I work with kids. Here’s why they’re consumed with anxiety.

By John Thornton Jr.

A classroom.
Getty Images/Cavan Images RF

While on a youth retreat with my church a few months ago, I asked about 10 kids, ages 13 to 18, to take a few minutes and write down three words to describe what their lives felt like. They go to a variety of schools, from private and religious to urban public and magnet, and come from a range of backgrounds. After a few minutes writing down their answers silently, we sat in a circle in the living room of our rented cabin and began sharing. One student wrote on a whiteboard each word that the group agreed aptly described their lives.

By the end of the exercise, the following words were written on the whiteboard: stressful, complicated, overinvolved, full of transitions, anxiety, uncertainty, pressure, and exhaustion.

For the past year and a half, I’ve worked as a pastor to the youth at my church, ministering to a dozen sixth- to 12th-grade students at a mainline Baptist church in North Carolina. About a year ago, I decided I wanted to find out more about their lives. I’d heard from parents, teachers, and friends with children that kids today live increasingly busy and stressful lives compared to previous generations. I wanted to know not only what that looked like but how the kids themselves felt and thought about it. What I discovered gave me a good deal of pause about the world kids live in today and what it’s doing to them.

As the retreat group started to tell me more about why they felt such a collective sense of stress and pressure, a few major themes emerged. All of them said they voluntarily get their grades pushed to their phones through notifications. It took me a minute to realize just how annoying and agonizing that must feel. It means that at any moment, they could find out they bombed a test or missed an assignment. Instead of having the time to mentally prepare to receive a bad grade when a teacher returns an assignment, they receive a notification as soon as the teacher posts their grade to the online portal they all use. Further, their parents sometimes receive the same notifications.

In addition to grades, they use multiple apps such as Remind through which their teachers can send them updates or reminders about upcoming assignments and tests. Like their grades, these can come through to their phone at any time of day or night.

For all the fear I hear from adults about screen-addicted kids, this seems like a far more destructive relationship to technology. It’s not one in which they use their phones to avoid their friends or family, but one in which technology serves as a source of constant intrusion into their lives, never allowing them to forget about their schoolwork or grades.

This was just one of the pressures these students felt they faced to ensure survival in the adult world. And the more I spoke with these kids, the more scared I became for the world we adults have created for them.

The constant pressure to optimize their futures

As we continued to talk over the course of that school year, I also noticed how much their schools force them to think about their careers at increasingly young ages. The kids often used workplace lingo to describe their lives. One sixth-grader talked about a school assignment in which she had to develop a life plan that included her future career, which schools she should attend, and what she ought to major in at her chosen university. It was only later that I realized visualizing the future like this meant that every grade, every volunteer hour, every achievement or failure carried the weight of fulfilling that imagined future.

Over the past year, I’ve continued to ask questions and pay attention. One afternoon, I sat in our church’s common area with a sophomore. “Ugh, I’m so stressed about picking classes for next year,” she said holding up her course registration manual. It looked more extensive than I remembered from my time in high school. I asked to flip through it for a minute — it was 43 pages long.

Significant parts of the manual were organized by “career clusters” that encouraged students to take classes to prepare them for future work in fields like agriculture or finance. These clusters, the manual claimed, are “designed as a tool to assist in streamlining the path through which students meet their educational goals and are ultimately employed in high-skill, high-wage, or high-demand occupations and nontraditional fields.” After doing some research, I learned that these career cluster classes are part of a nationwide movement in states across the country.

Given all this emphasis on career readiness, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that at one point in our conversation at the retreat, a middle school student said, “Things are stressful, but you just have to have a good work-life balance.”

Kids today live with the baggage of their parents’ economic anxiety

Over the past year, I’ve talked about these observations with friends who work with kids, parents, and other students when our church goes to summer camp. The specific youth I worked with gave me permission to share these parts of our conversations. As I’ve talked about them, I’ve heard that what I’ve said above is the reality for almost all kids today. There’s variance as to how they experience these things based on the types of privilege they come from, but based on what I’ve seen in the lives of the kids entrusted to my care, I have to say I’m convinced they can’t escape this stress and pressure — only survive.

In my role as their pastor, I tried to carve out some space for them to acknowledge what they’re going through and to be with each other in ways that didn’t force them to work and experience stress, but I have to admit, it all feels woefully inadequate to what they actually need.

Kids today have to constantly consider the perils of work and career with enough specificity to worry about it. At the same time that they stress about the future that’s so very far off, they live with technology that keeps that anxiety consistently in the front of their minds.

Here’s where it gets even more depressing: In my time with them and conversations with other kids their age, I rarely heard them frame any of this work and stress in terms of future success or even just stability. They usually didn’t talk about their lives according to the myth so many parents, teachers, and community members raised Gen X and millennials with, the one that promises that if you work hard, you’ll get a good job and have a nice, stable life or at least do better than your parents did. When they brought up their futures, if they weren’t talking about careers, they understood that student debt was inevitable.

It later dawned on me: Why would they believe this myth? People in their 20s, 30s, and 40s teach and raise these kids. Those generations now know from experience that the idea that hard work and a little luck pays off isn’t true. Between 30 years of stagnant wages, the rising costs of housing, health care, and education, and a recession just as many of us graduated from college, it’s no wonder that millennials are on course to do financially worse than previous generations, just as Gen X did before us.

In a recent piece at BuzzFeed, Anne Helen Petersen described the burnout so many millennials experience. As she puts it, burnout is “the millennial condition. It’s our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives.”

While many of us who work with kids don’t want to name the likelihood that the generation behind us will do even worse than us, it’s hard not to see that we communicate it to them regardless. These kids aren’t even being told that the point of all the work and the stress is a better life — they’re being told it’s necessary just to survive. These kids live with what philosopher Pascal Bruckner calls “tension without intention.” They’re constantly stressed, and they’re growing aware that there’s no payoff for it all.

When I talk about these realities, I often have parents or concerned adults ask what we can do about it, and I have to confess that I don’t have any answers. These kids are the products of their institutions, and structural institutional problems don’t have individual solutions. But as Rebecca Solnit writes, “Before a disease can be treated, it must be diagnosed. And you do not need to know the prescription before you diagnose a disease.” We owe it to the kids in our country to at least diagnose their disease, which is a society that turns children into stressed, anxious, competitive, indebted consumers. We do this to prepare them for their grown-up lives in a society that turns all people into stressed, anxious, competitive, indebted consumers.

I find some measure of hope in the fact that the kids I’ve worked with and others I’ve talked to seem to know something is askew, that their lives ought not to be like this. I’ve found that they want people to take them seriously without adding pressure. They want a bigger and better story to be a part of, a better world to live in. I just hope that they’re not too exhausted to live in it by the time those of us who care about them gain the power to give it to them.

John Thornton Jr. is a Baptist pastor living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

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