‘You can do anything here!’ Why Lithuania is the best place in the world to be young

In the shade of a tree on a warm day in Vilnius, Lithuania, I’m having coffee with the happiest twentysomethings in the world. Given the weather (perfect) and the beverage (cheap), it is hard to feel anything but happy. It is harder still if, like 23-year-old Simona Jurkuvenaite, you have just been handed €21,000 from the Lithuanian government to direct your debut short film about the country’s teenagers.

“This is a great place,” she says, gesturing around the manicured square where we’re sitting, on the edge of the city’s new town. “It’s pretty awesome that you can get these kinds of opportunities here.”

So good are the opportunities and so high is the level of optimism that Lithuania topped this year’s World Happiness Report rankings for the under-30s. The country’s gen-Zers and millennials rated themselves 7.76 out of 10 on the happiness scale, miles ahead of the UK and the US, at 32nd and 62nd respectively. While the report sounded alarm bells about young people’s welfare in the west, Lithuania’s twentysomethings could set to work meme-ifying and TikTokking about the confirmation that they had it pretty good.

“I actually like it here,” says Jurkuvenaite’s friend Gantas Bendikas almost apologetically. The 23-year-old is about to graduate with no debt and, by his own admission, no anxieties about the labour market. “Yes, there are problems, but there are problems everywhere,” he says. “I think a lot of young people here are quite patriotic. It feels, at least in Vilnius, like we live good lives compared to other European countries.”

Granted, it is not the most exciting place in the world: Jurkuvenaite complains that it “can be a little boring” and Bendikas says he is keen to see other countries before ultimately settling down here. The Vilnius tourist board is jocularly self-aware in branding the country “the G-spot of Europe” because “nobody knows where it is”. (A 2019 survey found that only 5% of Britons knew more than the Lithuanian capital’s name and approximate location.) But against a backdrop of general election mudslinging, pervasive student debt and a housing crisis in the UK, I will take boring. Drinking a decent cup of coffee in the sun and eating a flaky pastry that didn’t cost an hour’s work on minimum wage – yes, this will do.

‘When I talk to people in other places, I realise how lucky I am’ … Vinius artist Jolita Vaitkutė. Photograph: Karolis Pilypas Liutkevičius/The Guardian

Jurkuvenaite and Bendikas’s Lithuania is vastly different from the one their parents grew up in. The former Soviet country’s GDP per capita has more than quadrupled in their lifetimes. Its burgeoning tech sector counts the “unicorns” Vinted and Nord Security among its exports, and last year, average gross earnings in the country increased by 12.6%. University is free and 57% of the population have tertiary education (the EU average is 43%). As Karolina Motiejūnaitė, a 23-year-old marketer, puts it: “We were all born in free Lithuania. We don’t know anything else.”

Lithuania’s newly cemented status as young people’s capital of the world may have come as a slight surprise to the people who live there (“Well, they didn’t ask me or my friends” is a common retort on my visit), but it didn’t to the researchers behind the report, who have been watching the Baltic countries inch their way up the rankings since they began collecting the data.

“More or less over the whole time of the World Happiness Report there’s been a narrowing of the gap between eastern and western Europe in terms of their average life satisfaction,” explains Prof John Helliwell, a founding editor of the annual study, which measures wellbeing in 140 nations and is coordinated by Oxford University’s Wellbeing Research Centre, Gallup and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. “As that gap has narrowed, it’s now the case that the young are significantly happier in central and eastern Europe than the older generation.”

Across town at the former Lukiškės prison, a rambling 1905 jail being transformed into a compound of artists’ studios and concert venues, it isn’t hard to see why. “When I talk to friends in other places – Paris, Tokyo, London – I realise how lucky I am to have my own space,” says 28-year-old artist Jolita Vaitkutė, the light pouring in from the high windows of her third-floor studio and refracting across her face. In the suntrap courtyard below, twenty- and thirtysomethings in oversized T-shirts drink pints between the barbed-wire-topped walls.

The Lukiškės prison complex, now artists’ studios and a concert venue. Photograph: Karolis Pilypas Liutkevičius/The Guardian

“I choose to be here because I like it here,” she says. “I don’t have to do work that I don’t want to do and I don’t have to work in an office.” Studios in the building, which was used to shoot the fourth season of the Netflix series Stranger Things, rent for between €100 and €500 a month (£85-£425), according to Martynas Butkevičius, whose music agency won the public tender to transform it into a cultural venue. Rents in the country are generally low compared with other European countries – though there was a 144% increase between 2010 and 2022, the second highest in the EU after Estonia.

Despite this, says film-maker Marija Kavtaradzė, it still feels possible to carve out the career that you want in the capital. “I would say that every person who works well can live well here,” says the 33-year-old, who is just releasing her second feature, Slow. “Of course, if you are a creative and you work in culture instead of a startup, you will make less money – that’s a fact. But there is this feeling that you can still make it here.”

Kavtaradzė is well placed to speak about life for young people in post-Soviet Lithuania. Her 2014 short I’m Twenty Something encapsulates perfectly the excruciating ordeal of having so many doors open to you but not knowing which one to walk through. It’s a privilege, she says, that her parents’ generation could only have dreamed of.

“What makes us unique is that we saw the country change really quickly,” she adds. “In my generation we all grew up really similarly, economically – like, I don’t have friends who were rich growing up. So I think that also, in some sense, gives us the mindset that we can do anything.”

skip past newsletter promotion

I am here in the last days of second-round voting in the country’s presidential elections. Polls will open for the European parliamentary elections in just a couple of weeks. Agnė Urbontaitytė, 20, who is smoking in one of the postcard-perfect courtyards of Vilnius University, is going to vote after her Lithuanian philology class. “We’re very political,” she says of her peers. (Voter turnout in the last European parliamentary election in 2019 was 53.48% in Lithuania, above the total EU figure of 50.66%.) She declines to tell me who she is voting for, but says the war in Ukraine is on most people’s minds. “We’re not as happy as people think we are!” she jokes, before reeling off a list of reasons she “loves Lithuania” – including the green space and the “new, interesting people” that reside in the capital.

Antanas Kairys, a psychology professor at Vilnius University’s faculty of philosophy, cites the political situation as one of the main reasons for young people’s wellbeing. “Youth in Lithuania have a lot of possibilities now,” he says. Post-independence, “the change is drastic – both in terms of the economic situation and everyday life. I think one reason why young people rank so highly in this report is because they haven’t experienced the reality of the Soviet Union. They know it only from the stories of their parents and grandparents.”

The war in Ukraine threatens to upend the stability Lithuania has worked to achieve over the past 34 years. Young people are plagued by anxiety about what might happen if, as Motiejūnaitė puts it, “this war goes to the wrong side”.

“We grew up with this fear inside us that everything nice that we have here could be taken away in a second,” she says. “It feels like people abroad are forgetting that there is a war happening in Ukraine, and it’s worrying.” Ukraine fatigue may have taken hold in some parts of the west, but for Lithuanians the threat of Russia still looms large. As Karolis Pilypas, the 30-year-old Vilnius-raised photographer accompanying me on my trip, says drily: “One day you’re at home watching Love Is Blind and the next you’re being told by the government to pack an emergency bag.” (Lithuania’s ministry of the interior and fire and rescue department launched a campaign last February advising citizens what to pack in case disaster strikes.) “The anxiety is sort of everywhere,” Kavtaradzė agrees.

There is also the conundrum of the country’s suicide rate – which was the highest in the EU in 2020, at 21.3 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. “For older people, mental health is still a taboo topic,” says 19-year-old Cinny, a student at the university’s faculty of philosophy. “My mother, for example, still doesn’t believe that mental health is a problem in Lithuania.” Kairys reckons it’s a Soviet hangover: “There is less stigma among young people about mental health, but that stigma remains among the older generation. I think it’s partially related to the reality of the Soviet Union, where mental health services were used for political reasons – to imprison political opponents, for example.”

If Lithuania is the happiest place in the world for young people, then I’d put money on it that the White Bridge skate park on the banks of the Neris River is the happiest place in Lithuania. As a parent of a young child remarks when I tell them this is next on my itinerary: “If the guys you speak to over there aren’t happy, then nobody is.” The teenagers and twentysomethings sunbathing by the volleyball courts are happy to report that they’re pretty content.

Relaxing by the river in Vilnius. Photograph: Karolis Pilypas Liutkevičius/The Guardian

“I would rate the nightlife one of the best in Europe,” says 21-year-old software engineering student Daniil Švager through huge sunglasses that reflect the sky. He says, though, that he’d like a summer home in some far-flung place where he could escape Lithuania’s brutal winters. Like many of the people I spoke to, he and his friend Rokas Astrauskas thought the Happiness Report news was a joke when it emerged. All in all, though, they say they’re happy with their lives – especially now the evenings are getting longer and they can play volleyball six times a week.

Further up the river, as we walk towards a bustling courtyard bar, Pilypas points out the bare nails that protrude from the lamp-posts of the bridge we’re crossing. The Soviet-era statues mounted on them have recently been ripped down, he says. He shows me the hospital he was born in, which is being transformed into an expensive international school. When I remark on how green the city is, he shrugs: “It used to be greener.” More than three decades on from independence, Lithuania is shapeshifting, and it’s taking its young people with it.

As the light dwindles, the sky is pink and blue tie-dye; chatter spills from the open window of the bar out into the courtyard and the street. Conversation has the frenetic edge of a good night just beginning. IT worker Lukas Saženis, 29, is having a beer with some old colleagues outside. Is he the happiest person in the world? “Maybe not the happiest, but I think I’m relatively happy,” he allows. “I feel like we’re building towards something. We’re not stagnating. It’s easy to see how good we have it.”

The Guardian

Leave a Reply