Wellbeing and Mental Health

A generation adrift: Why young people are less happy and what we can do about it

Building connections across cultures can help bolster happiness and mental health.

Building connections across cultures can help bolster happiness and mental health. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Andrew Moose
Head of Health and Wellness, World Economic Forum
Ruma Bhargava
Lead, Mental Health, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare
  • Youth happiness is in decline worldwide, due to a combination of social, economic, technological and ecological pressures.
  • This drop-off will have future economic and health consequences.
  • Sustained healthcare, education and social media reforms must be implemented to support young people.

We live in a world where teenagers grapple with a sense of crisis before adulthood; a time when young people, historically beacons of optimism, report lower happiness than their elders.

In the “seven ages of man” depicted in As You Like It, Shakespeare painted later life stages as melancholic, but the latest World Happiness Report unveils a concerning reality: young people worldwide now report lower happiness levels than their elders. Since 2006, levels of reported youth happiness have declined in North America, South America, Europe, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

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Several factors contribute to this decline, as highlighted by the report and further research:

1. Economic challenges

  • Rising costs. Young people face a steeper climb to prosperity than previous generations. Housing, education and healthcare affordability can be major roadblocks to financial security and overall well-being. Student loan debt and stagnant wages further squeeze their finances, delaying milestones like home ownership and starting families, which contribute to feelings of accomplishment and stability. This isn't just a Western phenomenon; a 2022 World Bank report found rising housing costs are also a major concern for young adults in developing economies like Brazil and India.
  • Job market. The gig economy and precarious work arrangements offer less security and benefits compared to traditional careers. This lack of stability makes financial planning difficult and increases anxiety about the future. A 2023 report by the International Labour Organization found youth unemployment rates remain stubbornly high across developed economies, and are even worse in developing countries.

2. Social and technological pressures

  • Social media. While offering connection, social media can fuel inadequacy and social comparison. A 2022 study found a strong correlation between increased social media use and symptoms of depression and loneliness in young adults, likely a global trend.
  • Social isolation. Despite online connections, young people might experience a lack of strong, in-person relationships due to factors like decreased leisure time, geographical mobility or social anxieties. Feeling disconnected from a supportive community can negatively impact happiness.

3. Uncertainty and anxiety

  • Climate change. The looming threat of climate change weighs heavily on younger generations. They inherit a world beset with environmental challenges and may feel a lack of control or agency to address them.
  • Political polarization. Increased societal and political divisions can fuel anxiety and hopelessness. Witnessing constant negativity can be emotionally draining. A 2023 UNICEF report found young people in conflict zones around the world, like Syria and Yemen, report particularly high levels of anxiety and depression.

The report reveals a geographical and inequality disparity. In Norway, Sweden, Germany, France, the UK, and Spain, older adults report higher happiness than the young, while Portugal and Greece show the opposite trend. It further shows young people across North America are now measurably less content than their elders. Inequality of happiness has also increased in every region with the exception of Europe, which may soon follow this "historic" and "disconcerting" shift.

The consequences could be catastrophic if left unaddressed. As the report notes: "To think that in some parts of the world children are already experiencing the equivalent of a midlife crisis demands immediate policy action." When happiness wanes, so does motivation, productivity, health and life expectancy.

Fostering happiness worldwide

While the report paints a concerning picture, it also offers hope. Countries like Costa Rica and Kuwait saw increased happiness among young people. While the specific reasons remain under study, these examples suggest focusing on social support and a sense of purpose might be key.

1. Prioritize global mental health support. We must invest in accessible and comprehensive mental health services for young people in schools and communities worldwide. Early intervention and support are critical to address the negative effects of social media and other stressors. Programmes like mindfulness training and group therapy sessions have shown success in reducing anxiety and depression in young people. Additionally, creating online resources and helplines specifically catered to youth mental health concerns can ensure wider accessibility.

2. Foster real-world connections across cultures. Activities that promote genuine social interaction and a sense of belonging should be supported and encouraged across cultures. International exchange programmes, where young people from different countries live and learn together, can foster understanding and lifelong friendships. Virtual youth mentorship initiatives can connect young people with experienced professionals who can offer guidance and support. Even global online communities focused on shared interests, like environmental activism or creative writing, can provide a sense of belonging and purpose.

3. Push for social media reform. Social media companies and governments have a global responsibility to prioritize user well-being. Implementing stricter content regulations and policies that limit the spread of negativity and misinformation is crucial. Platforms can also explore features that limit screen time or require age verification for certain types of content. International cooperation can ensure these reforms are implemented effectively across borders, creating a safer and more positive online environment for young people globally.

4. Champion education for the future. Schools need to go beyond traditional academics and equip students with life skills that can be applied anywhere. Financial literacy workshops can empower young people to make informed financial decisions and navigate the complexities of student loans and budgeting. Teaching healthy online habits can ensure responsible and safe social media use.

The world stands at a crossroads, facing the sobering reality of declining youth happiness. The 2024 World Happiness Report reminds us of our collective responsibility to nurture the well-being of future generations. Today’s youth are tomorrow’s workforce; by addressing the factors contributing to youth discontent now, business and society can collectively pave the way for a brighter future.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

The World Economic Forum is working with its partners through the Healthy Workforces initiative to identify the implications of declining youth mental health to and promote holistic health strategies to improve the health of employees, their families and their communities. It's not too late to help young people rediscover the joys of being young, alive and filled with possibilities. Their and society’s collective future depends on taking positive action now.

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Related topics:
Wellbeing and Mental HealthYouth PerspectivesHealth and Healthcare Systems
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