Young people becoming less happy than older generations, research shows

Young people are becoming less happy than older generations as they suffer “the equivalent of a midlife crisis”, global research has revealed as America’s top doctor warned that “young people are really struggling”.

Dr Vivek Murthy, the US surgeon general, said allowing children to use social media was like giving them medicine that is not proven to be safe. He said the failure of governments to better regulate social media in recent years was “insane”.

Murthy spoke to the Guardian as new data revealed that young people across North America were now less happy than their elders, with the same “historic” shift expected to follow in western Europe.

Declining wellbeing among under-30s has driven the US out of the top 20 list of happiest nations, the 2024 World Happiness Report revealed.

After 12 years in which people aged 15 to 24 were measured as being happier than older generations in the US, the trend appears to have flipped in 2017. The gap has also narrowed in western Europe and the same change could happen in the coming year or two, it is thought.

Murthy described the report findings as a “red flag that young people are really struggling in the US and now increasingly around the world”. He said he was still waiting to see data that proved social media platforms were safe for children and adolescents, and called for international action to improve real-life social connections for young people.

The World Happiness Report, an annual barometer of wellbeing in 140 nations coordinated by Oxford University’s Wellbeing Research Centre, Gallup and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, showed “disconcerting drops [in youth happiness] especially in North America and western Europe,” said Prof Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, director of the Wellbeing Research Centre and editor of the study.

“To think that in some parts of the world children are already experiencing the equivalent of a midlife crisis, demands immediate policy action,” he said.

The falling wellbeing scores for North America (in a grouping that includes Australia and New Zealand) “contradicts a well-established notion … that kids start out happier before they slide down the U-curve towards a mid-life crisis before [wellbeing] picks up again,” De Neve added.

British people under 30 ranked 32nd in the rankings, behind nations such as Moldova, Kosovo and even El Salvador, which has one of the world’s highest murder rates.

By contrast British over-60s made it into the top 20 of the world’s happiest older generations. Earlier this month a majority of British teenagers told pollsters they expect their lives to be worse than the previous generation.

The US fell eight places in the overall happiness rankings to 23rd, but when only the under-30s were asked the world’s richest nation ranked 62nd – behind Guatemala, Saudi Arabia and Bulgaria. If the views of only people aged 60 and over were accounted for, the US was the 10th happiest nation.

“For the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, happiness has decreased in all age groups, but especially for the young, so much so that the young are now, in 2021-23, the least happy age group,” the report found. In 2010 the young were happier than those in midlife.

The report does not reveal the causes of the changes, but they come amid increasing concern at the impact of rising social media use, income inequalities, the housing crisis, and fears about war and climate change on the happiness of children and young people.

Murthy said US adolescents were spending nearly five hours a day on social media on average and a third were staying up until midnight on week nights on their devices. He called for legislation “now” to reduce harms to young people from social media including limiting or eliminating features such as like buttons and infinite scrolling.

The World Happiness Report tracks subjective wellbeing using respondents’ own assessments of their lives and their positive and negative emotions. Once again Finland, Denmark and Iceland were the top three happiest countries.

Jukka Siukosaari, Finland’s ambassador to London, said his nation had managed to create an “infrastructure of happiness” including a “safe and secure environment”, affordable opportunities for people to express themselves culturally, and relatively equal incomes. “It all begins with high levels of trust between citizens and our institutions,” he said.

Costa Rica and Kuwait were new entrants to the top 20. Germany dropped from 16th to 24th. Afghanistan and Lebanon stayed as the two least happy nations. Countries that enjoyed increasing happiness included many African nations, Cambodia, Russia and China. Serbia recorded the biggest increase in happiness.

Childhood wellbeing and emotional health may be the best predictor for adult life satisfaction, the report found. Earlier research has concluded adolescents and young adults who report higher life satisfaction earn significantly higher levels of income later in life, even accounting for differences in education, intelligence, physical health and self-esteem.

Lord Layard, a Labour peer in the UK parliament and co-editor of the report, said child wellbeing should be a big issue at the general election expected to be held this year. “We need pledges to upgrade mental health support teams and to make them universal across the country. And life skills should be taught in every school,” he said.

This post was originally published on this site