The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic appear to be hitting young people the hardest, according to new research. Concerns about the virus itself, combined with economic anxiety and loneliness, have resulted in members of Generation Z and Millennials feeling more despondent than their older counterparts.
Differences in Age Groups
Between Oct. 28 and Nov. 9, 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau reached out to over 1 million Americans who live alone and asked them questions about their mental health. After analyzing the nearly 60,000 responses, the agency found that adults between the ages of 18 and 44 reported higher rates of both anxiety and depression than individuals 45 and older.
Adults ages 18-29 and 30-44 indicated feeling anxious in equal amounts, with 50 percent of each group reporting symptoms. Depression appeared in similar numbers for individuals in these two age groups: 45 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds and 40 percent of 30- to 44-year-olds admitted to experiencing it. In contrast, the other two age groups (45-64 and 65 and older) reported far fewer symptoms of both anxiety and depression.
Not surprisingly, the recession has significantly impacted mental health. Fifty-one percent of survey respondents of all age groups who lost or expected to lose employment income reported experiencing anxiety, and about 44 percent reported symptoms of depression.
Sources of Anxiety and Depression
Students’ and emerging professionals’ unique experience throughout the pandemic could be a perfect storm for anxiety and depression. Current students feel increasingly isolated from their peers and school itself. “In the beginning, it was new and they spent more time with family, which was a good thing, but now they feel isolated,” said Debbie Mackey, SHRM-SCP, distinguished lecturer at the University of Tennessee’s Haslam College of Business in Knoxville and an advisor for the school’s Society for Human Resource Management student chapter. “They feel disconnected from campus and socially.”
Mackey, who has surveyed her students about their overall mental health, also noted that many of them are concerned about their productivity while working from home. “If you’re doing work at home for your class and maybe even your internship, the lines get blurred and you feel like you’re not doing a good job,” she said. “So, they felt like it just affected everything.”
Holly Coffin, director of career experiences at Elmhurst University in Elmhurst, Ill., noted that many students who were set to graduate in 2020 had a sudden, rude awakening. Elmhurst hosted a career fair in early March 2020, and students saw their job prospects evaporate just weeks later. “You had internships that didn’t turn into jobs, and some had [job prospects] that just came to a halt in the middle of the interviewing process,” she explained.
Coffin saw many students thrown for a loop as they missed out on crucial activities in their senior year and then were forced to begin a job hunt in the middle of a global disaster. “It just kind of blew up in front of them, and then you tack on trying to find a job. I think that a lot of them went into a freeze mode,” she said.
Samantha DeRango, a marketing and interdisciplinary communications major who graduated from Elmhurst in May 2020, experienced these struggles firsthand. In mid-March 2020, she was in consideration for jobs at two different companies. Ultimately, both companies implemented hiring freezes and one of them laid off the recruiter she had been working with. “So, not only were they not hiring anymore because of COVID, but they had no idea who I was because the person who had found me didn’t even work there anymore,” she said.
DeRango said she experienced anxiety and depression before 2020, and the pandemic and recession only made things harder. After graduation, she moved back home with her family, struggled to find a job, and then lost her grandfather and other family members to COVID-19. Additionally, her mother is at high risk for catching the virus. “I was worried about getting a loved one sick that maybe could not recover,” she said. “And, of course, a loss is hard. But for me personally, it’s just harder to see other people grieve.”
The loneliness also got to DeRango, primarily because many of the ways she had learned to cope with depression and anxiety over the years had essentially been taken away. “Being able to sit with my friends and just watch a TV show I look forward to every week … I couldn’t do that anymore,” she said.
DeRango still counts herself among the lucky ones in her age group in that she had job opportunities come up and recently accepted a marketing position. “I had a company reach out to me on LinkedIn that I really liked, and they made me an offer,” she said. “So I took it, and I’m now working full time.”
Outlook for 2021
Recent developments—most notably the COVID-19 vaccine—have provided young professionals with some hope for the future. The prospect of eventually being able to see friends, family and colleagues again without having to social distance or wear masks is appealing.
Mackey believes that vaccinations will be mandatory for university students and faculty once enough doses are available. She believes that most students will get the vaccine as soon as they can, simply because it could mean a return to normal life. “They miss the social interaction and everything needed to have a somewhat normal graduation,” she said. “So the majority of them that I’ve talked to plan to get the vaccine.”