A recent study from the Census Bureau shows that about half of Americans reported symptoms of depression in early May, double that from a similar study in 2013-2014. In one sense, that’s unsurprising; nearly 100,000 people have died of covid-19, and more than 30 million have lost their jobs. What might be surprising, however, is that symptoms of psychological distress are directly correlated with age. The younger the person, the likelier he or she is to experience mental health issues.
The data are stark on this point. Among those aged 18 to 29, 42% reported symptoms of anxiety and 36% had symptoms of depression. Those numbers decline with each successive age cohort, reaching their low points among respondents 80 years old or older. Only 11% of the most elderly had anxiety symptoms, and only 9% presented as depressed.
This may be counterintuitive, since the elderly are most at risk of dying of covid-19. But it becomes less surprising after considering the impacts of the measures taken to fight the pandemic. The shutdown has devastated the economy, and younger workers have borne the brunt of the layoffs. According to one study, workers under 25 years of age are 93% more likely to have lost their jobs than those over 35. The most recent unemployment report bears this out: More than a quarter of workers between 18 and 24 are unemployed, roughly double the rate of workers 25 or older.
Millions of college students were also forced to go home as campuses closed. Moving is tough at any time, but moving from a largely independent life to one with enforced dependency is even more stressful. These students also had to suddenly deal with the first economic crisis of their adult lives, worrying about their immediate or future job prospects as they went overnight from the hottest labor market in U.S. history to the coldest.
The shutdown also crushed their social lives. Most people over 30 are married or in a stable, adult relationship, so they have someone to socialize with during a shutdown. Being with the same person 24/7 has its stresses, but being alone all the time can be far worse. Restrictions on bars and social gatherings also disproportionally took away the socializing activities of the younger set. For many young people, the sudden loss of human contact and economic security is just too much.
This almost certainly has been a reason for the much criticized flouting of social distancing rules over Memorial Day weekend. The pictures of people crammed together drinking were almost uniformly younger — the same people most in need of respite. Older people look at those pictures and see potential disease carriers. Younger people see them as a picture of saving themselves.
Policymakers are almost all immune to these experiences. Governors, mayors and members of President Donald Trump’s team are mostly people in their middle ages or more advanced years. They haven’t lost their jobs, and they don’t stay locked in a room with no one to talk to. It’s natural their views are affected by their own experiences. That is potentially a huge problem for the nation.
This paradoxically creates an opportunity for Trump. While younger voters have tended to be the most hostile to him throughout his presidency, he is also the leading figure in favor of letting them return to a world where they can have hope and happiness again. Many pundits have noted that Biden is doing better than expected in polls among senior citizens, but those same polls also show Trump doing better than expected among the young. Those trends might be related.
The mental health plight of the young ought to be of prime concern to all regardless of the political impacts. The risk aversion and desire for creature comforts that characterized the generations that came of age during the Great Depression and World War II affected American life for decades. If today’s young are similarly traumatized by the pandemic, covid-19 will haunt us for the rest of the century.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.