There’s been a lot of chatter lately about the mental health crisis facing the liberal kids these days. I don’t know if I have much to add in terms of generalities that hasn’t already been said, so here I’ll discuss its relevance for the Church long-term.
If youth were leaving organized religion in droves and they were thriving, having children, communities, and general happiness that would be one thing, but they’re not.
My responses to the concerns about liberal youth leaving the Church, and how the Church must adjust or die, are several: they’re not as uniformly activist left as supposed, that view is American-centric, there’s no evidence that liberal youth go to either liberal or conservative churches anyway, and in terms of fruits this brave new cohort of youth isn’t exactly inspiring confidence. Each of these points could easily be a post in itself, but here I’ll focus on the last one.
The numbers basically track with the anecdotal observations I and others have been accumulating for some time: for example, in the last class I taught about a third of my students had mental health requests from the disability accommodation office, hardly anyone could get basic assignments in, and I’ve heard similar stories across a wide variety of domains. Admittedly much of this started around COVID, but things haven’t gotten better post-COVID. The fact is that Gen Z just isn’t super functional. They’re not all bad, and in some domains they have things figured out more than the generations before them, but on the whole they don’t exactly inspire confidence in the idea that post-religion liberalism is the way to happiness and flourishing. Of course, this is a sensitive issue, as I don’t want to victim blame people with mental health issues, and in any individual case it would be inappropriate for me attribute particular mental health issues to particular beliefs.
However, in general terms the huge gap between cohorts (and liberals/conservatives and the religious/non-religious) mitigates against the view that depression is like a bacteria that you catch and the SSRI is the antibiotic, which raises the uncomfortable possibility that our worldviews, frameworks, and cognitions that we choose to nurture might be contributing to the problem (even if they aren’t the whole story). Whatever the case, this throws a pretty big wrench in the heuristic that The Youth are pointing in the right direction, so the Church needs to get ahead of that curve.
In terms of what this means in 2080, again throwing caution to the wind I suspect that Gen Z will continue to be the basket case generation (to be clear, I’m not saying that people with mental health issues are basket cases, the issues here go well beyond that), and yes many if not most most of them will leave the Church in the US. However, it’s the generation after that generation that interests me. They will be the children and grandchildren of the rare Gen Zers that did go to church, get jobs, and have children, while their aging society will be filled with depressed 18-year olds living in 70-year old bodies that have spent a lifetime drifting in and out of jobs and relationships. This might seem pretty harsh, but it isn’t any harsher than current popular culture depictions of the 1950s that imply that stay-at-home-momism causes mass depression. (And yes, old people always gripe about the young people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the old people aren’t sometimes right).
I’ve seen this pattern several times: a young, golden family’s oldest angrily leaves the Church, making parents anxious about whether they weren’t understanding enough, but then the child swings from personal crisis to personal crisis, the younger children see this, and even if they do leave the Church as well they have a bit more respect for the white picket fences their parents sacrificed to build for them. I think we’ll see the same thing intergenerationally as Gen Z will serve as a cautionary tale for my great-grandchildren. Those who can recognize the fruits of the spirit will see that the TBM Latter-day Saints, Traditional Latin Mass-going Catholics, Orthodox Jews, etc., are the ones with functional, stable lives and families, and membership in the Church will be increasingly less about where you happened to be born and more about the ability to recognize and move towards the Tree of Life.