19. December 2022

William, Harry…and a very millennial dilemma

Hipster male with a large black backpack travels on a diverging bridge against city landscape and bright blue sky

Think that royal dramas aren’t relatable? Not so fast.


Oh, good Lord — won’t the pair of them just go away and be quiet at last? I wasn’t even able to get through one trailer of Netflix’s documentary “Harry and Meghan”, so I hereby doff my hat to all those critics who had to wade through the entire thing to do their jobs. I hope you were paid well is all I can say. “Gone with the Whinge” might have been a better title for it.

A larger truth? Really?

Therefore, it may be a bit surprising to some if I say that, among all this dross, there is actually a larger truth to be discovered. Yet, as I often say: even with all their (unearned) privilege, the Royals and their travails are – for better or for worse – still a reflection of the society into which they are embedded.

We can see the cycle of our lives reflected in theirs. We celebrate along with them on wedding days and when babies are born. We mourn their deaths. We are appalled at their personal failings and celebrate their virtues. Wider societal and intergenerational struggles play out in their homes as they play out in ours.

A pair of brothers split asunder

And, at the heart of the never-ending Sussex tantrum— and the global fascination with it — is the kind of epic drama from which Norse sagas, Shakespearean plays and Greek tragedies are fashioned. Namely: the (now probably irreparable) fracturing of fraternal relations between Prince William and Harry.

Two men who seemed to have been welded together in fate forever by the early, tragic death of their mother, Princess Diana.

Two brothers once so close, now split asunder by conflicting demands and decisions.

There is a timeless quality to this story that echoes down the ages. And yet, at the same time, it is so very “of the moment” — capturing as it does one of the fundamental life dilemmas facing millennials all around the world today.

That is: the question of how to deal with all the freedom and choice that the Western liberal world order we grew up in has presented to us on a platter.

About that freedom

And it is through the prism of free, individual choice that I see the Harry vs. Prince William face-off. While both men were born into a very strange and specific situation, either (or both) of them could have chosen to say “no thanks” to the duty pressed upon them by accident of birth and lived a life of freedom. (As we know from the Edward VIII-Wallis Simpson imbroglio, abdication is not a novel concept.)

Far from being the exclusive preserve of royalty, it is this exact dilemma — obligation vs. freedom — that millennials find themselves grappling with in a world that has offered them far more choice than their forebears could ever have imagined.

The millennial dilemma

We millennials have grown up in a world in which societal expectations had already loosened considerably, and tradition held less sway. It is now normal for women to decide not to have children. Opting out of religion is widespread. Homosexuality and other sexual identities are now broadly accepted as part of a diverse society.

We have largely been able to structure our lives and our identities around our own individual needs and preferences without (or at least with less) judgment than earlier generations may have faced. The life model that our parents lived by was no longer mandatory for us: it is one option among many.

We have been given enormous freedom of choice without ever having to fight or suffer for it. Being so spoiled, it is no surprise that so many of us seem vexed by the gift, unsure of how to handle or cope with it.

Do we…

a) shake off societal/familial obligations and the pull of tradition, and give ourselves over entirely to our own wishes and needs (we might call this the “Harry option“),

or, do we…

b) see in tradition and societal/familial obligations a source of fulfilment and purpose and pursue happiness by submitting ourselves to them (the “William option“).

Most of us will end up organising our lives so that we land somewhere along the continuum between a) and b). In other words: with a mixture between freedom and obligation, tradition and modernity.

The situation we see evolving with the Royals is remarkable in that the nature of the monarchy necessitates family members to make a stark choice between option a) and option b). Thus highlighting perfectly for the rest of us the advantages and disadvantages of each.

The “Harry” option

Understandably, Harry has decided that life as a working royal is too restrictive for him and has decided to forego it for a freer, more easy-going life in the Californian sun.

While Harry seems to be pleased with his basic choice to skip out on royal duties, he seems ill-equipped to cope with the challenges that come with that choice. Complete freedom, unmoored from the “bonded servitude” of royal (or — in his case — military) life requires a robust personality to build a new identity independent of the structures of the former life and remain psychologically stable outside of them.

Harry doesn’t have that strength himself — he appears to rely on his wife to provide it. And I don’t think it has occurred to him that freedom does not automatically mean contentment — you have to do the hard yards of generating that for yourself. Expecting someone else to do it for you? Well, that seems like a disaster waiting to happen to me.

Right now, the message coming out of California is not one of happiness, but bitterness and an inability to accept the consequences of one’s own free choice. And also a failure to grasp that with freedom comes great responsibility — and a ton of hard graft (NOT grift). Can it go well long-term? We shall see.

The “William” option

Unlike Harry, William cannot claim to be truly “free”. However, I believe that William has seen and understood that the obligations imposed by society/family/tradition provide warmth, structure and stability. The kind of structure and stability which may have been lacking in his formative years.

These obligations form a shared framework featuring the kind of common rituals and celebrations which glue a family and a society together, giving their members a comforting feeling of being part of something greater. That this is a source of purpose and happiness for William can be seen in the way that he has become noticeably calmer and grounded since becoming a husband and a father.

The wider implications

While it is interesting to compare the choices made by these two brothers who differ immensely in personality and temperament, how their respective decisions play out also offers lessons for society as a whole.

We millennials are now hitting middle age and our cohorts are starting to fill key leadership positions. Rishi Sunak, the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, is a geriatric millennial, born in 1980. Sanna Marin, the current Prime Minister of Finland, is also a millennial (born in 1985). Our choices matter more than ever, as they will lay down the markers for how our societies will develop in the coming years.

And in this respect, I would like to say clearly: beware the Harry option.

Cutting loose entirely from family and tradition in favour of a life of complete freedom may feel easy and intoxicatingly liberating, but it leads to a society which is no longer a society.

When people devote themselves too much to their own needs and wants, and the ties that bind them to the fellow members of the collective wither away — then society is no more than a collection of isolated individuals. They will say they are free but many of them will be lonely and deeply unhappy — staring at their Smartphones in their own tiny flats, scrolling through social media thinking that this is “life” and that their followers are real “friends”. It is not a particularly encouraging vision.

Conversely, at first glance, the William option might seem fusty and backwards, and the time spent contributing to the collective strenuous and annoying. However, that work is rewarded by people coming together to celebrate, form bonds and carry out common rituals to reaffirm the collective identity. Members feel rooted in the group and gain a sense of comfort, support and belonging. It involves a true “society”.

We millennials should think very carefully about how our choices will affect the generations coming up behind us and the example we are setting to them with our lives. In the rush away from tradition and obligation towards modernity and freedom, it is so easy to forget what we might be giving up — and the pitfalls of what we think we want.


Related articles:

Meghan Markle is right. In a way. Sort of.

The death of Queen Elizabeth II and the uniting power of ritual

King Charles III’s Coronation – A Review

British geriatric millennials and the stiff upper lip


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