The Dark Side of a College Student’s Brain

I know. That’s quite an audacious headline for a blog article, isn’t it? In fact, you may suspect the content would be rated NC17 or X, assuming I’m talking about students’ preoccupation with parties, sex and drinking.

But I’m not talking about those topics.

I am talking about what’s looming beneath their goofy humor on social media, or the trash talk on an athletic field or the conversations that take place at parties about the opposite gender. I am speaking of the melancholy attitude that lurks beneath the surface of young adults today, between the ages of 19 and 29 years old.

Why the Melancholy Attitudes?

Did you know that debt among 19 to 29-year-old Americans exceeded $1 trillion by the end of 2018, according to the New York Federal Reserve Consumer Credit Panel? That is the highest debt young adults have endured since 2007, when we first entered the Great Recession. Leading the way in this debt crisis is student loans, followed by car loans and credit card debt. Bottom line? Young adults are entering adulthood feeling behind the eight ball. This is leading young people to put off:

  • Buying a car.  (They are getting used to Uber and Lyft.)
  • Buying a house. (They will rent longer or stay in their parents’ homes.)
  • Starting families of their own. (They’ll stay single and unattached longer.)
  • Saving for the future. (Their debt is so large, millions are in survival mode.)

In fact, Bloomberg just reported, “Debt levels play a role in how young adults view their spending conditions, according to a University of Michigan . Younger adults—those under age 35—have reduced their spending compared with previous generations, possibly because of weakened job prospects, delayed marriage and educational debt.”

The Fine Line Between Optimism and Pragmatism

While the Millennials were accused of being over-confident and idealistic as teens, Generation Z has grown up in more challenging economic times, and leans toward pragmatism. I actually think that’s not bad. Youth always tend to be more idealistic than their elders, and reality checks can help a young professional keep it real.

My concern lies in what a down economy does to their future prospects and their present perspective.  A population of graduates who enter the workforce during poor economic times takes decades to recover from financially. They enter the job market with lower paychecks and a lower chance at moving forward fast. Some never recover their entire career. This reality colors their view of their life. Things seem a bit darker; a lot tougher; a bit more hopeless. Students in our 2017 focus groups said their greatest fear is they’ll get a job they don’t like, but have to it keep it for the money. Last month, Gnash released a song called, “Pajamas.” It’s resonating with a large population of youth. Look at some of the lyrics:

Let’s watch TV with the sound off
‘Cause the news is always bad
Let’s be immature and ignorant
‘Cause I don’t feel like being sad
I wonder if the last generation was better
I wonder if the next one’s going to hell

Am I the solution, am I the problem?
‘Cause sometimes I can’t tell

I don’t know what the point is
Just know I’ve been disappointed
Each night and every mornin’
And I don’t wanna play no more

Let’s stay in our pajamas
Let’s not leave the house
It’s been real bad lately
But I feel pretty good right now
With you laying
With me on the couch
Nobody understands us

And I don’t understand it
But let’s stay in our pajamas

Three Requirements We Have as Leaders

Leading these young adults well requires us to understand three imperatives:

1. Trust must be earned.

They saw adults give advice to Millennials that didn’t work. The college degree didn’t translate into a good job right away. We forgot to warn them about tuition debt. Gen Z is more suspicious of what adults say to them.

2. Relationship must be established.

They long for real face-to-face connections, but often don’t know how to start them. Emotional intimacy is a target, but they’re not sure how to hit it. We must build bridges of relationship that can bear the weight of truth.

3. Hope must be offered.

We must remind them they can succeed. They need to hear they have it in them; that they have what it takes to be a thriving adult. They need to hear these things from someone they respect. Napoleon Bonaparte said, “Leaders are dealers in hope.”

The Dark Side of a College Student’s Brain