Per George Orwell, “Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.”
If he were alive today, I would ask Orwell—does he think every generation imagines being more anxious than the one before it, more depressed than the one that comes after?
I would ask this as we tail-end millennials and high-end Gen Zers have experienced what many would consider more than our fair share of existential, uncontrollable, and terrifying threats at younger, more vulnerable ages than most. We have lived through the terrorist attacks of 9/11 while in elementary school and school shootings from elementary school through college. We have grown to accept the reality that the irreversible impacts of climate change not wrought solely by our generations are now ours with which to deal. And now we are enduring the ongoing global pandemic that many experts suggest is here to stay.
At ages 18 to 29, we are barely into adulthood.
All of this is to say that Harvard’s recent Youth Poll findings are, for most of us millennials and Gen Zers, completely unsurprising: 51% of us responded to having felt down, depressed, and hopeless—data that is in line with both CDC and NIH findings that depression and anxiety rates are more common and growing more among our age range than any other group. These findings also track with recent data related to substance use and the U.S. opioid epidemic which continues unabated, impacting millennials at higher rates than all other age groups.
This is part of the reason BPC’s work on integrating care is so important. The integration of primary care, mental health, and substance use services enhances access to behavioral health treatments and improves patient outcomes; Congress is likely to consider legislation to this effect in the coming year. Confronting existing and continuing workforce shortages should also be at the top of our minds, as should positioning our health system for the next pandemic.
Still, only time will tell if we 18- to-29-year-olds grow out of these rates of depression and anxiety with age or, even better, if we can accomplish something meaningful with our collective unease.
And I hope we do, as millennials alone have recently overtaken baby boomers as America’s largest generation; and because of a glimmer of hope in Harvard’s Youth Poll: 43% of respondents—Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike—prefer that their elected leaders meet in the middle on issues at the expense of the policy priorities favored by their respective parties.
This means that, should we be able to transform our widely shared anxieties and increase our generation’s level of civic engagement, we stand to have the largest political impact in years to come and, I hope, be the most bipartisan group of voters in decades.
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