Why Young People Are Languishing

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Glancing at the news, and the social zeitgeist, one may get the impression that the proverbial “battle of the sexes” is tilting toward women and against men. Everywhere you look, women appear to be making headway, while men are in retreat. Take work. The share of men in the workforce has seen a steady decline since the 1960s. “In 1979, only 13 percent of women earned more than the average man. Now, 40 percent of women earn more than the average man. Forty percent of U.S. households have a female breadwinner, quadruple the number a few decades ago.” writes Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The big shift in the labor market has been away from the kinds of jobs which could be done largely through physical strength, and/or with relatively low levels of education.” Further, growing sectors like health, education, and administration are increasingly dominated by women. He notes: “Among psychologists under the age of 30, only 5 percent are male. That’s a profession that was actually slightly male in the 1980s. Go back to 1980, and 40 percent of elementary and middle school teachers were male. Now it’s down to one in 10 in elementary schools.”

Or consider education. Research also shows an increasing gulf in educational attainment between girls and boys. In every U.S. state, young women are more likely than their male counterparts to have a bachelor’s degree. As Reeves reports, “In 1970, just 12 percent of young women (ages 25 to 34) had a bachelor’s degree, compared to 20 percent of men — a gap of eight percentage points. By 2020, that number had risen to 41 percent for women but only to 32 percent for men — a nine percentage-point gap, now going the other way.” The education gender gap emerges well before college, however:Girls are more likely to graduate high school on time and perform substantially better on standardized reading tests than boys (and about as well in math).”

Men’s problems extend beyond education and the workforce. While femininity is empowered in the age of #MeToo, values traditionally associated with masculinity are increasingly viewed as problematic, even “toxic” The APA’s guidelines on the treatment of men and boys go as far as to state that “traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful. Men socialized in this way are less likely to engage in healthy behaviors.”

And while they are less likely to be diagnosed with depression, men are killing themselves at increasing rates. According to National Center for Health Statistics (2016), the suicide rate for non-Hispanic American Indian and Alaska Native men jumped 38 percent between 1999 and 2014. For white men, suicide rates increased 28 percent in that time. A similar picture emerges regarding substance abuse. According to the NIH: “Men are more likely than women to use almost all types of illicit drugs, and illicit drug use is more likely to result in emergency department visits or overdose deaths for men than for women…For most age groups, men have higher rates of use or dependence on illicit drugs and alcohol than do women.”

This general sense that women are ascending compared to men is one reason that a new (2023) CDC report appears so jarring. According to the report, nearly all indicators of health and well-being worsened since 2011 for both boys and girls. The decline for girls, however, has been more pronounced. “Nearly 3 in 5 (57 percent) U.S. teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021—double that of boys, representing a nearly 60 percent increase and the highest level reported over the past decade.”

“While all teens reported increasing mental health challenges, experiences of violence, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors, girls fared worse than boys across nearly all measures…Youth mental health has continued to worsen—with particularly stark increases in widespread reports of harmful experiences among teen girls: Nearly 1 in 3 (30 percent) seriously considered attempting suicide—up nearly 60 percent from a decade ago. 1 in 5 (18 percent) experienced sexual violence in the past year—up 20 percent since 2017, when CDC started monitoring this measure. More than 1 in 10 (14 percent) had ever been forced to have sex—up 27 percent since 2019 and the first increase since CDC began monitoring this measure.”

Young people appear to be suffering across the board. Why?

Covid-19 may be one culprit. According to the CDC, in 2021 “more than a third (37 percent) of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44 percent reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.” Moreover, “more than half (55 percent) reported they experienced emotional abuse by a parent or other adult in the home… 11 percent experienced physical abuse. More than a quarter (29 percent) reported a parent or other adult in their home lost a job.” Climate change may also be a factor. Research has shown that young people are highly anxious about climate change, and for good reasons, as they are the ones who stand to bear the brunt of the effects.

Social media may be playing a role. “Smartphones were introduced in 2007, and by 2015 fully 92 percent of teens and young adults owned a smartphone. The rise in depressive symptoms correlates with smartphone adoption during that period,” observes psychologist Jean Twenge. Girls, more so than boys, have been found to be vulnerable to the negative effects of social media, particularly as pertains to incidents of depression.

Social media has two characteristics that predispose people to experience stress: They are addictive by design, and they remove the user from the live company of other people. In this, social media are quite different from earlier forms of entertainment such as TV or movies, which were communal and non-addictive. Social media also expose users to an unrelenting stream of information. That information is not random. In the service of commerce, social media privilege the type of information likely to attract users’ attention—that is, extremes both negative (terror, crime, mayhem we fear) and positive (beautiful rich people and places we envy). The combined effects of overwhelming amounts of extreme information consumed compulsively and in isolation are heightened levels of stress (“this is too much to process”), anxiety (“the world is going to hell”), and envy (“I can never measure up”).

Young people may be more stressed because they are facing great stressors: Covid-19, climate change, and the confounding digital age. At the same time, it is also possible that young people are less hardy and more emotionally fragile than their predecessors. Emotional fragility should not be confused with stupidity or weak character; teens today are more intelligent than their grandparents and by and large more well-behaved. As Derek Thompson writes in the Atlantic: “Since the 1990s, drinking-and-driving is down almost 50 percent. School fights are down 50 percent. Sex before 13 is down more than 70 percent. School bullying is down. And LGBTQ acceptance is up.”

The emotional fragility argument, however, is supported by several lines of evidence. For one, a sense of hopelessness, of the kind reported by the CDC, has been linked in the literature to lower levels of resilience. Moreover, the current moment is marked by what anthropologists call “cultural anomie,” the disorientation that follows periods of large abrupt social changes. Such changes cause a loss of cohesion and predictability, as old norms become irrelevant and new ones are yet nonexistent. Writes the anthropologist Sarah Anne Robinson: “Anomia exhibits self-centeredness, reduction in altruism and compassion, distrust of ‘others,’ apathy or hyperactivity or a vacillation between both, and can develop alienation and anger.” Social connectedness, of the kind undermined by cultural anomie, social media, and Covid-19, is a strong predictor of high resilience, while loneliness of the kind young people increasingly experience has been shown to predict low resiliency

Parenting, too, may factor in. Today’s parents are more involved with their children than in the past. Yet parents are conduits of culture. In an anxious, youth-obsessed, fractured, and competitive culture, parental over-involvement may be having the effect of making the parents more childish, rather than helping kids mature, and of making kids more anxious rather than more secure. Children often experience parental worry not as love (my mom cares about me), but as doubt (my mom believes I can’t handle it). Such parental doubt will often become a self-fulfilling prophecy, turning into self-doubt.

Finally, young people today are immersed in a cultural conversation that directs them to focus on content while neglecting to impart the importance of attending to process. To wit: APA’s (misguided) guidelines notwithstanding, traditionally masculine traits such as stoicism or competitiveness are not harmful in and of themselves, but only at the rigid extremes. The same, alas, is true for traditionally feminine traits like sensitivity and passivity. “John Henryism“—the inflexibly determined, “stiff upper lip” masculinity—is harmful to one’s health, but so is snowflakism—the extreme, inflexible allergic sensitivity to, and determined avoidance of, discomfort.

Mental resilience is not a function of content, but of adaptive and healthy—that is, flexible—process. It’s more about how you face problems than about what problems you face. While the global challenges they face are no doubt daunting, young people’s excessive vulnerability appears to represent a failure of our culture more than the fault of global circumstances.

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