmly from our social media feeds. Below are a few examples:

Granted, this advice may appear cheesy or maudlin – too “granola” or “hippie dippie,” if you will – and no, it really isn’t anything new. Nonetheless, I find it it so important that this kind of thinking is making a resurgence, and being discovered and embraced by more young people, after years upon years of being bombarded online with Pomodoro Technique instructions and “30 under 30” lists and gushing profiles on the Julian Martirs of the world. 

Be no one, do nothing

But of course, a bunch of feel-good posts on your Newsfeed is far from the real solution. (Technically, dismantling capitalism is, but let’s go first with something relatively more implementable.) What can be a move in the right direction is encouraging the current youth and future generations – the ones who will soon be in positions of power, including heads of HR and college admissions departments and other such institutions – to reassess what it means to be a worthy student or a worthy employee, and then to go by these fairer and more realistic parameters once they have the power to decide on applicants’ fates. 

Does it really matter that this student was a member of three college orgs? Is it truly so important that they took on volunteer work in two other companies on top of their required internship? Does a 20-something with a Master’s degree from abroad really trump a 30-something who’s proven to be competent and trustworthy? If your employee has stayed in the same position – but has been doing their job exceptionally well – shouldn’t that already merit better pay over time?  

I know there are whole other dimensions to this issue that I haven’t touched; the class and/or regional divide, for instance, is also a crucial reason many young Filipinos overexert themselves in proving their worth, since the upper classes and/or Imperial Manila still hold sway over our quality of life. And those are problems that also need addressing. 

But for now, I just want to focus on the unending anxiety we have imposed on young people today, mainly because I myself – despite not being as young anymore – am also often overwhelmed with the feeling that I am not good enough, or have not done enough, or have dumbly missed out on opportunities, or will look back on my life with a crushing sense of regret. And I am – with medication, therapy, and yes, seeking solace in maudlin, self-care-themed social media posts here and there – am trying to disabuse myself of this way of thinking. And I don’t want to live in a world where everyone around me, especially young people who are only beginning to figure themselves out, will eventually have to go through this painful process of disabusing themselves, too. 

Cringey as it may be, I cannot help but point out how Julian’s last name, Martir, is so fitting given what he’s gone through and what he represents. It’s like people these days have to sacrifice every bit of what’s good in their lives – their comfort, their free time, their peace of mind – to feel like they are worth anything, to be the hero of their own narrative, to be immortalized in society as someone who did something.

But if everyone’s a martyr, then nobody is. So do yourself a favor and try to be the opposite of a sanctimonious sacrificial lamb: accepting that there is nobody you need to impress, not even yourself – or, better yet, knowing that the most exceptional, award-winning, go-down-in-the-annals-of-history kind of thing you can do in this anxiety-riddled world is to stop caring about what other people think. –

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Marguerite de Leon

Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon heads Rappler’s Life and Style, Entertainment, and Opinion sections. She has been with Rappler since 2013, and also served as its social media producer for six years. She is also a fictionist.