Twenty years ago, America’s young people were among the country’s happiest. That made sense, given they’re the group with the least responsibilities, best health, most opportunity and most freedom. Yet today, young people are among the nation’s unhappiest.
A Harvard-led study examined a dozen self-reported measures of well-being among Americans 18 and older, including mental health, physical health, happiness, a sense of meaning, social connectedness and financial stability. Across the board, respondents age 18 to 25 were the unhappiest, those age 77 and older were the happiest and those in between fell somewhere in the middle.
“What young people need to feel happy and satisfied with their lives isn’t different from any other generation,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “They’ve grown up in unprecedented times of political, economic and public health crises and want stability and the opportunity to make a difference. A career with LIUNA can provide that.”
What’s surprising is that these results contradict the findings of most similar studies. In the past, researchers have consistently found that younger and older people are happier than those in their middle years. It’s speculated this was due to life struggles unique to midlifers – raising children, dealing with aging parents, feeling stuck in their careers and possibly going through a midlife crisis. Now, older people are still performing well on all metrics. However, young people, despite being in their so-called prime years, are showing record levels of dissatisfaction.
Why Are Young People Struggling?
There are a variety of factors at play, including current economic conditions. As thousands of young adults face enormous student debt, rampant inflation and rising housing costs, many feel a sense of hopelessness and instability when it comes to their finances. In fact, 86 percent of surveyed Gen Zers say they want to purchase their own home one day, but 74 percent of them believe financial obstacles – not having enough savings for a downpayment, not having good enough credit or having too much student debt – will make it challenging for them to do so.
A turbulent political climate also plays a role. As we are inundated with bad news about climate change, wars overseas and public health crises, it’s easy for people to feel more fearful of the future. Every age group is confronting these issues, but it appears younger people are bearing a particularly heavy emotional burden. In contrast to older generations who already have established careers and communities, young adults are trying to start their lives and establish themselves in a time that feels threatening, unstable and frankly a little hopeless.
The study’s authors cite a lack of community and sense of belonging as a key player in youth unhappiness, with the youngest group reporting extremely low feelings of social connectedness. This isn’t surprising given the timing of the survey being post-COVID. During the pandemic, people all over the globe experienced an increase in loneliness. Many young people believe the pandemic and forced social isolation took a chunk of their youth. Researchers note that while the pandemic took an emotional toll on all age groups, it exacerbated an existing mental health and well-being crisis among young folks in particular.
What Are the Solutions?
It’s well-documented that having a robust social network is integral to feeling happy and satisfied. These social connections – which can include family, friends, colleagues and anyone you have shared interests and experiences with – can help you cope with difficult challenges, solve problems and celebrate the good moments of life. Belonging to these communities can help provide a sense of belonging, which can create a stronger sense of purpose in life.
One important support network that might go overlooked is the workplace. The average person spends about one third of their life at work. The workplace can have a huge impact on your quality of life and many people even see their coworkers as a second family. This particular phenomenon is common within construction and building trades unions. For many LIUNA members, the union provides a sense of camaraderie, brother-and-sisterhood and belonging. Many young people want to work where they feel valued, cared for and are part of a strong team. The construction industry, specifically a career with the Laborers, can provide that strong culture and connection.
A career in the skilled trades can open up a new world of financial opportunity for young people. A career with LIUNA provides competitive wages, excellent health and retirement benefits and career advancement opportunities, all without needing to accrue thousands of dollars in student debt. For many members, this kind of career has made it possible to afford a house, start a family and live the kind of life they want. Maybe what it takes to address some of young people’s unhappiness isn’t too far-fetched after all.