This research is powered by the VICE Media Group audience. We surveyed the VICE, Refinery29, and i-D audiences in March, June and September to track the evolution of young people’s attitudes and behaviors to help us understand the pandemic’s lasting impact on the world. Over the three waves of research we spoke to nearly 15,000 people in more than 30 countries. The majority of respondents were between the ages of 16 and 39.
COVID-19 has been with us for the better part of a year now, but we’re just as overwhelmed as we were in the beginning. In the U.S., the situation is more dire than in other countries. Young people here are more overwhelmed now than they were back in March, describing themselves as more depressed, anxious and stressed than when we checked in with them six months ago. And their hope for a better future is deteriorating: Two-thirds (67 percent) believe the coronavirus will have a negative long-term impact on society, compared to an average of 48 percent in other countries.
This sense of overwhelm and uncertainty is no longer due directly to the virus. Young people around the world are now most worried about their mental health. It’s become a chronic struggle. A millennial in Italy told us, “I’ve never felt more depressed and apathetic than I am right now,” and a Gen Zer in Mexico described their mental health as “collapsing little by little.”
In the U.S., these feelings are even more pronounced. One millennial in the U.S. said their mental health has “fallen off a cliff… feelings of helplessness, loneliness, and loss.” Another describes experiencing wild fluctuations in mood: “My mental health is like a fucking roller coaster. Really high and optimistic sometimes followed by the inability to find the energy to look for matching socks the following day.”
We lack purpose.
Lack of purpose is a major cause of young people’s poor state of mental health today. Forty percent say they feel less purposeful than they did before the pandemic. We’re not talking about the kind of purpose that makes you want to go out and change the world. We’re talking about the everyday kind of purpose, the ways you find meaning and fulfillment in your daily life.
Our survey respondents say they have lost sight of their goals and feel their dreams have been derailed. “Plans have all been scuppered both short and long-term with regards to my career, my personal dreams, my relationship,” said a Gen Zer from Canada.
Boredom and monotony are making it increasingly hard to find motivation. A millennial in Australia said, “I’m feeling fatigued of the same same every day working from home, with inspiration harder to come across.” Sometimes it’s a challenge to find the energy for even the simplest things. “I’m just too tired to try anymore. Before this I was in the gym everyday and coaching a high school lacrosse team. Now I’m feeling accomplished if I even make it out on the patio once a day,” said a millennial in the US.
To help them find meaning and purpose, many young people are getting creative – trying new recipes, embarking on home improvement projects and learning new skills. But as many new hobbies as they pick up, there is still a void. They are still searching for purpose in their daily lives. “I have everything I need,” a millennial in the U.S. told us, “but lack a sense of purpose and fulfillment.”
Our relationships are at stake.
Loneliness and disconnection are also eroding our mental health. A Gen Zer from the US.. told us their overall state of wellbeing is poor because they have “no social life and my relationship is rocky.”
The longer we’re physically separated from each other, the more disconnected we become. From March to June, young people became two times more likely to feel anxious about the state of their relationships. Gen Z is feeling this most acutely. They became nearly two and a half times more likely to feel anxious about the state of their relationships over this same period of time.
Young people are craving physical connections. Virtual experiences have kept them connected with their friends, family and loved ones throughout the pandemic, but there is just no replacement for being there in-person. “I don’t know how long it’ll be before I see friends or family again. I haven’t touched a person in almost three months, and I don’t know when I will again,” said a millennial from Ireland.
Despite the overwhelming desire to see people again, young people are quite anxious about returning to social experiences. Fifty-one percent say they feel nervous or hesitant to return to social experiences and sixty percent foresee themselves having social anxiety as social distancing mandates are lifted and things start to reopen. One Gen Zer in Britain talked about a recent experience, “I saw a mate and his girlfriend in Tesco earlier and when they said hello I stuttered and fell over my own speech cause it’d been so long since I last had done small talk.”
When it comes to relationships, it’s not just personal relationships that are having an impact on young people’s mental health. Lack of support from their community and others around them is further fueling feelings of hopelessness. Many sense a stark change in people’s attitudes toward one another, “from helping each other to only caring about themselves,” a Gen Zer in Britain noted.
Faith in others is particularly low in the U.S. “Realizing how many people in this country simply cannot be bothered to care about other people has made me less hopeful than ever,” explained a millennial in the U.S. “How can we address huge, systemic, serious issues like racial injustice, climate change, or voting rights when we cannot even get people to put a freakin’ mask on their face when they go to the store to keep their neighbors from dying!?!“
Many young people recognize their mental health is an issue and are taking steps to care for themselves. The number of people implementing self-care practices such as meditation, therapy and using mental health apps nearly doubled from 17 percent in March to 30 percent in June. But with the number one fear among young people right now being mental health, that’s unlikely to be enough.