Gen Z’s Mid-Life Crisis – The Health Care Blog


These are not happy times in America.

Now, I’m not thinking about the increasing cultural wars, the endless political bickering, the troubles in the Med-East or Ukraine, the looming threat of climate crisis, or the omnipresent campaigning for the November 2024 elections, although all those play a part. I’m talking about quantifiable data, from the latest World Happiness Report. It found that America has slipped out of the top 20 countries for the first time, falling to 23rd – behind countries like Slovenia and the U.A.E. and barely ahead of Mexico or Uruguay.

Even worse, the fall in U.S. scores is primarily due to those under 30. They ranked 62nd, versus Americans over 60, who ranked 10th. A decade ago those were reversed. Americans aged 30-44 were ranked 42nd for their age group globally, while Americans between the ages 45-59 ranked 17th.

It’s not solely a U.S. phenomenon. Overall, young people are now the least happy, and the report comments: “This is a big change from 2006-10, when the young were happier than those in the midlife groups, and about as happy as those aged 60 and over. For the young, the happiness drop was about three-quarters of a point, and greater for females than males.”

“I have never seen such an extreme change,” John Helliwell, an economist and a co-author of the report, told The New York Times, referring to the drop in happiness among younger people. “This has all happened in the last 10 years, and it’s mainly in the English-language countries. There isn’t this drop in the world as a whole.”

Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, director of the University of Oxford’s Wellbeing Research Center and an editor of the report, said in an interview with The Washington Post that the findings are concerning “because youth well-being and mental health is highly predictive of a whole host of subjective and objective indicators of quality of life as people age and go through the course of life.”

As a result, he emphasized: “in North America, and the U.S. in particular, youth now start lower than the adults in terms of well-being. And that’s very disconcerting, because essentially it means that they’re at the level of their midlife crisis today and obviously begs the question of what’s next for them?”

Gen Z is having a mid-life crisis.

The researchers speculate that social media, political polarization, and economic inequality between generations contribute to the low scores for younger Americans. Jon Clifton, CEO of Gallup, believes: “Young people have more social interactions, but feel more lonely,” and that they aren’t as connected to their job, churches, or other institutions.

“One factor, which we’re all thinking about, is social media,” Dr. Robert Waldinger, the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, said in a NYT interview,. “Because there’s been some research that shows that depending on how we use social media, it lowers well-being, it increases rates of depression and anxiety, particularly among young girls and women, teenage girls.”

Others note the impact of the pandemic. Professor De Neve said: “general negative trend for youth well-being in the United States [was] exacerbated during covid, and youth in the U.S. have not recovered from the drop.” Similarly, Lorenzo Norris, an associate professor of psychiatry at George Washington University, who was not part of the World Happiness study, told NYT:

The literature is clear in practice — the effect that this had on socialization, pro-social behavior, if you will, and the ability for people to feel connected and have a community. Many of the things that would have normally taken place for people, particularly high school young adults, did not take place. And that is still occurring.

“It’s a very complex time for youth, with lots of pressures and a lot of demands for their attention,” Professor De Neve diplomatically observed.  It was not true in all countries that younger people were the unhappiest, and Professor De Neve suggests: “I think we can try and dig into why the U.S. is coming down in terms of wellbeing and mental health, but we should also try and learn from what, say, Lithuania is doing well.”

Did you ever expect Lithuania might be a role model for our young people?

Professor Helliwell told CNN that young people are reflecting what is going on around them: “Almost whatever institution you’re in, people in North America seem to be fighting over rights, responsibilities and who should be doing what to improve things and who is to blame for things not going well in the past.”

Amidst all the gloomy findings, the report did say: “The COVID crisis led to a worldwide increase in the proportion of people who have helped others in need. This increase in benevolence has been large for all generations, but especially so for those born since 1980, who are even more likely than earlier generations to help others in need.” They may be less happy, but Gen Z and millennials aren’t less charitable.

So there’s that.

Honestly, if young people aren’t depressed, they’re not paying attention. Social media is dominating their lives, whether Instagram is making them feel depressed or TikTok is driving them to harmful mental health content. They can see the impacts of climate change but not any sign that their elders plan to do anything about it. Their jobs are neither satisfying nor economically viable enough to allow them to build wealth, especially when suffering from crushing student loans. They don’t expect Social Security to help with their retirement, whenever that may be and whatever that might look like. They have no reason to think that the largely geriatric politicians understand them or their needs.

And when it comes to health care, they can see the attacks on women’s health, the inadequate support for mental health, and the gap in technology versus in the rest of their lives.

They have every reason not to be happy. 

The thing about mid-life crises is that they’re supposed to happen, you know, mid-life. Youth is supposed to be a time of optimism and exploration, of wanting to change the world. If current youth is already unhappy, we can’t assume they will grow happier, like those of us over 60 seem to have. This is the America we’re bequeathing them; the question is, are we OK with that?

Maybe a trip to Lithuania isn’t a bad idea after all.

Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented, and now regular THCB contributor

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