YOUNG Americans are miserable. So says a new study out of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. The study found that 18- to 25-year-olds reported the lowest well-being, and that perceptions of well-being increased steadily with age, with those over 77 expressing most satisfaction, followed closely by Boomers (aged 58 to 76). Pakistan does not yet have such well-being data to inform political narratives and policies, but it can learn much from the misery of young Westerners.

The study’s findings are a first, and are ringing alarm bells about the socioeconomic (and planetary) breakdown that is leading to the widespread lack of well-being amongst youngsters, who should be feeling their best and brightest. The study defined well-being broadly, including happiness, mental and physical health, having a purposeful life, the quality of relationships, trying to be a good person, and financial stability. Across all these dimensions, the American youth consistently expressed the lowest sense of well-being.

This is in contrast to similar studies from the 2000s, which yielded U-shaped results. In those earlier studies, young people and the elderly would express the highest levels of happiness and well-being, while those in the middle were the least satisfied. These results seemed more intuitive — middle-aged people with children and parents to care for, burgeoning financial responsibilities, careers to nurture, and mid-life crises to contend with were expected to feel worse off than the carefree young and content elderly. The youth had friendships and opportunities to keep them excited, and the elderly drew comfort from deep relationships, sanguinity, and gratitude.

But times are tougher, different. In an interview, Tyler VanderWeele, the director of Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program and the senior author of the study, tried to unpack the results. He discussed the severity of America’s mental health crisis, and increasing evidence of what has been termed a loneliness epidemic. He pointed to other studies that indicate that the prolonged use of social media — which is most prevalent among under-25s — contributes to feelings of alienation, loneliness and anxiety. Moreover, in the US, young people have to manage burdensome debt from education, the decline in secure job prospects, and soaring housing costs, which have left most Gen Z-ers believing home ownership will forever be out of reach.

Misery haunts American youth. What about our youngsters?

The state of the world today also presents a rational challenge to feelings of well-being; from Ukraine to the urgency of the climate crisis, young people have plenty to worry about without the benefit of having experienced years of relative stability, which Gen X-ers (aged 42 to 57) and Boomers have.

Interestingly, VanderWeele blames political polarisation — which is particularly toxic in the US in the post-Trump era — for further undermining youth well-being. In his words: “Many people feel: ‘how can I live in a country like this, where half the people are terrible?’”

The most puzzling finding — that 18- to 25-year-olds believe their physical health is worse than all the age groups older than them — is likely due to the survey being conducted in January 2022, when the world was still emerging from the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. VanderWeele believes that young people have a greater sense of physical threat from the pandemic. Their expectations of how fit and healthy they should be are probably high and unrealistic, turbo-charged by a $1.5 trillion wellness industry, celebrity culture, and fitness-focused TikTok channels.

So what does the misery of young Americans have to do with us? It is sadly just the tip of the iceberg of what Pakistan’s youth must contend with. Sixteen million of our nation’s children have been impacted by recent floods and remain in wait for food and shelter, their homes and schools washed away. Many will be permanently displaced, deprived of education and nourishment vital to succeed later in life, and subject to horrifying safeguarding risks. They are not the first climate migrants, and they will not be the last.

The hatred and suspicion of compatriots that produces alienation among polarised young Americans is compounded for Pakistanis by sectarianism, ethnolinguistic divisions, hyper-nationalism and more. And these differences manifest not just as a breakdown of community, but as vile conflict. As I write, the youth of Swat are demanding state action against militancy. Their demand is simple, and heartbreaking: “We want books instead of guns.” Their mobilisation comes on the back of many others — the PTM demanding basic rights, the Baloch demanding the release of their disappeared friends and families.

If young Americans are miserable, young Pakistanis must be desolate, defeated. It will take nothing less than a complete recast of society, the economy and power to help our future generations find the hope to strive.

The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2022

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