Memes, data, celebrities, and social media all tell the same story about the country’s mental health of late: We’re not doing so hot.
Anxiety is more prevalent among all adults than it was before the pandemic—but more dramatically so in young adults, or those in their early thirties and younger—according to sources like the CDC, Pew Research Center, and many others. It has become routine for top-of-their-game athletes, actors, and other public figures to step away from their work, citing anxiety and depression. College campus mental health clinics and general behavioral health centers are struggling to keep up with the demand for their services.
Experts In This Article
- Angela Neal-Barnett, PhD, professor of psychology at Kent State University and the author of Soothe Your Nerves: The Black Woman’s Guide to Understanding and Overcoming Anxiety, Panic, and Fears
- David H. Rosmarin, PhD, clinical psychologist, associate professor at Harvard Medical School, McLean Hospital spirituality and mental health program director, founder of the Center for Anxiety, and author of Thriving with Anxiety: 9 Tools to Make Your Anxiety Work for You
- Lauren Cook, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist and author of The Sunny Side Up! and Generation Anxiety: A Millennial and Gen Z Guide to Staying Afloat in an Uncertain World
- Meg Jay, PhD, developmental clinical psychologist and author of The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—And How to Make the Most of Them Now and the forthcoming The Twentysomething Treatment: A Revolutionary Remedy for an Uncertain Age
For Generation Z, a group of people born between 1997 and 2012 who have been identified with descriptors of “hopefulness” and “activism,” the weight of the mission to improve the world in matters like climate change is now taking a mental health toll. The group has more recently earned the nickname “generation doomer” in generational research, thanks to a rise in nihilistic attitudes questioning the meaning of anything at all.
“Entering adulthood—and keeping a job, paying bills, seeing your preferred political candidate and issues you back lose in elections, watching your family members age and pass away, and experiencing friendships fading—has never exactly been a cake walk.”
“We are seeing more anxiety, we are seeing more hopelessness, and [these young adults] can be triggered into that hopelessness very, very, very easily,” says Angela Neal-Barnett, PhD, a professor of psychology at Kent State University and the author of Soothe Your Nerves: The Black Woman’s Guide to Understanding and Overcoming Anxiety, Panic, and Fears.
It all points to the experience of young adulthood in 2023 as being marked by stress and despondency. At the same time, entering adulthood—and keeping a job, paying bills, seeing your preferred political candidate and issues you back lose in elections, watching your family members age and pass away, and experiencing friendships fading—has never exactly been a cake walk.
Is life in the 2020s really worse than it’s ever been? Or are the young adults living through the mental health and emotional tolls of adulthood just doing so in a more online, outspoken, and brutally honest manner than generations of past?
Young adult meets uncertain world
Gen Z and the last of the millennials aren’t the first group of young adults to feel the sting of #adulting. For the last few decades, research and cultural criticism have demonstrated that anxiety and unhappiness are generally more prevalent in younger adults than older adults. When coming of age in the ‘90s and 2000s, respectively, the misanthropic younger members of Generation X (fans of Daria, The Breakfast Club, and Ghost World), and older and middle millennials let down by the often-false promise of being able to pursue your passion amid multiple financial crises certainly experiences stressed and disaffection. Psychologists coined the term “quarterlife crisis” in 2001.
“Young adults in every generation at least since the 1990s, when mental health across adulthood was first tracked, are more likely to struggle with feelings of anxiety and depression than are older adults,” says psychologist Meg Jay, PhD, the author of The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—And How to Make the Most of Them Now and the forthcoming The Twentysomething Treatment: A Revolutionary Remedy for an Uncertain Age. “Part of the reason for this is that young adulthood is the most uncertain time of life and uncertainty makes people unhappy.” And that’s likely been true much earlier than the ‘90s, before data existed to support the assertion.
Dr. Jay describes uncertainty as a “transdiagnostic stressor” that can be the culprit for a host of emotions and experiences like stress, worry, sadness, hopelessness, helplessness, and sleeplessness. Young adults dealing with feelings of uncertainty either by becoming anxious about the future or minimizing the future’s importance with a “nothing matters” attitude is not a novel phenomenon, either. “We used to call it the existential crisis,” Dr. Neal-Barnett says. She notes psychologists have been writing about it since the middle of the 20th century, after existentialists laid the philosophical groundwork.
These mid-century French philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir enjoyed celebrity status as existentialism rose to prominence in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and the numbed-out despair on display over a future in “plastics” made 1967’s The Graduate an instant and enduring classic. With regard to a rise in nihilistic attitudes, Dr. Jay says “‘Quiet quitting’ may seem revolutionary to today’s twentysomethings, but in the 1990s we had Office Space.”
Are hopelessness and stress really on the rise?
So how do we square this historical legacy of twentysomething agita with more recent data about a studied rise in anxiety and unhappiness among people in their early thirties and younger? The 2023 iteration of a Gallup and Walton Family Foundation study, published every 10 years for the last three decades, found that just 15 percent of 18 to 26 year olds describe their mental health as “excellent,” while more than 50 percent of the same age group gave the “excellent” rating to their mental health in both 2013 and 2004.
Data about suicide rates and self-harm also paints a clear picture that the mental health of young adults has, in fact, deteriorated, says clinical psychologist David H. Rosmarin, PhD, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, McLean Hospital spirituality and mental health program director, founder of the Center for Anxiety, and author of Thriving with Anxiety: 9 Tools to Make Your Anxiety Work for You. The CDC reports that in 2021, suicide became the second-leading cause of death for people under the age of 34. “This is a very clear trend that mental health is substantially worse among younger Americans,” Dr. Rosmarin says.
Mental health professionals say that anecdotal experiences with patients reflect that the headspace of today’s young adults really may be different than that of generations past.Dr. Rosmarin has noticed a downward trend in young patients’ general ability to tolerate struggle and negative emotion.
Dr. Neal-Barnett, who has taught college psychology courses for decades, has seen this manifest in her own classroom. She has had to change longstanding teaching methods for her post-pandemic students because she says they become more easily frustrated and are quicker to shut down in the face of a challenge than was the case with prior classes—a sentiment that other college professors echo online. She believes this is a sign that her students got a message of existential impotence, and not resilience, from living through a pandemic.
“You would think that everyone would think ‘I survived the pandemic, I can do anything,’” Dr. Neal-Barnett says. “That does not appear to be what happened with our young adult group. It’s not, ‘I survived. I can do anything.’ It’s ‘I can make no sense or meaning out of this world.’”
How social media fuels the anxiety fire
While the experience of an existential crisis may not be new, some factors of life in 2023—in addition to living through a pandemic—separate today’s young adults and those from decades ago. One key difference is the way in which screens now mediate our lives as the way we experience relationships and learn about other people and ideas.
“It’s easier to interact with two-dimensional pixels than it is a three-dimensional human,” Dr. Rosmarin says. “People are more complex. They smell worse. They make bad comments. They can’t just delete things that they say. Social media is a lot easier, and I think that we’ve sort of gotten spoiled through interfacing with pixels as opposed to people.”
“Research has also found that social media can promote feelings of isolation, and the pandemic only supercharged what experts have described as a loneliness epidemic.”
The phrase “Instagram versus reality” became popular to explain how social media’s highlight-reel display of one’s life puts all users at risk of falling into a false comparison trap. The phrase also might shed light on misinformed expectations about happiness and the prevalence of negative emotions in life, as well as unpreparedness for dealing with real-world conflict and struggle. It could also make interacting with content from aspirational lifestyle influencers, or unproductive (if soothing) ideas, like “life is meaningless” memes, even more powerful.
“Social media and all media accelerates ideas, no matter what they are, and…our level of exposure and the rate of exposure is so far ahead of what it used to be,” Dr. Rosmarin says.
Research has also found that social media can promote feelings of isolation, and the pandemic only supercharged what experts have described as a loneliness epidemic. Dr. Neal-Barnett also attributes the shift in her students partly to the way the pandemic has fueled loneliness, with research finding that social isolation may emotionally stunt the brain.
“The idea of making eye contact and starting conversation with a stranger is becoming increasingly difficult for young people,” psychologist Lauren Cook, PsyD, author of Generation Anxiety: A Millennial and Gen Z Guide to Staying Afloat in an Uncertain World says. “We’re also seeing dating go down significantly for young adults. And I think all of these stats are concerning because people, when they feel that sense of loneliness, there is that increased sense of meaninglessness in life. We are such hardwired social creatures that if we’re not leaning into that, it makes sense why we are feeling so anxious and sad.”
Following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, demonstrations and online outspokenness from all people calling for a dismantling of white supremacy and a need for anti-racism peaked and then cooled, compounding this disorientation, stress, and nihilism, especially for Black people. “The belief was that we were going to have this great racial reckoning, and that didn’t occur,” Dr. Neal-Barnett says. But “it was only for a season—three months or six months—and so we’re back in this place of ‘Do we have meaning? Do we belong?’”
While the pandemic may have impacted young people’s experience of the present, concerns about the future may also be driving emotional upheaval.
“When we look at what really contributes to anxiety and depression, it’s this sense of hopelessness and it’s this sense of helplessness,” says Dr. Cook. She also attributes the impending nature of climate change, frequent incidences of gun violence, and financial hardships as just some of the things contributing to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness about the prospect of well, life. “Because anxiety is so future-focused much of the time, I think that’s a big part of why millennials and Gen Z, in particular, as they’re looking at their future and the years ahead, are just feeling very concerned and feeling like there’s little hope that it can get better.”
This experience can be exacerbated for people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and other historically marginalized groups. Experiencing racism or discrimination in life, watching it unfold on social media or in the news, or collectively witnessing tragic hate crimes, can drive home fears about your place in the world, or the feeling that the world does not value or care about you. “Racism, which can either function as a chronic stressor or as trauma, makes this worse,” Dr. Neal-Barnett says. “What happens when you continually see evidence that you don’t matter or that you are invisible?”
Even if living in the digital age has helped raise awareness about institutional racism, discrimination, the pandemic, environmental degradation, and more, none are new. But based on Dr. Rosmarin’s research and experience as a clinician, he’s found the ability to “withstand these challenges has substantially declined over the last years and decades.” Should simply “withstanding” really be the goal, though?
No rose-colored glasses: Young adults are being brutally honest
A now-deleted original post in the subreddit r/latestagecapitalism, re-posted on other social media channels including @f**kyouiquit, entitled “any other gen z workers finding it impossible to fathom the rest of our lives like this?” articulates what probably everyone who’s ever had to work for a living has thought silently to themselves sitting in traffic or in a cubicle at one time or another: This. Blows. And I’m supposed to do it for the rest of my life? Who on earth created this system and why do I have to be part of it?!
The post demonstrates a phenomenon experts agree on: Young people are saying the quiet parts out loud. “Young adults are more likely to talk openly about mental health, they are more likely to seek help from a doctor for mental health, and they are more likely to receive diagnoses and medications than in years past,” Dr. Jay says.
In many ways, this reflects hope for a positive future: “This system,” as the poster put it, is unfair. People—particularly lower income, LGBTQ+, and people of color—are suffering. Maybe more people experiencing and talking about the outrage of the drudgery of adult life under capitalism that’s leading to and exacerbating anxiety and existential dread can have a positive impact. From Hollywood to hotel workers to delivery drivers, we are in the midst of an unprecedented labor uprising, after all—with extraordinarily high levels of support coming from young people. The surge in negative emotions and feelings of anxiety—and unwillingness to accept both—might give people the language and mental health-provider support to deal with these emotions and work toward change, rather than drown them in nihilistic hopelessness.
However, some practitioners worry that young people may be overly focused on their negative emotions—to their own detriment. Many young people find out about or self-diagnose their problems based on bite-size videos they see on social media. Dr. Cook says this can lead to overpathologizing; often it’s not a diagnosable condition at play but normal—if unpleasant—emotions. Think: The difference between feeling anxious and having a generalized anxiety disorder, the latter being when feeling anxious gets in the way of doing things you would normally do.
“Someone can watch a TikTok and self-diagnose themselves in 30 seconds,” Dr. Cook says. “If you weren’t noticing or bothered by these symptoms until you watch a video and say, ‘ooh, actually, I think that’s me,’ that might be something to get curious about—how much [the self-diagnosed condition] actually was impacting your life and impairing your ability to function.”
Dr. Cook finds social media pathologization concerning because it can cause people to “over-identify” with a syndrome, ruminate on and exacerbate potential symptoms, and let a diagnosis act as a crutch allowing them to opt out of life. It may also minimize the experience of people suffering from more severe generalized anxiety disorders, she says.
‘Embrace the suck’
To Dr. Rosmarin, not letting anxiety or nihilism get the best of you and keep you from pursuing meaning in your life comes down to learning to swallow the idea that struggle is a part of life. “It’s usually easier to accept that things are going to suck at least part of the time, and sort of know that from the get-go, as opposed to trying to eliminate it from our lives, which is frankly futile and leaves us quite despondent and meaningless and nihilistic,” Dr. Rosmarin says.
That’s a hard pill for every generation to swallow, but the truth remains that Gen Z and younger millennials are having a hard time with this particular pill. Regardless of which generation in history has actually had it worse (or the worst), the question of how to help today’s young people still remains. And considering how to help could be part of an antidote to what Dr. Cook sees as one of the underlying problems fueling anxiety and nihilism, which is a lack of care for one another.
“We’re so on guard, we’re so on edge with each other, and I think that’s why these two generations are having such an increase in anxiety,” Dr. Cook says. “We really do need to have empathy for each other and put ourselves in the shoes of 20- and 30-year-olds who are living in this current situation. I think we’ve lost that just across the board, we’ve lost having some compassion for each other, which I really think we need.”
Increasing compassion and empathy—sharing that hey, maybe you’ve gone through this too—can help normalize feelings of anxiety and nihilism, and let people know that you can live with these emotions.
“When we feel anxious, we have a choice,” Dr. Rosmarin says. “We can sort of go into this negative place of ‘something’s wrong with me, the world sucks. This is not how it’s supposed to be. My brain is broken, I’m finished.’ Or we can put ourselves mentally into a place of, ‘oh, right, I’m not in control all the time. Sometimes my emotions get the better of me. I have to be humble and I have to accept that, and by the way, other people go through that, too. I’m going to be compassionate to them and I’m going to be compassionate to myself.’”
Living that would-be meaningful life by pursuing different career paths and forging relationships and taking risks and connecting—even if it does mean embracing, or at the very least muddling through, the suck—is itself the antidote to existential stress and despair.
“You will feel anxious sometimes, and that’s okay,” Dr. Cook says. “It’s learning how to live with that anxiety sometimes and not letting it stop you from leading what would be a meaningful life for you that matters.”
Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
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