"Are my friends feeling more lost because they don't have religion or is my attempt to point out causation a form of cum hoc ergo propter hoc?"
I've actually had this discussion with a former professor. In today's society, there is something inherently unstable about being in one's twenties. As she had stated, "the twenties were the worst time in my life." There are so many uncertainties with being in one's twenties. With the decline in marriage in this country, being single and not finding that "special someone" is becoming all the more prevalent. Even with the imperfections in marriage exemplified by the rate of divorce in this country, there is still something to be said for the companionship of another individual and combatting a sense of loneliness and despair.
Higher education also puts a strain on millenials. For the Baby Boomers, a high school education was sufficient. During those days, only one person with a high school education had the realistic potential to support a middle-class family. Nowadays, you need two parents with post-secondary education to maintain the same lifestyle. In addition to the fact that a Bachelor's Degree does not have as much effectiveness as it used to have, you also have to deal with the hyperinflation of college tuition costs compared to general inflation, which is estimated to be 300 to 400% higher than normal inflation (numbers calculated from late 1970s). The feeling of debt can crush an individual's mentality and reduce the individual to abject despondency. Since the labor market of those with Bachelor's Degrees has increased, not to mention the expectation of post-secondary education, the overall value of such an education exacerbates the individual's situation since it takes more time to pay off that debt. And we can all be certain that a global recession only compounds all of this hopelessness.
Millenials also have to deal with being unsure of their career path, entry-level wages, increased costs of buying a house (when adjusted for inflation), and a hostile, uncivil political climate that breeds uncertainty and cynicism. Needless to say, there is plenty that has the potential to bog down the typical millenial.
I don't want to diminish these valid concerns. They breed incertitude in an indvidual, and that incertitude creates angst. However, if millenials are to believe that life is so awful, I think each millenial would need to pick up a history book because living conditions and security of rights in this country right now are better, obviously with some exceptions in certain areas, than in any other country during any given period in time. Life expectancy is longer than ever and what used to be considered luxuries (e.g., air conditioning, the automobile, the five-day work week) are now commonplace.
Dealing with difficult times and incertitude is nothing new in our day. I don't care what you say about organized religion. Every institution has its flaws and need to be worked out. However, dismissing centuries of religious wisdom and practice is foolish. There is a reason why religions have had staying power for all this time. They have grappled with life's questions of meaning and significance. They have had much more time to hammer out the details than a millenial has had to even think about them. Throwing out the baby with the bath water is imbecility par excellence. Although there are exceptions, the general trend I see in life is that those who have religion in their life have more stability in their life. More stability generates more happiness because one does not feel lost. Is this to say that religion is for everbody? Not necessarily. Is this to say that religion automatically makes you a good person? No. I have met religious people who are severely flawed, and I have met atheists who are wonderful human beings. Is to even say that religion will solve all your problems? Nope! I don't make that guarantee. Life is a bumpy ride, after all. The purpose of religion and having a sense of connection with a higher power transcending yourself is that when these bad times do come along, you are better anchored and better equipped to handle it.
This is not an attempt for me to prosletyze. After all, in Judaism, an individual from any nation has the potential to be rewarded in the afterlife, presuming there is one in the first place. Jews don't need to convert others. What I advise to my friends who feel lost and who feel they are severely missing that sense of purpose in life, go religion shopping! I know, it's a secular way of framing the advice, but see which religion works for you. Obviously, I would say give Judaism a try. Aside from it working for me quite nicely, I find it has a pragmatic, realistic way to approach theology, ethics, and the question of the meaning of life as a whole. But a man's spiritual journey is his own, and what I hope is that what he finds ultimately brings him solace.