Ah, the carefree days of youth.

Well, not so much anymore, it seems. Not in the roiling, boiling, modern-day pressure-cooker that is America.

Back in my day — cue the nostalgic, Ken Burns documentary music — being young meant a freewheeling phase of life, where adult concerns shimmered on a distant shore, comprising not a blip on the apprehension radar screen.

It was the just-say-yes ‘70s, when adolescence and young adulthood entailed a time of partying, preening and passivity, at least in my quasi-apathetic, borderline oblivious, distinctly non-Ivy League-bound peer group. 

Politics? Economics? Social justice? Please. Pass the Boones Farm and mescaline.

Like most young people, I was bedeviled by anxiety, but it tended toward the self-obsessed variety: Do people like me? Am I good enough? Do these disco pants make me look fat?

In retrospect, it was an adorably naive time.

Nowadays, besides the normal insecurities of youth, young folks shoulder a heavier burden, a thick load of disquietude about the state of the world — not just the strife-laden one we presently inhabit, but the potential hellscape they and their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren stand to inherit. (If they even have children, given the nightmarish future scenarios.)

Temperatures climbing. Sea levels rising. Mass shootings metastasizing. Racial unrest spreading. Economic inequities oozing. Partisan rancor agitating. College debt accruing, even with bailouts.

Millennials and their later generational cohorts should be forgiven for being distressed. 

“I definitely feel a lot of anxiety about the future,” said Emily Curry, 28, a college adviser at Luther Burbank High School, which serves low-income students. She identifies politically as a socialist. 

“In terms of the state of income and racial inequality in this country, something fundamental is going to have to change if we’re going to have an equitable solution,” Curry said. “My fear is, it’s going to be ugly when it does.”

Cue the pitchforks and mobs, in other words.

Curry, who grew up in a progressive home, said racial injustice was already on her radar long before George Floyd’s murder sparked waves of protests in 2020. But her concerns also strike closer to home and often have to do with money, as in, will she ever be able to retire? Or will she have to work herself into the grave?

“I was fortunate to have grandparents who paid for my college, so I don’t have debt,” she said, which helped her land her current gig with AmeriCorps, a two-year employment program. “But at 28, I just now have my first grown-up job. What will the entirety of my future existence look like?”

Will she be able to attain the American dream, given the tenuous state of contract work and the gig economy?

Even with everything stacked in her favor — Curry is white and was raised in an upper-middle-class home — she’s anxious about the future, she said. What about the low-income students she mentors, the kids of color who have the deck completely stacked against them? How will they fare?

Studies show Curry has plenty of company in her anxiety, some of it unsurprisingly tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, but not all of it.

Last June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report that showed 1 in 4 adults ages 18 to 24 has contemplated suicide. Another poll found more than half of young adults age 18 to 29 have felt depressed or hopeless. Yet another study found 81% of U.S. college students felt significant levels of anxiety.

Teens are feeling the pain, too. From 2009 to 2019, the share of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40% to more than 1 in 3 students. America’s teenagers aren’t doing well.

And the pain is global. A study of youth in developed countries — read, rich — found that 61% under age 35 were concerned about money, jobs and their inability to meet their career goals in the next 10 years. (Interestingly, youth in poorer countries tend to be much more optimistic.)

Climate change has caused so much distress among youth that it’s earned its own label: “Eco-anxiety.” 

A survey of 10,000 young people ages 16 to 25 in 10 countries found that over half agreed with the statement “humanity is doomed.” More than 45% said worries over climate change had negatively impacted their daily lives and ability to function. 

Curry said the increase of “devastating weather events” in Texas — such as Hurricane Harvey, which flooded Houston relatives out of their home, and San Antonio’s Snowmageddon of 2021 — terrifies her. 

“I don’t want to leave Texas, but this place is going to become less and less livable in the next 20 years,” she said. “But cities in the North don’t have the infrastructure to deal with a warming planet. So where do you go?”

A line wraps around an H-E-B grocery store during Winter Storm Uri, which left millions throughout Texas without power and resulted in more than 200 deaths.
A line wraps around an H-E-B grocery store during Winter Storm Uri, which left millions throughout Texas without power and resulted in more than 200 deaths. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Then there are the manmade disasters, she said: The targeting of transgender youth, both in Texas and elsewhere, which Curry fears will lead to violence against that vulnerable population. And the rollback of reproductive rights, which in Texas includes no abortion exemption for rape or incest.

“I’m not in a position or expect to get pregnant, but horrible things do happen,” she said.

Eli Cline, 24, a San Antonio native studying to become a social worker at University of Texas at Austin, said money and finances are the biggest concern right now.

“I took an economics class last year, and the professor said mine is the first generation that won’t make more money than our parents,” said Cline, a transgender man whose pronouns are they and them. “We won’t have that upward trajectory. I pretty much know that’s true for me and for much of my generation.’

Cline lives off-campus with two roommates, and still struggles to survive financially in Austin. The career field for social workers is pretty good, they said, but for others, finding meaningful, well-paying work in this day and time — even with a college degree — can be a struggle.

Cline also worries about climate change. And school shootings. Five years ago, while doing a stint at Trinity University, Cline was sleeping one morning in a dorm room when “two loud bangs” suddenly rang out in the hallway.

This was right after the mass shooting in Las Vegas.

“I thought, ‘Oh no, it’s our turn for an active shooter!” recalled Cline. “But it turned out to be just construction noise. The fact that my first thought was ‘active shooter’ is really telling.”

Another persistent fear, Cline said: The rise of white supremacy and Christian nationalism, two movements that have crawled out from under their respective rocks and gained steam during the Trump era.

“It’s really terrifying,” Cline said. “On one hand, I feel lucky that my generation has been raised smarter and isn’t falling into those belief systems: It’s mostly older people. But the downside is that (older people) have so much influence in politics.”

I’m likely not the only boomer parent to raise her hands in anguish and cry out: What have we done?

The world has been in crisis before, of course. But the present moment does seem especially threatening, with the planet warming and the Big Lie persisting and racial animus growing and civil war potentially erupting. The very structures of democracy, not just in the U.S. but globally, seem under attack and in danger.

So maybe the question is: What do we do?

Turns out there are things parents can do to assuage young people’s anxiety. Listen when they talk about their fears and validate their concerns, even if it makes you feel guilty. Encourage them to get involved with climate change or other forms of activism. Support whatever lifestyle changes they want to make, such as composting.

“Young people operate from the part of the brain that is predominantly concerned with feelings,” said Michelli Ramon, a clinical social worker who treats mostly young adults. “When they bring you their fears or anxieties, the last thing you want to do is reply with logic, saying something like, ‘Well, you can’t control that.'”

Ask them what they might be able to do help, and offer to join them in the effort.

Something else you can do: Vote.

Millennials, now in their 20s and 30s, and Gen Z, ages 13 to 21,  trend to the left politically. So, when you enter the voting booth in November and beyond, consider selecting candidates who support the things our young people believe in — that climate change is real, Black lives matter, reproductive rights are critical, diversity strengthens our nation, immigration is a positive and love is love.

And know that there’s a silver lining to all this: A global Gallup survey finds while young people are anxious they’re also, paradoxically, hopeful — at least more so than older folks.

This is true, said Cline, for both their generation and younger ones.

“I definitely have hope for the future,” they said. “Having lived through a pandemic at such a young, pivotal age — people my age and younger are so inspired to make change, because we’ve seen how awful things can get.”

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje has worked in Texas newspaper journalism for more than three decades, at the San Antonio Light, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. She holds bachelor’s...