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Thriving but worse than ever before: the case of young Australians

By Ashley Humphrey - posted Monday, 29 June 2020


It is true that young Australians today benefit from a range of economic, social and health related advantages that previous generations of young people would have only dreamed of. And yet despite the many developments evident in modern Australian life, there is pervasive evidence to suggest that the life satisfaction and wellbeing of young Australians is in decline. Generational data on mental health for example points towards an increase in the amount of psychological health issues experienced by young Australian people over the preceding decades.

Interestingly, this trend seems to be consistent across high-income developed countries, and is far less apparent in developing contexts, suggesting that this deterioration of mental health may be culture specific. Discussing generational declines in the quality of mental health experienced by young people, American Psychologist Jean Twenge reasons that cultural factors could be playing a key role, stating that 'something about modern Western life is causing more and more young people, to feel anxious and depressed'. In a 2010 research paper exploring shifts in young people's values as well as mental health, Twenge points to culture's deteriorating social connections and increased emphasis on image and competition, as two key potential influences.

This is a provocative suggestion, yet one backed up by a body of research suggesting that there have been subtle but significant consequences to many of the progresses seen in Australian life over the previous decades. Cultural research for example indicates a shift in Australian social practices towards more 'individualistic values' over the past few generations. Individualistic values within a social science context refer to a preference independence, pursuing personal goals, and maintaining relationships when the costs do not outweigh the benefits. Such values are in a sense, the hallmark of the developed world. They have been credited with liberating us from the hierarchies of religious oppression, class hierarchy, as well as enhancing human rights, self-determinism, and economic opportunities. Specific to young Australians, individualism has granted them a greater autonomy to express themselves and make important life decisions independent of external influences. However, recent findings from a range of psychological research suggests that socially orienting oneself in such a way may actually comprise a range of detriments that can be harmful to young people's wellbeing. Supportive of this notion were findings from a recent study that I co-authored with Ana-Maria Bliuc and Pascal Molenberghs at Monash University, revealing associations between individualistic values and poorer social support, increasing levels of isolation, and overall diminished mental health indicators in young people.

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Individualism as well as the freedoms and adverse social consequences associated with it have prospered in Australian society in part due to decades of relatively undisturbed economic prosperity. Australia's economic position over the past few decades has allowed young people today greater opportunities for their futures than ever before, while also catering for increased resources and improved quality of life indicators more generally. And yet such an economic context has also been shown by an array of social research to lead people towards favoring materialistic values (such as the consumption of material items and the pursuit of wealth and status), over more intrinsic based values (such as maintaining close relationship with others, giving time to the community, and looking after one's overall health). Messages promoting materialistic ideals are prolific and alluring within the developed world, encouraging many people to subconsciously draw on these messages to define and govern their values, world view, behaviors and aspirations. Research findings also show these values to be problematic when it comes to psychological health, linking orientations to materialism with greater levels of uncertainty and competitiveness amongst young people, as well as overall poorer mental health outcomes.

Despite these research findings indicating that cultural influences can significantly influence young people's psychological health, the general discourse around youth mental health issues has largely overlooked its impact. Education and policy-based responses to depression and other mental health issues in Australia has instead focused on their individual nature, with the broader influence of cultural factors largely ignored. And yet the research makes the compelling case that our understanding of depression and mental health issues needs to move beyond individual-level factors, to include broader social and cultural influences.

This sets a challenge to families, schools and wellbeing professionals to be more mindful of the cultural messages that permeate the worlds of young people today, and how these voices may adversely influence wellbeing. Youth mental health is now a topic of major national concern, with billions of dollars spent annually in educating young people on the importance of looking after their psychological health, while also providing them with practical and evidence based tools to assist with this. With this emerging understanding of the damaging effects cultural influences can have on young people's psychological health, it seems timely that such curriculum should also include education on helping young people establish values and behaviours that will best foster their psychological health now and into the future. Discussing these adverse cultural messages we receive in developed countries such as Australia, social researcher Richard Eckersley suggests, "we need to change the myths, beliefs and values by which we define ourselves, our lives, and our goals." If Australian young people are ever to truly thrive against the highly individualised and capitalist social backdrop of twenty-first century life in Australia, it is crucial that more attention is paid towards educating young people around the adverse effects such a culture can have.

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About the Author

Ashley Humphrey is a research psychologist and lecturer at Federation University, as well as CEO of the JET Network, an organisation that delivers seminars addressing the topic of values and mental health to thousands of young people every year.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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