Generation Z’s angst the same as parents’ yet different

Young face difficult mix: high living costs and precarious employment prospects

Twenty-five per cent of young people born in Ireland in the late 1990s who were surveyed for the Growing Up in Ireland survey reported clinically significant depressive symptoms.

Twenty-five per cent of young people born in Ireland in the late 1990s who were surveyed for the Growing Up in Ireland survey reported clinically significant depressive symptoms.

 

Our view of what is normal is bound by time and place. Now, given the substantial percentages of young people reporting symptoms of stress and depression in the Growing Up in Ireland survey, you can’t help but wonder if feeling overwhelmed is the new normal.

According to the survey, published last week, a substantial minority of young people born in Ireland in the late 1990s – 25 per cent – reported clinically significant depressive symptoms, and a similar proportion reported feeling stressed.

Comparisons with young people from previous generations offer interesting insights. A 1987 survey of 20-24-year-olds found that about one in eight had clinically significant psychological symptoms. The rate was much higher, one in four, among those actively seeking their first job or those who were unemployed at the time of the survey.

We tend to think about development in terms of milestones. For example, we expect that young children will be able to attend school and that they will not be unduly distressed by the experience. Achieving this milestone allows children to acquire new skills and expand their social horizons.

Independence

We expect older children and teenagers to be capable of managing themselves for increasing periods of time. Achieving this allows teenagers to become more independent and expands their social world beyond the purview of their parents.

A key milestone for young adults is making their own way in the world. Young adults work to take on this challenge and want to become financially independent, become autonomous and, in our culture, set up their own home. The new survey bears out this idea: the main concerns of 20-year-olds centre on securing housing and making a living.

Employment and education offer a sense of purpose and control over the future. They also offer young people new social networks. As young people leave school, many elements of their existing social networks splinter.

Work or training offers a new vehicle for social engagement and new opportunities for social contact. These are important fringe benefits. Loneliness was reported as a key source of distress in the Growing up in Ireland survey. And it is an important issue linked to mental health for Generation Z as it was for the young people’s parents in the 1980s.

But there are also differences this time. In particular the young people surveyed in Growing up in Ireland appear, overall, to have poorer mental health that that reported by their mothers .

However, this does not seem to have been the case in 1987. That study suggested that clinically significant mental health symptoms were higher in the general adult population than among young people.

We don’t know why but we do know that the 1980s were a difficult decade with global and national recessions and it seems to have worried everybody, not just young people. One reason may have been the soaring interest rates, which were not a feature of the downturn that followed the 2007 financial crash. Every household and business was squeezed.

The ultra-low interest rates that characterised post-crash Ireland may have cushioned the blow on households this time around but at the same time young people are presented with a difficult mix: high living costs and precarious employment prospects.

And studies in Ireland and across the European Union find that these issues are a particular concern for young people who are not in employment or education. This group has three times the rate of mental health symptoms compared with those who are meaningfully occupied with work or education.

Powerlessness

There are particular reasons why young people who are not in education or employment are at particular risk of mental health problems. At this crucial learning point in their lives, not being in training or employment leaves young people with a sense of powerlessness in the job market. And those born into the lowest socioeconomic groups are those most likely to fall out of the employment and training net. The system fails them and then they feel like they have failed.

Over the last decade, the debate about mental health has increasingly focused on people’s emotional state and distress. Many interventions and treatments focus on symptoms rather than causes. This is understandable, of course. When faced with distress we are often moved to act, eager to help.

However, it is equally important, or perhaps even more important, to focus on the causes of rising reports of psychological distress. Indeed, if we are serious about promoting mental health, it is imperative.

Orla Muldoon is professor of psychology at University of Limerick

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