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While there’s been significant attention and worry regarding the mental health of school-aged children, perhaps we should be even more worried about the mental health of college-aged (and just beyond) adults.

A report through the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Making Caring Common project, published in late 2023 found that the rates of anxiety and depression among those 18 to 25 are roughly double that of teens.

According to the research the top three causes of these mental health challenges are:

  1. A lack of meaning, purpose, and direction.
  2. Financial worries and achievement pressure.
  3. A perception that the world is unraveling.

Essentially, this cohort is experiencing an understandable tension between the desire for a good and meaningful life and what they perceive as significant barriers to achieving those things.

The other two leading causes are “relationship deficits”—feeling like they don’t matter to others and a sense of isolation—and “social and political issues”—concerns about issues such as gun violence and climate change.

It makes sense that this cohort is reporting greater anxiety than younger teens, given that they’ve been experiencing these worries longer, and they are much closer to being required by life to face up to them directly, rather than them being part of future concerns.

In light of this study, I was interested in a recent New York Times article on the attitudes of Gen Z students at elite universities regarding the concept of “selling out,” namely that such a thing doesn’t exist, certainly not as a pejorative.

The big picture goal is a “bulge bracket internship,” a position at one of the large investment banks which will guarantee a large salary upon graduation and access to a potential of even more significant wealth (like running a hedge fund) in the future. A survey by The Harvard Crimson (the student newspaper) found that more than 40% of 2023 graduates were going into finance or consulting, so it’s a widely shared goal.

“Selling out” is a “descriptive term,” rather than a pejorative, according to Aden Barton, a Harvard senior. Barton wrote a piece for The Harvard Crimson arguing that careerist attitudes had created a pre-professional hustle culture where all decisions are made with an eye toward future employability in one of these bulge bracket industries, thus discounting any intellectual pursuits like, you know, learning stuff.

Part of the dynamic appears to be a certain herd mentality, where absent any concrete ideas of one’s own, it’s easier to follow the paths of others, particularly when prestige—always a hot commodity in elite spaces—attaches to that choice.

Interestingly, while students recognize these jobs come coupled with high incomes, they—at least for now—seem not to necessarily be driven by greed. According to The Times “a surprising number of students explain their desire for a corporate job by drawing on the ethos of effective altruism.”

Worries about lack of meaning and purpose, combined with concern over financial pressures seems to have coalesced into an “earn-to-give” ethos, at least in theory. Let’s hope it works out better for these folks than the recently incarcerated Sam Bankman-Fried, perhaps the most prominent public example of the EA movement.

I suppose there are worse ideas than trying to make a bunch of money to preserve your economic security and freedom until the time you figure out what you want to do with your life, but I’m not convinced that it’s a particularly good recipe for finding that core purpose, and ultimate happiness.

However, you will be rich.

As a Gen Xer, it is somewhat strange to hear that “selling out” is no longer viewed through a negative light. It’s not that no one in my age cohort was interested in earning money, just that you were supposed to be at least a bit sheepish about it. It’s also strange given what I know about the ingrained idealism of members of Gen Z and what we know from the Harvard Graduate School of Education survey as well as other research, that they want their lives to have meaning.

To me, this is perhaps the ne plus ultra of a system of education—and really a broader society—that is predicated on what I call “indefinite future reward.” The present for students, particularly in school contexts, is a meaningless void, so in order to continue to move forward, it’s important to keep one’s eye on a future prize. It’s not surprising that this works “better” at elite institutions where students are achievement-driven and opportunity appears plentiful, but it’s notable that this access to opportunity isn’t translating into happiness.

None of this is new. I tell a story in my book Why They Can’t Write about an in-class encounter with a student circa 2008–2009 in which they expressed a strong wish (at the ripe old age of 20) to be able to retire so they could start really living their life. This student couldn’t envision a happy marriage between the work they would have to do to live with actual fulfillment.

I hold students largely blameless for this status quo. They’re playing the cards they’ve been dealt. It’s those of us who are in charge of dealing those cards who have some answering to do. Students are sending all kinds of signals that the work of education does not seem to have much value. (Outsourcing writing assignments to ChatGPT is just one of those signals.)

We can see this as a failure of character, but if that’s the case, it is a nearly universal defect.

To me, it all sounds like very rational behavior. If we want students to do something differently, we’ll have to give them reason to do so.

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