A few months ago, two friends and I organized an online art exhibition around the theme of mental health for a project management class; we gathered photographs, poems, and paintings from students, and we were struck by how much they had to say about mental health and their experiences at such a young age. This led me to think about what it actually means to grow up in the twenty-first century – and how the experiences associated with it have shaped today’s youth. How does uncertainty and the hyperconnected world affect the leaders of tomorrow?
The people around me, including the artists I spoke to, belong to a generation that has seen many unshakable truths crumble after experiencing economic recession, political turmoil, a global pandemic, and not unimportantly, the digitalization of all facets of life and the unprecedented rise of social media, as well as the increasingly clear effects of climate change – not to mention globalization as a whole. I’ve personally gotten a little tired of the continuous use of the word “unprecedented” (as I explained in this previous article a few months ago, which details the use of face masks during the Spanish flu pandemic after World War I). There is plenty of reason to believe that pandemics will become a more frequent phenomenon as a result of climate change (Lustgarten, 2020), and many of the processes associated with globalization appear to be permanent (and even irreversible, regardless of whether that is a good or a bad thing; Shangquan, 2000) – in other words, marking certain phenomena that are shaping our current worldview as “unprecedented” and thereby abnormal sets certain expectations for future events that may not be met. However, there is no denying that there are elements of our daily lives that have contributed to our experiences being different from any of our ancestors.
It’s hard to miss in many countries – tuition fees go up, there is not enough affordable housing, social security systems shrink in the face of austerity politics, mental health issues among millennials and gen Z are rampant (McArthur, Racine & Madigan, 2021). Issues like youth unemployment and expensive housing, and especially more general problems like political unrest and economic instability, are of course now new. However, it is their inherent connection to the reality of a globalized, hyperconnected world that makes them much more complex and volatile than ever before (Fagernas & Singh, 2006). There is a reason behind the gradual shift from traditional, military understandings of security, for instance, to a more holistic conceptualization of human security (Tadjbakhsh & Chenoy, 2007) – the threats and insecurities that affect us today are simply not the same as they were 100 (or even 50) years ago. This is especially important because of that interconnectivity aspect; climate change, for example, is often considered as a threat amplifier, which may not directly lead to a totally different problem in a linear, A-to-B manner, but rather makes other issues more problematic, either in urgency or in complexity (Huynen et al., 2013). In other words, the shift towards a new conceptualization of what security really means in this day and age is not only necessary and important, but also indicative of larger changes at a more general societal level.
Is it really a surprise, then, that many people – including millennials and Gen Z youth – are reporting feelings of uncertainty and anxiety? Developing a better understanding of security and updating its definition to be more appropriate for the twenty-first century does not necessarily mean that our feelings of insecurity are alleviated. Feelings of “eco-anxiety” and doubts about financial security go hand-in-hand with mentions of adolescents, young adults, and even children in news headlines (Wu et al., 2020). Additionally, while the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly contributed to loneliness among all demographics, it appears that young adults are especially affected, partially because of the lost access to communities (e.g. at school, work, and “chosen family” once moved out) that are so crucial to maintaining a good base level of mental health (Walsh, 2021). The sudden removal from one’s social circles can therefore be especially detrimental at a stage of life that is already full of transition and change.
There are many frustrating things about growing up in a world that seems to have lost many of the certainties it once had, whether that’s being able to walk into a random building and walk out with a 9-to-5 job, a social network that is limited to one or two towns, rather than the whole world, or a more lenient higher education system. However, I think there is also reason to believe that all these drastic changes have shaped young people today into an exceptionally resilient generation that has learned to adapt to ever-changing circumstances – such an environment encourages the development of so-called soft skills, which are becoming of increasing importance as more and more tasks are automated and even removed altogether from the workplace (Schulz, 2008), and leads to an increased awareness of global affairs as young people develop an international perspective. In the face of uncertainty, this display of resilience, be it professional or mental, should be celebrated.
Fagernas, S., & Singh, A. (2006). “Globalization, Instability, and Economic Insecurity.” Revue Tiers Monde, 186(2), pp. 391-420. https://doi.org/10.3917/rtm.186.0391
Huynen, M., Martens, P., & Akin, S. (2013). “Climate Change: An Amplifier of Existing Health Risks in Developing Countries.” Environment, Development and Sustainability, 15, pp. 1425-1442. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10668-013-9450-4
Lustgarten, A. (May 7, 2020). “How Climate Change is Contributing to Skyrocketing Rates of Infectious Disease.” ProPublica. https://www.propublica.org/article/climate-infectious-diseases
McArthur, B. A., Racine, N., & Madigan, S. (2021). “Child and Youth Mental Health Problems Have Doubled During COVID-19.” The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/child-and-youth-mental-health-problems-have-doubled-during-covid-19-162750
Schulz, B. (2008). “The Importance of Soft Skills: Education Beyond Academic Knowledge.” Journal of Language and Communication, pp. 146-154.
Shangquan, G. (2000). “Economic Globalization: Trends, Risks and Risk Prevention.” CDP Background Paper No. 1 (ST/ESA/2000/CDP/1).
Tadjbakhsh, S., & Chenoy, A. M. (2007). Human Security: Concepts and Implications. London: Routledge.
Walsh, C. (2021). “Young Adults Hardest Hit by Loneliness During Pandemic.” The Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/02/young-adults-teens-loneliness-mental-health-coronavirus-covid-pandemic/
Wu, J., Snell, G., & Samji, H. (2020). “Climate Anxiety in Young People: A Call to Action.” The Lancet Planetary Health, 4(10), pp. 435-436. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(20)30223-0