The Magician wore a deep red robe and held the burning candle aloft. “I don’t really believe in this stuff,” I had said as my friend shuffled the 78 tarot cards, each containing an individual illustration used for more than 200 years to tell people’s fortunes. “I don’t think it’s real.” Then she drew the Magician.
“It’s a great card!” my friend grinned. “He represents your tremendous skill, your capabilities, your talents…” I looked again at the robe, the undeniable power in the wizard’s face. I had spoken too soon. This stuff actually did seem very, very legitimate.
By spending my Friday night asking advice via the ancient art of tarot, I am by no means an unusual millennial. Not only was my psychic pal none other than the New Statesman’s Anna Leszkiewicz, but over the past year there has been a huge boom in young people purchasing and practising tarot. The owners of Motherpeace Tarot, a deck created in the 1970s, have seen a 268 per cent increase in sales in the past six months. Frank Clifford, principal of the London School of Astrology, tells me that when he started out 30 years ago “tarot had a demographic of middle-aged and middle-class women”. Now, there’s a much younger crowd. “Most of our 200 students currently enrolled were born between 1983 and 1999,” he says.
Why are millennials embracing the mystic? Clifford says his younger students are keen to suggest apps and websites that can be used in class, and it’s true that the internet has played a huge part in tarot’s rising popularity. I counted 550 tarot apps on Apple’s App Store before giving up, and at the time of writing #tarot has been used 3,059,027 times on Instagram. On YouTube, a video entitled “Learn The 78 Tarot Cards in Two Hours” has been viewed nearly 800,000 times.
Lissa Mercury is a 29-year-old professional tarot reader who finds clients through her Instagram account, @mercurytarot. Recently, she combined two of my generation’s greatest and latest fads by reading the fortunes of Love Island contestants on the show’s official podcast. She believes the internet has allowed tarot to be rebranded.
“In the past I think there was a bit of stigma,” she says. “People instantly think back to film and TV references such as ‘Mystic Meg’ with her purple robes and crystal ball, or that cheesy scene in Live and Let Die where James Bond picks the Lovers card and starts making out with tarot reader Solitaire… that’s not even what that card means!”
The internet explains how millennials have turned to the occult – but not why. My reading came at a time of uncertainty when I was making big life decisions. Millennials’ economic, professional, domestic and romantic lives are so far removed from those experienced by baby boomers that we can no longer look to older generations for advice (avocados weren’t even invented back then, right?). Where else do we go? We’re the most secular generation yet.
“Older generations are more likely to seek consolation and a sense of order through religion,” says Stuart Vyse, a behavioural scientist and author of Believing in Magic: the Psychology of Superstition. Vyse has found that liberal millennials in particular are drawn to divination.
“There is some evidence that in times of turmoil – both political and economic – people are drawn to paranormal beliefs,” he says. “There is much more insecurity about jobs for the current generation of young people than in the past, and for liberal millennials in particular, the world has suddenly gone a little crazy… Considerable research on astrology suggests that believers are drawn to it for a sense of control.”
It makes sense that in the uncertain age of Brexit (means Brexit), we are all looking for guidance and direction. Vyse believes that the trend for tarot will subside when millennials have more order in their lives.
Lissa Mercury’s experiences tally with his theories. She finds older customers ask about love, while her younger, millennial customers ask about work and finance. “There is a battle between ‘Do I do what I love for a job and risk being broke, or do I take a job I don’t enjoy so I may one day be able to buy a house?’”
In the end, Lissa’s advice is less mystic than you might expect. “There is a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness among some of the younger generation, so rather than looking to the future for answers, I love to work with customers on their present day and mindset.” This was my experience with Anna Leszkiewicz. By asking what I saw in the cards, rather than telling me what she divined, she allowed me to come up with answers about myself – like when you tell your partner you don’t mind where you go for dinner, but your disappointment at their decision allows you to realise what you actually wanted all along.
Superstitions are by definition irrational, so does this mean millennials are idiots? Do we even deserve the houses we so desperately crave?
My A-level psychology teacher taught me all about Barnum statements – vague and general sentences that are supposedly tailored specifically to one person, as seen in horoscopes. I know, really, the Magician represents my mate’s shuffling skills more than my own “capabilities and talents” (still tremendous, though).
Yet despite my scepticism and cynicism, I can’t deny that lighting a candle and reading the tarot cards was comforting. It was enjoyable to hand over a big life decision, however fleetingly, to some ancient illustrations. I recommend it. And I don’t believe the answers are true – but I believe in them nonetheless.
Amelia Tait is features editor at shortlist.com and an NS contributing writer
This article appears in the 08 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise and fall of Islamic State