People in Their 20s Aren’t Supposed to Be This Unhappy

Sian Leah Beilock was playing goalkeeper for an elite soccer team in California, part of the Olympic development program, when she became aware that one of the national coaches was standing behind the net, scrutinizing her performance. Soon after, she let a ball get by her into the net. Her team lost. “I choked under the pressure of those evaluative eyes on me,” she recounted in a TEDMed talk in 2017.

Impelled in part by that upsetting experience, she went on to earn degrees in cognitive science, psychology and kinesiology. She wrote a book about choking and how to avoid it. And in a career in academic governance, she prioritized students’ mental health. Last Friday she was inaugurated as the first female president of Dartmouth College. In her inaugural address, she stated that wellness would be her first area of focus. “The single greatest service we can do for our students, our faculty and our staff is to support them on their wellness journeys,” she said.

A few days before that address, Beilock was shown some data that confirmed her resolve to focus on wellness. It came from David Blanchflower, an economics professor at Dartmouth who has developed an academic specialty in happiness and well-being. Blanchflower shared two charts with me this week and I am now sharing them with you. They are remarkable — and disturbing.

As a preface: There’s a truism in happiness studies that stress and despair peak in middle age; the young and the old are mentally healthier. But the mental health of young people has deteriorated. In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nearly three in five teenage girls felt persistent sadness in 2021.

What Blanchflower spotted is that the middle-age hump of unhappiness has gone away entirely, with adulthood unhappiness now worst at the very beginning. “This is a completely new thing,” Blanchflower told me.

The data come from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System surveys of the C.D.C. One question asks, “Now thinking about your mental health, which includes stress, depression, and problems with emotions, for how many days during the past 30 days was your mental health not good?” The percentages in these charts are for people who answered 30 out of 30 — no good days at all. Blanchflower terms that “despair.”

There’s a lot of noise in the data so don’t pay much attention to the yearly squiggles. The big picture for both sexes is clear: A serious deterioration in the mental health of young people in 2019 to 2023 compared with the baseline of 1993 to 2018.

The mental health challenges of the young have motivated powerful columns by my colleagues in the Opinion section, including Nicholas Kristof, Pamela Paul and Maureen Dowd. What I’m contributing is data showing just how bad things have gotten.

The obvious question is, why? Blanchflower said the mental health of 20-somethings began to deteriorate noticeably around 2011. That made some sense because the United States was in a jobless recovery; the high unemployment rate made it hard for young people to find good jobs — or any jobs. He said he doesn’t fully understand why things continued to worsen as the job market strengthened. But he said, confirming others’ research, that the Covid lockdown was a fresh blow to young people’s mental health. Immersion in social media is another popular explanation, propounded by the psychologist Jean Twenge and others.

On Thursday, Dartmouth is hosting a conference on mental health that will bring together Dr. Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general, with all six of his living predecessors in the position. According to Dartmouth, it will be the first such convention since an event at Johns Hopkins University in 1998 recognizing the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Ahead of the mental health conference, I interviewed Beilock, the Dartmouth president, as well as Lisa McBride, the associate dean for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine.

McBride convened several surgeons general when she worked at Texas Christian University in 2020, so it felt natural to her to bring even more of them together at Dartmouth after her arrival on campus last year. She’s focused on the medical school, but she said the challenge is campuswide.

Beilock said Blanchflower’s data “reaffirmed the approach we’re taking, which is that we have to make mental health central to what we’re doing at Dartmouth.” She added: “We all need help from time to time. These are some of the next leaders of our country, of government and business. We need to help them feel OK so they can know how to help the people around them.”

Elsewhere: Laptops and Kitchen Tables

The chart below is the best long-term record yet of the remarkable increase in the amount of time Americans spend working from home — from 0.4 percent in 1965 to 61.5 percent in May 2020 to a still very high 28.1 percent this June. The chart will appear in the fall issue of The Journal of Economic Perspectives in an article by José María Barrero of the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, Nicholas Bloom of Stanford and Steven J. Davis of the Hoover Institution and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

The authors assembled the chart from multiple, not fully compatible, surveys. “It took a fair bit of work to harmonize across the four data sets, as best we could,” Davis wrote to me in an email. They found that the information sector has the highest work-from-home rate, at 2.6 days per week among employees who work at least five days a week.

Working from home has its problems, especially for employers, they wrote. But going to the office isn’t always great, either. “First, there is an opportunity cost to chatting with your co-worker in the next-door office: You could be collaborating with your faraway co-author via Zoom,” they wrote. “It is hardly obvious that serendipitous encounters in the workplace foster innovation better than planned encounters selected from a much larger universe.”

Quote of the Day

“The early days of online trade were bursting with possibility. Competition flourished. A newly connected nation saw a wide-open frontier where anyone with a good idea would have a fair shot at success. Today, however, this wide-open frontier has been enclosed. A single company, Amazon, has seized control over much of the online retail economy.”

— Complaint by the Federal Trade Commission and 17 states in a lawsuit against Amazon (Sept. 26, 2023)

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