In the ‘age of information’ when ordinary people have more access to more research than ever before, young people are increasingly turning to astrology, a system of belief that is, according to experts, a “baseless pseudoscience”.
Whole Instagram accounts are dedicated to memes about flaky Sagittarius’s and uptight Capricorns, garnering hundreds of thousands of followers. Celebrities reference their star signs in interviews as if they’re revealing some fundamental insight into themselves. In a 2017 interview for Dazed Digital, millennial darling Selena Gomez proffered, “I’m such a Cancer, I’m sensitive as fuuuuuck.”
I too am a Cancer, which might explain why I get called ‘sensitive snowflake’ so often by strangers over the internet. A couple months ago, fascinated by my peers’ growing interest in the esoteric, I began to wonder if my middle aged parents could ever be on the same page. I decided to test the waters over dinner one night.
“Mum,” I began tentatively, “Did you know we have the same sun and moon sign?” She gave me a blank look. “We’re both Cancers with Capricorn moons,” I explained.
She frowned and put down her fork. “Why are you talking about this stuff, Holly? Have you been taking that – you know, what do they call it -”
“E,” my father offered.
“Right, that’s it. Are you on E?”
I shook my head and hastily changed the conversation. Clearly, my parents aren’t as receptive to New Age spirituality as my twenty-something peers, many of whom seem to know more about their star charts than they do about Australian politics.
I wondered why my peers’ attitudes are so different – its not as if astrology is anything new. The belief system has been dated back to the world’s oldest civilisations, where it was used to make sense of unfathomable threats, like environmental catastrophes and illnesses. Astrology seems like a logical practice for citizens of the ancient world, whose lives were short, difficult and unpredictable. But over the subsequent millennia, science has chipped away at many of the mysteries of existence. We understand more about our world than we have at any other time in human history – we’ve even put men on the moon.
So why – when we have access to millions of research papers at our fingertips – are so many young people seeking answers in the stars?
Academics suggest superstition stems from a desire for control. Studies have shown that people are more likely to turn to astrology when they feel destabilised – whether it be from crises, or from day-to-day, disempowering events. Dr. Stuart Vyse, an award winning behavioural scientist, cites the election of Donald Trump as an influencing factor in the astrology boom. According to a recent Pew Research study, liberals are more likely to believe in astrology than conservatives, who tend to be more religious. Dr. Vyse concludes:
“Astrology has a stronger appeal for liberals than conservatives, and in the United States, since November of 2016, the liberal world has been rocked. If ever there was a time when liberals might be looking for a compensatory sense of control, now is it.”
That accounts for some of the generational divide in astrology. According to several studies, older people are significantly more likely to have conservative values. But that doesn’t account for my parents’ aversion to their star charts – both of them are pretty progressive, and neither are fans of Donald Trump.
Some of the difference could be economic – where my parents’ generation forged their careers in the booming economy of the late 80’s, my generation is entering a much more unstable workforce. To us, the notion of saving enough to own a home sometimes seems laughable. The prospect of living in rundown share houses for the rest of my life is more than enough to get me hankering for a bit of spiritual reassurance.
But I suspect there might be a little more to it. My friends (and I, sometimes, if I’m honest), often turn to astrology for insights about ourselves. Rather than using the stars to predict the future, as astrologers in the pre-Enlightenment era did, we use it to explain our personal foibles – one of my friends, for instance, attributes her guardedness to her ‘Scorpio Moon’. Another friend happily describes his organisational skills as a product of his ‘Capricorn Sun’. I can’t help but notice how often my peers use their astrological charts to ascribe themselves with a fixed identity.
Young people don’t seem to be trying to make sense of the world – they’re trying to make sense of themselves.
This could be happening for a myriad of reasons. Firstly, we young people can no longer rely as easily on socially ascribed roles as our parents’ generation did. Previously stable identities like ‘woman’, ‘father’, or even ‘professional’ are not as clear as they once were; our position in society does not straightforwardly describe who we are. Nor does our geographic position: research suggests that globalisation and digital connectivity are also convoluting our sense of national identity.
The taboo around mental health is thankfully being eroded, we’re much more likely to acknowledge and seek treatment for our emotional issues – unfortunately, this can often lead to more questions than answers. There is no guaranteed ‘fix’ for anxiety or depression. Adding to tall this confusion, my generation was raised on social media. The online ‘identities’ we grew up with were constantly subject to public scrutiny, encouraging us to project false images of ourselves to feel accepted by our peers. Confronted with an onslaught of unreasonably attractive, successful ‘influencers’ it’s understandable that many young people are feeling shaken about their own sense of self.
The digital age, I would argue, has not made us feel more stable – it’s made us feel overwhelmed. In the era of ‘fake news’, not only do we have trouble distinguishing what is true, our increasing self-reflexivity has undermined our confidence in who we really are.
So for all you skeptics out there: next time you hear someone sounding off about their Pisces Rising sign, try to show a little sympathy. They’re probably just feeling a little lost, like we all do sometimes in this surreal, digitally networked world.