Though millennials have been stereotyped for years as the group of young adults most sensitive and uncooperative, experts are saying issues that older generations have with them will pale in comparison to what’s ahead for Gen Z.
In fact, significant research is showing not only that there’s an ongoing mental health crisis in the United States and beyond, but that the effects of it are most transparent in young adults entering the workforce now. With the first class of them having just graduated, bosses and managers are finding themselves unprepared for a generation that thinks and works differently than any before.
Just this week, the journal JAMA Pediatrics reported that 1 in 7 young adults and children have mental health conditions, though only half are receiving treatment. It seems to align with data that’s been emerging over the past few years, which seems to identify a pattern: depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide are all rising rapidly in Gen Z.
Why is this happening? And what does it mean for those who are tasked to hire, manage and co-work with them?
How did we get here?
Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business and the co-author of the book “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure,” says that there are a few factors at play.
Haidt believes the issue has compounded on itself over time: in the 90s, American parents became much more protective of their children’s safety. Just as the crime rate was plummeting, play moved inside, onto screens, and kids came to be nearly always under adult supervision. This loss of free play and autonomy deprived kids of the kinds of experiences they most needed to grow strong and independent. These same kids then got heavily into social media beginning around 2010 — often while still in middle school. The heavy use of social media has been found to have some relationships with depression and anxiety, particularly for girls.
Now, these kids are graduating and are entering the workforce, and Haidt says that he believes many employers will have trouble understanding them and their needs. “The country is facing rising rates of anxiety, depression, and fragility among today’s teens and college students, many of whom have been surrounded by protective adults their entire lives. What will happen when they enter ‘the real world,’ where protections will be far fewer and demands will be much greater?”
What’s going wrong?
In the “Coddling of the American Mind,” which Haidt wrote with Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Haidt outlines three “terrible ideas” that are widespread in American culture and that are creating a weak and unstable foundation for young people to develop their mental health:
1. “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.”
This belief comes from the major misunderstanding that children and teenagers are “antifragile,” rather than fragile. This means that, like the immune system, it actually needs to experience adversity in order to develop. The more challenges we face, the more equipped we become to handle our lives, and the more confident we become that we can continue to do so in the face of the unknown.
2. “Always trust your feelings.”
Second, a feelings-based mode of operating makes for illogical and irrational behaviors and beliefs. While all feelings are valid — as in, they are something a person is experiencing — they are very often not true, as in, reflective of reality. Basing decisions and ideas on feelings is dangerous, because feelings are not always correct.
3. “Life is a battle between good and evil people.”
Lastly, the idea that life is a divisive battle between us vs. them is something we see throughout our politically polarized society, and these political passions have strongly influenced recent trends on many campuses. This way of thinking removes space for nuance, which is where most rational and logical thinking takes place. It leads people to tie their identity to their line of thinking, which makes them less capable of critically thinking, as it makes them associate someone challenging their ideas with challenging their dignity or personhood.
Though pervasive, these tenets are not only wrong, they’re psychologically damaging. The result of abiding by them? A generation that is more mentally fragile than ever before.
What do we do now?
It makes for an unproductive conversation to talk only about what’s wrong, without positing a potential solution. Thankfully, Haidt does have recommendations for everyone, from parents of small children to employers of young adults.
For parents of children who are under the age of 13, Haidt says it’s crucial to hand them back their childhood, and to encourage autonomous, unsupervised play time. “Kids learn most from acting on the world and receiving feedback from the world,” he says. “They don’t learn nearly as much by adults telling them how the world works.”
For Gen Z’ers themselves, it’s crucial to develop a more nuanced and deeper understanding of how their minds work, so they can better develop their sense of identity and place within the world. Haidt suggests looking into the concept of antifragility — which is the idea that people actually benefit from a healthy degree of adversity — and allowing oneself to be consistently exposed to criticism, conflict, challenge and failure. Doing this will either strengthen your preexisting beliefs and ideas, or open you up to new ones. In the process, it will help you learn to be rational rather than emotional, especially when it comes to issues that have nothing to do with your feelings.
For those companies beginning to hire Gen Z employees, Haidt says it’s most people’s instinct to be kind and accommodating — which is, undoubtedly, important — but it is also essential to define the moral narrative under which the business operates and to stand by it. “Leaders should emphasize that we are all in this together, we are all imperfect, and we are all subject to confirmation bias and motivated reasoning, we are all trying to make it through a politically difficult time in our country, so we all need to take it easier on each other,” he said. “Be slower to judge, quicker to forgive.”
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