Never good enough - anxiety over employment among young adults
Over the last few years, I have been seeing a growing number of young adults in my private practice. Additionally, I have also been mentoring an increasing number of Oxford university alumni, as well as students from my former undergraduate college, St. Anne's. This year I was asked to speak at the college's 'Be Well and Get Well' lecture, an initiative launched after a student's suicide one and a half years ago. I have found that self-esteem, perfectionism, and work-related anxiety and stress are recurring issues. Therefore, I was not surprised when I discovered that the lack of employment opportunities was ranked first among the top ten challenges facing young people today by the education and health charity Central YMCA. As well as finding a job appropriate to their education and expectations, young adults are facing much greater levels of stress when in work. A 2018 survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that 60% of those aged 18-24 and 41% of 25-34 year-olds felt under pressure to succeed at work, compared with 17% of those in the 45-54 age group.
There is no time and space here to go through the many changes in the workplace and the future of careers; however, undoubtedly across the industrialised world, young people now face far tougher social and economic conditions than their parents (Ipsos, Mori 2014). Professionals working in services offering help to young adults must be aware of these external realities and the practical and psychological impact on this age group. I have heard over and over how graduates have been advised to prepare just a few well thought through applications when even the best candidates face rejection after rejection, competing for a few places among hundreds or even thousands of applicants. Many feel misunderstood, uncertain, in receipt of contradictory and/or outdated information, and generally, let down. They have been encouraged to go to university and are more likely than previous generations to come out with a first-class degree, but already in debt. Their expectation that university would serve as a springboard to full independence is largely unmet, and they are riddled with anxiety as to how and when they will be able to settle into a career and move out of their parents' home. Developmentally, this may feel like stagnation or even regression.
Freud counted the ability to love along with the capacity to work as a hallmark of full maturity, or in other words, as cornerstones of humanness. Leaving aside love, can Freud’s notion about work apply to this competitive, VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) work environment, where many will end up in jobs for which they are over-qualified, where zero hours and flexible work arrangements have eroded the securities and rights they can expect from employers and, as a result of the virtual workplace, they can potentially be exposed to work problems at 3 am? And how can young people get a sense of identity, satisfaction, and self-accomplishment in this new working environment? According to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, esteem needs include first feeling self-confidence and feeling good about oneself; and second feeling valued by others, that is that our achievements and contributions have been recognised by other people. When these esteem needs are not met, we may experience feelings of inferiority.
In my practice, I have increasingly been working with young adults who, by all standards, are greatly accomplished but who don’t feel good enough. One young patient told me that she had achieved a first-class honours degree in a prestigious course at an equally prestigious university. Knowing that she had been anxious about her results, I asked whether she was now satisfied, to which she replied that there was nothing to be proud of since she had chosen the easier module. Another young doctor, in his final stage of speciality training, expressed that whilst he had an OK salary, he did not feel successful, because people around him were making a lot more money. That said, he acknowledged that making a lot of money was not so important to him. Could it be that feelings of anxiety and dissatisfaction about work are not solely about the tougher external conditions but also due to debilitating levels of perfectionism? It’s a trend identified by a 2018 study of 40,000 American, Canadian, and British university students aged 18 to 22, from the University of Bath and York St John University.
The extent to which young people attach irrational importance to being perfect, hold unrealistic expectations of themselves and are highly self-critical, has increased by 10% over the past three decades. Socially prescribed perfectionism, to avoid being judged by others and to secure their approval, has increased most dramatically by 33%. According to the study’s co-author, Thomas Curran, "socially prescribed perfectionism is the one that is most problematic, as it is rooted in the need for others' validation and approval. It’s an exhausting existence on a day-to-day basis, an internal dialogue around 'I must impress people' or 'I must be seen as efficient' - thought processes that create internal conflicts and anxieties. There is a lot of research that suggests that it has a very negative effect on our mental well-being".
Whilst Curran emphasises that his study was not looking at causation, he believes perfectionism is increasing because of broader cultural issues; social media being a major factor. It seems to me though that the underlying issue is the way neoliberal meritocracy links high academic achievements or entry into the most profitable jobs with a promise of wealth and social status, and thus young people come to define themselves increasingly in the strict and narrow terms of personal achievement. Fed on this paradigm, it is hardly surprising that so many don’t know how to deal with the challenges and disappointments in their work-life. Some complain that their work is not being recognised quickly enough, and they want to quit and find somewhere better since everybody else is seen as rising-up the ladder. Recently, a successful commercial lawyer in her late twenties has come to see me complaining that she was feeling flat, unmotivated, and burnt out. She has been working punishing hours to fulfil her dream of making partner and has been told that she is on the right track and will be put forward in the next few years. She is now asking herself what this all means.
It is often said that what we need to do as therapists is help young people build the necessary resilience. This, I believe, is best achieved by helping them work through their high and often unrealistic expectations of themselves and others, the constant comparisons, and artificial targets. This work ultimately leads to greater self-acceptance, the ability to look at their options realistically and with an open mind, and make decisions based on what is right for them. All this is particularly important in the present work environment where we have seen a shift in the responsibility for managing careers from the organisation to the individual. 'Career adaptability' has become a key concept together with the shift from employment to employability. It is fifteen months since my young patient told me that her first-class degree was nothing to be proud of. In last week’s session, she reported that she told her boss that whilst she was finishing her MA thesis, he would have to accept that her work was just going to be good enough.
To conclude, the combination of a tougher social and economic environment and the rise of social media, together with the way that young people tend to define themselves narrowly by success and wealth, is having a detrimental impact on their mental health. There is a need for schools and universities to understand that pushing for ever higher standards is problematic. I remember how inspired I was when, at the end of my lecture at St.Anne’s college, the principal stood up and shared that she did not get the grade she had wished for, but that she had great memories of her time at university. We need to help young people focus on what they are truly passionate about and not what impresses others. This will help them to value themselves and be more resilient in tackling disappointments and challenges.
Find a counsellor or psychotherapist dealing with anxiety
All therapists are verified professionals.