iGens 9

iGens 9 February 26, 2009


One of the more alarming features that Jean Twenge uncovers in her new book, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before concerns levels of anxiety among iGens or what she prefers to call her own generation, Generation Me.

Are you seeing more anxiety and depression than you remember for the previous generation? Do you see more among 18-35 yr olds than you expect? Any ideas why?

Here are the numbers that ground her concerns: Between 1-2% of of Americans born before 1915 experienced a major depressive episode, even though they lived through the Great Depression. Today the lifetime rate of major depression is between 15-20%. A study in the 1990s showed that 21% of teens between 15 and 19 had experienced a major episode of depression. Researchers of this stuff know that there is evidence of a lack of reporting such things long ago, but none questions the rise of anxiety and depression among the youth today.

Some more numbers: “the number of people being treated for depression more than tripled … from 1987 to 1997” (106). During 2002 more than 8.5% of Americans took an anti-depressant. A 2003 government survey found that 29% of teens said that they had experienced a degree of sadness and hopelessness that lasted every day for two weeks or more. It was 36% for teenage girls.

Twenge examined stats for anxiety, a precursor to depression. So she studied 40,192 college students and 12,056 children who completed tests on anxiety from 1950s to the 1990s. Here are her conclusions:

1. The avg college student in the 1990s was more anxious than 85% of students in the 1950s and 71% of students in the 1970s.
2. The trend for children was more striking. Here are her words: “normal schoolchildren in the 1980s reported higher levels of anxiety than child pyschiatric patients in the 1950s” (107).
3. Family environment is less of an explanation than when you were born. Wow, I thought on that one.
4. Suicide rates for the young have doubled since the 1950s. It is the 3d leading cause of death for people aged 15-24. In 2003, 16.9% of high school students admitted they had seriously considered suicide.

She illustrates: 7 of her 10 best friends have been in therapy.

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  • Does she offer any insight as to why anxiety and depression have risen so high? I have some thoughts but I wonder what she might have identified.

  • Scot McKnight

    Tomorrow we’ll look at her explanation.

  • RJS

    This is interesting – it is not that this generation is “worse” but that a trend is continuing that reflects a serious issue – and this generation is having to cope with it in increasing numbers.

  • Mike

    Is conclusion number three “Family environment is less of an explanation than when you were born” stating that family environments don’t explain as much in general about life than they did in past generations?

  • The stats on suicide a are a bit misleading. Here is a chart I produced last year showing suicide rates for 15-19 year olds and 20-24 year olds, 1960-2004. Click here.
    It is true that present rates are double what they were in 1960. However rates for both these groups have been higher then the present rate in the intervening years.
    For 15-19 year olds, there is a steady rise from 1960 at 3.4 to 1988 at 11.3. It stays at a plateau until about 1994 before going into decline to 7.3 in 2003. However, there was a jump to 8.2 in 2004. I haven’t seen the 2005 data and they often revise the most recent years a bit. But still, it is the first real increase on the heels of a 15 year decline.
    For 20-24 year olds, there is a steady rise from 1960 at 7.1 to 1977 when it hit 18.6. It dropped to the 15-16 range by the early ’80s and stayed there for a decade, before declining to 12-13 range from 1999 on.
    While rates are much higher than in the ’50s or ’60s the recent 15 year trend has been downward … except …
    The 2004 data may indicate a reversal. There are also gender differences and race differences. Suicide rates for girls has remained relatively constant for girls for thirty years. Rates for Black males has been increasing since the late 1980s, primarily because of increases in the rate in locations where suicide had been low for black males.
    All that is to say that the idea of a straight line trend from the ’50s to the terrible present with this generation isn’t quite right.

  • Actually, I just realized the summary analysis I looked at for data about gender and race difference in the next to last paragraph is out of date. Don’t quote me on it.

  • Rick

    I am not saying she is wrong with her numbers, but I wonder how much of the rise in the numbers is due to increased openess about depression, anxiety, and even suicide. In other words, were there more cases in the past than the stats indicate, yet people were just less willing to talk about them?

  • I find this depressing.

  • I did some quick and dirty stats from the CDC for 15-19 year olds.
    From 1995-2005, rates for white males and females, and for black females, have remained relatively constant. Contrary to what I wrote #5, the rate for black males has decreased from 13.62 in 1995 to 7.21 in 2005. It is now lower than that for white males at 8.35.
    The 2005 overall suicide rate for 15-19 year olds, after spiking some in 2004, hit a post-1988 low of 7.2.
    The recent 15-20 year trend is toward less suicide.

  • Phil Niemi

    As a youth/family pastor I’ve noticed these changes, especilally for students from broken homes. Here in Ontario, Canada, a few years ago (I think 7), we used to have 5 years of highschool, then lowered it to 4. Many of our students still stick around for year 5, and just don’t know what to do, so do nothing (even no education), work dead end jobs until their early-mid twenties.

  • joanne

    i think this generation is also more in touch with their feelings than past generations. they are perhaps more aware of their feelings of anxiety and depression. what i experience from older generations is more compartmentalization of feelings.

  • My 2 Cents

    RJS, you might find this research intersting. I also think that the church is also see this trend (of the last 13+ years) in dealing with the issues of people in the church.
    Summary: students are presenting more depression symptoms as entry freshman than ever before. Some of these increases were dramatic. The number of students seen each year with depression doubled, while the number of suicidal students tripled and the number of students seen after a sexual assault quadrupled.

  • #12 My 2 Cents
    It sounds like reported cases of contemplating suicide have increased over the last 13 years but acutual instances of suicide have been steady for some groups and actually dropping for others. I think Rick #7 and joanne #11 are likely on to something; that what is changing is increased openness in discussing depression and suicidal thoughts.
    Crime statistics often show similar pattern. Advocates lobby that a particular type of crime is not being enforced. Educational groups start to educate the public about the issue and law enforcement steps up enforcement. Because the crime has become more publicized, more people begin reporting the crimes and law enforcement becomes more diligent in prosecuting. The convictions for the crime begin to soar and many interpret this to mean a rising crime wave. Even more stringent efforts are exerted to halt the crime wave.
    Yet when you look at anonymous victimization studies that get at reported and unreported crimes both, what you often find is year to year decreases in the crime everyone perceives has become rampant. People are more aware and take precautions. Law-breakers are deterred because of stricter enforcement. The advocacy over the perceived threat often reaches its peak long after significant positive change has been realized. I suspect that may be the case here.

  • Kathy Khang

    Those stats from the CDC also mention that the rate of suicide for girls ages 10-19 by suffocation/hanging increased.
    I’m sure that this generation’s heightened sensitivities to their own feelings adds a different dynamic. I’ve worked with college students for the past 10 years, and what I see is a generation that grew up in a culture that is more open to talking about depression, counseling, suicide, etc. (television commercials about anti-anxiety meds, chatter about celebrities in treatment for addictions and breakdowns, online access to information). But privately, there are still taboos about directly dealing with anxiety and depression.
    A generation raised to believe that they are special and to follow their bliss has a different hurdle to jump when it requires telling mom and dad that they need to tap into insurance for counseling. Perfect children with high self-esteem are not supposed to need help.
    This is a generation that grew up bombarded with images and ideas of what it means to be successful, beautiful, perfect as their feelings were being protected (everyone wins, no one loses) with good intentions. No wonder why they are depressed. Reality is not airbrushed, Botoxed and instant messaged away.

  • Interesting – this coincides with the featured article on depression in this month’s Christianity Today.
    I agree with this evaluation – depression is rampant in my generation. Most go through depression, but there are some that seem to have always lived with it.

  • My 2 Cents

    Kathy K, I wonder if a real issue is WHO they are disclosing depression to, etc. Are they talking about depression with their parents? Or only outsiders? Do they think it is a taboo to talk to their parents about real feelings, but feel they can go to a “professional”?

  • Rachael

    I believe that lifestyle changes also have greatly inmcreased the incidence of depression – being indoors all the time, poor eating (processed junk instead of whole foods), lack of exercise, and lack of community all are contributing factors for depression and are much more prevalent now than they were a hundred years ago.
    In people I know with depression (many people), when they are able to change the things I’ve listed above their symptoms often improve quite a bit (and I am totally supportive of medication as well – my spouse takes it for his seasonal depression along with lifestyle changes/supplements and it takes all those things together to help him feel better).
    Even among women, post-partum depression rates are much higher among women who are isolated without help and support vs. those women who have built-in community to help and support them.
    I would also say that depression is much more openly talked about today than it was a generation ago. My spouse’s depression we believe is chemically-based and runs in his family – his grandfather had it (didn’t talk about it or deal with it, was emotionally absent from his family), his dad had it (talked about it a bit, was told it was a spiritual/sin problem, was emotionally absent from his family), and his son (my husband) has it (talks about it, actively treats it, does not buy into the stigma, and our family life is significantly better than either of the previous two generations – even though survey-wise it would appear that he’s the first to really ‘have’ depression in terms of getting officially diagnosed and treated).

  • #14 Kathy
    “Those stats from the CDC also mention that the rate of suicide for girls ages 10-19 by suffocation/hanging increased.”
    I don’t know about the methods of suicide but are the rates for per 100,000 for girls 10-19:
    2005 1.84
    2004 2.23
    2003 1.6
    2002 1.48
    2001 1.66
    2000 1.68
    1999 1.62
    1998 1.84
    1997 2.03
    1996 2.14
    1995 1.94
    In 2005 there were 378 cases out of a population of 20.4 million. The occurrence is so infrequent that minor shifts up and down can cause rates to move. There doesn’t appear to be any readily discernible trend.

  • I know I’m gonna catch hell for this but I’m going to offer a different interpretation of the data.
    The suicide rate was unquestionably higher for teens growing up in the ‘70s to early ‘90s than it is today. Using this as a proxy, I’m going to guess that frequency of depression was also higher.
    The difference, in part, is that teens during the ‘70s and ‘80s were growing up in a culture with navel gazing, inwardly-focused, parents in search of themselves. Kids were a distraction and an inconvenience to be ignored. No attention was paid to their mental health.
    Starting about 15-20 years ago, children have been becoming more and more valued. Parents are paying more attention to their kid’s plight. That has led to two trends:
    1. Increased awareness and openness about depression and suicide, which gives the appearance that depression is rising, when it is really just better measurement.
    2. Decline in actual cases of depression and suicide because of increased parental involvement.
    Because parents value their kids more and they are more sensitive about there kids, they also tend to be more anxious and prone to overestimating threats, compared to the previous generation who underestimated them.
    In short, I’m not yet buying the claim that iGens are more depressed or suicidal.
    (Now ducking for cover.) 🙂

  • RJS

    Michael, Fear not. Fortunately virtual community is not conducive to the flinging of rotten produce…

  • Gary Lester

    I like Kathy Khang’s take on this. Dr. William Glasser describes a “quality world,” a sort of “album” in which we put mental pictures of the people we want to be in realtionship with, “stuff” we’d like to have, important issues for us, etc. But then there’s this pesky “real world”…. The extent to which these worlds match pretty much dictate how happy we are. Kids (grown-ups, too) with expectations of “perfection” are going to be unhappy indeed.

  • M 2 Cents

    Gary Lester, I think that is a significant point. And why are we so unhappy with anything less than perfection–or shall we say intolerant or unresilient toward something less than imperfection? Does that disclose a lack of exposure to our own human brokenness?