Over the past several years, I’ve been observing and writing about the malaise that many twentysomethings experience post-college: feeling stuck, not finding satisfaction in career direction or relationships, unsuccessfully grappling for greater purpose in life, etc. These are all part of what I’ve called “The Twenties BeatDown.”
Though it appears this phenomenon is now surfacing in the college years. Recently, I’ve observed many of the students I mentor are enduring significant amount of duress during their college years, which I personally did not experience. People used to experience their crisis mid-life, then quarter-life, now it seems to be creeping down in the earlier years of college. Since these are still critical formative years, perhaps it’s a good idea to ask if higher education is really achieving the desired result
A couple of students who I mentor recently have described the overwhelming stress and pressure they are facing while in college. Two students come to mind in particular: one, a male enrolled at an Ivy League college; the other, a female at a similarly competitive university. Both of these students come from stable families, are very bright and are highly ambitious and serious about their studies. However, both report that they’re barely able to hold on.
Renée* has admitted to being on the verge of a breakdown on a couple of occasions last semester alone. “The expectations are handed over to us along with the stress, but we are not given the tools to be able to handle or cope with the stress,” she told me.
She’s corroborated her experience with some of her close friends at other universities who report the same malaise. “Education should help awaken our desire to learn, but instead school stifles learning and it makes you feel like learning is a chore.”
Renée once loved reading, but now she’ll try to pick up any of her favorite books and can only skim them, no longer receiving joy from her favorite, and genuinely beneficial, pastime. “The pressure of every step is immense. It starts even in elementary school, then high school. Everyone tells you that you have to do well in high school to get into a good college; then, employers and graduate schools require all of these demands. And so, if you miss just one step or do poorly on just one exam or project, then it all falls apart.”
Renée’s struggle didn’t remain unnoticed; a professor observed that her countenance had dropped as the semester went on, from visibly excited and energized to completely downcast and lifeless. When he inquired of her, she explained how she was just “beat down” by the stress of keeping up with all of the work.
“How are you coping with the stress?” the professor asked.
“Coping?!” Renée exclaimed. “I’m just living with it.”
From all her stress and sleep deprivation, Renée is just barely holding on; she has even visited her doctor who put her on medication.
The other student, Massey*, told me an eerily similar story about his past semester. He wants to enroll in medical school, yet is so overwhelmed by sleep deprivation and stress that he is looking at his life and asking, “Is this worth it?”
Renée also said that the immensity of the workload, in parallel with an undefined sense of purpose in life, leads her and her friends into almost a depression. “What’s the point?”
Both Renée and Massey are suffering socially also, as they feel they don’t have the time to invest in relationships or social-support structures in their new communities. Neither one is a partier or a heavy drinker, but they can see why many of their colleagues binge. One of them even admitted they entertained the idea of drug use as a possible escape.
If the average student goes to the doctor for these kinds of problems, they will receive a prescription. What’s the difference between a generation being medicated by anti-depressants or Adderall verses engaging in self-medication of excessive drinking or drug use?
High school can present strikingly similar problems. I’m mentoring a high school senior, who is very similar in character and values to Renée and Massey, yet he likewise feels overwhelmed by the pressure of the demands of school and extracurricular activities yet he’s not getting true development. “Our modern-day educational system has crucially limited individuals in their personal development,” he claims. This hard-working student is trying to determine his place in this society, but has not received any such assistance on where to apply his talents for his future.
He’s above average. He’s already obtained two excellent internships in high school (many college seniors I know don’t even have any internship experience), and he’s still asking, “What is my purpose? What do I do next? I’m doing everything I’m ‘supposed to,’ but I’m so stressed out.”
Colleges and high schools are the primary institutions to help young people transition from adolescence to adulthood, but are they really preparing our young for the challenges of the world? As one college junior put it, “We are forced to do what the system encourages us to do. But this is not necessarily preparing us for the future. It just gets us out of college.”
*Names have been changed to honor privacy.