Why We All Need to Help Today’s Young Adults

6 min read
Source: Elisa Ventur / Unsplash

A woman in a black long-sleeve shirt covering her face with her hands sitting in front of a computer.

Source: Elisa Ventur / Unsplash

A reasonably stunning report was released by the Harvard Graduate School of Education this past week, detailing the drivers of anxiety for young adults (18 to 25-year-olds as defined by this study).

  • Thirty-four percent reported feelings of loneliness.
  • Fifty-one percent said achievement pressure negatively impacted their mental health.
  • And 58 percent reported lacking “meaning or purpose” in their lives the previous month.
  • Half reported that their mental health was negatively influenced by “not knowing what to do with my life.”

As the report notes, while there has been much examination of the well-being of teens (14 to 17) over the years, not much has been known about those occupying these critical young adulthood years. And yet, “young adults report roughly twice the rates of anxiety and depression as teens.” The young adults are not OK.

Why does this matter to you and me? These are the young people joining your team and organization. These young people are taking on roles as renters, billpayers, taxpayers, and voters.

These people drive your Uber, serve meals, sit in meetings, and attend church and social engagements. As the more experienced adult with commitments and obligations and struggles of your own, it might feel easy to dismiss these young people’s challenges as “not my job.”

But the reality is this: In the not-too-distant future, these are the people who will be leading your team and organization, buying homes, serving on boards and councils, running for office, and raising the next generation. Or not.

What happens to a society, a community, or an organization when a whole generation feels lonely, under pressure, and lacking in purpose or direction? This isn’t a generational or even an individual issue. As a society, we ignore these young people’s struggles now at our future peril.

The Importance of Direction and Connection

It’s well-documented that having something one would call purpose or direction, a reason to get out of bed in the morning, is essential for personal well-being (Kim et al., 2020) and professional success. For organizations, having employees who find purpose and meaning in their work and can see how their work connects to a bigger picture leads to greater productivity outcomes and less turnover.

For individuals, having these things results in greater satisfaction with one’s work and less burnout.

More generally, having “purpose” or feeling a connection to something bigger than oneself, in whatever ways that might be defined for the individual, results in greater feelings of satisfaction with work and life. Indeed, recent research shows that more than 9 out of 10 employees were willing to trade a percentage of their lifetime earnings for greater meaning at work (Achor et al., 2018).

Connecting with others improves health outcomes (Haim-Litevsky, Komemi, and Lipskaya-Velikovsky, 2023). Loneliness results in both mental and physical health problems, including anxiety, depression, cardiovascular issues, and even diabetes. Beyond the individual health impacts of these conditions, poor health also has enormous financial and systemic implications.

Belongingness has become a big buzzword on college campuses, and not without reason. There is a direct connection between feelings of belongingness and meaning and purpose.

Indeed, the lack of connection in this country has become so pervasive that the Surgeon General recently declared it an epidemic. And he has launched a specific intervention aimed at college campuses (Alonso, 2023).

We have an entire generation entering the workforce and adulthood who are lonely, disconnected, and lacking purpose or direction. It’s immediate financial, health, and societal repercussions that will be felt for years to come, not just by them but all of us.

Redefining “Success”

According to The Atlantic, today’s young adults continue what came to be known as the trophy generation. Instead of being raised with the idea that everyone wins just by showing up, they have been raised as strivers with outsized expectations for what success means.

It’s not enough to go to college and graduate as a productive citizen. One must attend the “best” school and get the “best” job to set oneself up for the “best” life.

The problem, of course, is that “best” is an arbitrary, subjective term. Does it mean the job that pays the highest salary? The life that does not require struggle? Is the school at the top of a ranking system that is ever-changing?

At best, it is limited in reach and only accessible to a few. At worst, it hinders progress for a generation who has never considered what a “less than best” life might afford them.

Questions You Can Ask

So what do we, the managers, colleagues, and wise counselors of these young people, do to make a difference in this critical early transition stage? Here, I lean heavily on my expertise in mentoring and the skills and tools it provides to connect with others with intention.

Influential mentors ask questions, listen actively, provide encouragement and feedback, uphold accountability, and perhaps most importantly, stay present. Use these tools as you engage in conversation and build relationships with the young people around you.

Here are some questions to help you get started:

  • What is your story? How did you get to where you are now, and what were your defining choices or decisions along the way? What have you learned about yourself, your strengths, and your interests?
  • Where do you find meaning and purpose? How do you define those terms? What gives you energy? What is something you like to do in your free time? How does your current role or work connect with those things?
  • How do you define success? Has it changed in the past few years? What would a “successful life” look like, and how might you begin to build it?
  • Who are your people? Where do you find mentors, sponsors, and other support as you work towards your goals? What or who is missing for you right now?
  • How can I be helpful to you?

Remember, this isn’t an inquisition, it’s a conversation. One of the best ways to build connection, which in turn builds trust, which is vital to building relationships, is to be willing to disclose some things about yourself, too.

It behooves us to do our parts to create intentional communities of care. It is, in fact, our job. It might be the most critical work we do.

It’s how we support individuals and change cultures. And it happens one conversation at a time.

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