Not only has Covid-19 led to a tragic loss of life around the world, but it has also caused immense psychological strain. Individuals have coped with grief, adapted to social isolation, and reconfigured the way they work, all at the same time. The portion of American adults exhibiting signs of an anxiety disorder leaped from 8% in 2019 to a peak of 36% by December 2020. The pandemic has undoubtedly been an example of what sociologists call a “collective trauma” event.
However, stress levels have been rising for some time now, particularly for younger generations. Although longitudinal data over an extended time period is sparse, even in the last decade, the reported stress levels across generations has started to diverge. Generation X, Generation Y, also known as millennials, and Generation Z no longer experience the steady decline in stress that has historically been associated with aging (see Figure 5.1).
Stress levels are diverging across generations
Unlike older cohorts, younger generations are grappling with a new mix of stressors. The combination of slowing economic growth, rising inequality, and declining housing affordability across the West has made it far more difficult for younger workers to attain financial stability. The dark sides of recent technological progress add to these challenges: Email blurs the lines between work and personal time, an issue only compounded by working from home. Social media pushes younger generations to constantly compare their lifestyles with those of their peers. And the acceleration of innovation cycles creates the illusion of life at twice the speed.
Younger workers have also been exposed to broader turbulence over the past decade, including greater political polarization, geopolitical tensions, and concerns about climate change, not to mention a pandemic. The lives of younger generations are characterized by a far higher degree of ambiguity and uncertainty—and they simply haven’t been educated on how to cope with it.
Of all these issues, the economic stressors matter most to young workers. When we asked workers across Western markets to share their biggest concerns for the next 5 to 10 years, 61% of respondents under 35 cited financial issues, job security, or failing to meet their career goals. Only 40% of those over 35 cited the same concerns.