Poll: Less than half of Gen Z Americans are thriving

By Susan Gonsalves
January 3rd, 2024
Zach Hrynowski, Gallup and Walton Family Foundation’s senior education researcher

More mental health struggles reported

Less than half (47 percent) of Gen Z Americans are thriving in their lives, among the lowest across all generations in the U.S., according to a recent poll.

The Silent Generation (age 71 and older) is the only one on par with that degree of dissatisfaction at 45 percent.

Gallup and Walton Family Foundation partnered to study the experiences of more than 3,000 Gen Z youth and young adults related to education and personal growth.

According to Zach Hrynowski, Gallup’s senior education researcher, the organization surveyed 12 to 26-year-olds across all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

“Whether it is a matter of needing better coping skills or needing more support, we don’t know from the data what the remedy is. It’s top of mind for some people to come up with some type of way to address it.” -- Zach Hrynowski, senior education researcher, Gallup

Including K-12 students in the survey is a new feature of the poll, set to be repeated over the next two years.

Only 20 percent of Gen Z participants overall reported having “excellent” mental health and one third rated it as “fair” or “poor.” Fifteen percent of 18 to 26-year-olds said their mental health was excellent.

The data shows that Gen Z’s mental health and wellbeing struggles are distinct from those at the same age from previous generations. For example, in 2004, 55 percent of young adults ages 18 to 26 rated their mental health as excellent. In 2013, that rate was 52 percent.

Some of the gap is owed to overall declines in mental health over the past decade—with millennials and Gen X having far lower ratings now than in the past, according to Hrynowski.

Gen Z also reports high levels of negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, and loneliness on the prior day. That generation’s experience of these feelings is at least seven percentage points higher than those of millennials, Gen X, baby boomers, and Silent Generation.

More than half of the older Gen Z cohort have a lot of stress and two thirds feel anxiety.

Hrynowski thinks there could be context factors to this trend.

“Gen Z, everyone today is more willing to acknowledge mental health challenges,” he said. “There is less stigmatization. Maybe it is this change in Americans’ (ability) to talk about it and admit to struggles,” driving the numbers.

In response to the data, Hrynowski said he has received feedback that perhaps Gen Z is “softer,” and has fewer coping skills than other generations.

“Whether it is a matter of needing better coping skills or needing more support, we don’t know from the data what the remedy is,” he said. “It’s top of mind for some people to come up with some type of way to address it.”

He pointed out that the poll shows ways to have a positive impact on K-12 kids.

Having teachers and other adults in schools as mentors or in supportive relationships helps to reduce stress and anxiety especially in K-12, but in the higher young adult category as well.

Members of Gen Z who have an adult encouraging them to pursue their goals and dreams are more than twice as likely as those without to strongly agree they have a great future ahead (51 percent versus 23 percent) and will reach their goals (49 percent versus 23 percent).

There is also a correlation with having excellent mental health and reporting excellent school grades when compared to students reporting fair or poor mental health (53 percent versus 25 percent).

In addition, kids with excellent mental health are less likely to miss school in the past month (41 percent versus 65 percent).

Hrynowski cited results showing Gen Z’s lack of trust in societal institutions such as government, military, police, and the health care system.

“The extent to which they trust (institutions) correlates with mental health,” he said. “They are more likely to report poor or fair mental health when there is less trust.”

He added, “It speaks to the way they see the world and society they are graduating into… If they can’t trust anyone, it seems to take a toll and negatively affect them.”

Other results show 40 percent of middle and high school kids worrying a lot or some about gun violence. (Those who worry “a lot” total 11 percent).

Thirty-one percent worry “not much,” while 29 percent replied, “not at all,” on this topic.

While Hrynowski expected the percentages to be higher based on the way gun violence is discussed, the information was examined to see the extent to which worry has implications on Gen Z’s overall mental health.

And there, the results are unsurprising.

“It is a significant driver of mental health. The more they worry, the more they say they are stressed and anxious,” he said.

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