The Best Years of Their Lives? Young Adults Reported More Anxiety Than Older Adults During Pandemic, Despite Lower Health Risks

The anxiety age gap between young and older adults grew during the COVID-19 pandemic, PRB analysis finds.

Early adulthood is often thought of as an exciting time, marked by increased independence and new opportunities. As they enter their 20s, young people are often encouraged to enjoy the so-called best years of their lives. Yet, this stage can also be fraught with increased uncertainty and responsibility. especially for those navigating the transitions of young adulthood in a global pandemic, a new PRB analysis shows.

PRB analyzed data from spring 2020 through fall 2022 using the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey to understand the anxiety of young adults (which we defined as people ages 18 to 29) relative to older adults (ages 60 and older). We found that more than 40% of young adults reported symptoms of anxiety—such as feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge—more days than not during the coronavirus pandemic.

These findings may not come as a surprise, given the events of the past three years: a global pandemic, record job losses during COVID-19 shutdowns, an attack on the U.S. Capitol, widespread demonstrations and global attention addressing systemic racism and police brutality, and the steepest year-over-year increase in consumer prices in 40 years.

What is surprising is that amidst these events, and despite facing greater health risks from COVID-19, older adults maintained much lower levels of anxiety than young adults during the pandemic. In fact, the anxiety age gap grew even as vaccines became available, restrictions were lifted, and the impacts of the pandemic on health, education, social relationships, and employment began to subside (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Young Adults Were the Most Anxious Group Throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic
Anxiety rates by age group, early and late pandemic period

Note: Early pandemic covers the period from April 23, 2020, to March 29, 2021, and late pandemic covers the period from April 27, 2022, to October 17, 2022. The Early Pandemic period reflects the period before vaccines were broadly available for COVID-19 while the Late Pandemic period reflects the period beginning one year after vaccine access began.

Source: PRB analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.


Here is what we know about the growing anxiety age gap during the COVID-19 pandemic:

1. Anxiety rates dropped more for older adults than young adultsthough young adults faced lower health risks.

Compared with young adults, older adults are much more likely to experience serious health issues from COVID-19 infections, and adults ages 65 to 74 have a COVID-19 death rate that is 60 times higher than the rate for young adults. Yet, as the pandemic progressed, the share of older adults reporting anxiety fell by 6 percentage points (from 22% to 16%), while anxiety rates for young adults decreased by 2 percentage points (from 43% to 41%).


2. Young adults were more anxious than older adults before the pandemic.

Recent cohorts of young adults have reported more clinical mental health symptoms than previous generations during the same life stage, a trend that extends back to the 1930s. Ahead of the pandemic, young adult anxiety was already rising, while older adult anxiety was on the decline.

Researchers have provided several explanations for this anxiety gap. Young adults may have different emotional responses to stressors than older adults, and older adults may be more likely to have received treatment for anxiety, resulting in fewer symptoms, or less likely to report their symptoms. Additionally, among young adults, addictive use of social media and growing concern about climate change and its impact on their futures have been linked to increased depression, anxiety, and stress among young adults.


3. The anxiety age gap grew for all racial and ethnic groups during the pandemic, but especially for Black adults.

The anxiety gap between Black young adults and Black older adults increased by 9 percentage points between April 2020 and October 2022. Black adults ages 18 to 29 saw a significant increase in anxiety (+3 percentage points), those 60 and older saw anxiety drop significantly (-7 percentage points).1

While the size of the gap grew most for Black adults, white non-Hispanic adults had the largest anxiety age gap overall at more than 25 percentage points. In fact, white young adults were significantly more anxious than their non-white peers, while white older adults were significantly less anxious than their non-white peers.


Figure 2. The Anxiety Age Gap Was Largest for White Adults, but Black Adults Saw the Gap Increase Most
Size of gap in anxiety rates by age group and racial/ethnic groups during the pandemic

Notes: Young adults refers to adults ages 18 to 29 while older adults refers to those ages 60 and older. Early pandemic covers the period from April 23, 2020, to March 29, 2021, and late pandemic covers the period from April 27, 2022, to October 17, 2022. The asterisk (*) in racial/ethnic categories denotes non-Hispanic.

Source: PRB analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.


4. Economic uncertainty alone does not explain the growing anxiety age gap.

Prior to the pandemic, many young adults were already worried about accessing and paying for health care, housing and food security, student loans, and personal debt. Young adults also have lower incomes, on average, compared with older adults—most of whom receive Social Security benefits. And they were particularly impacted by economic upheaval during the pandemic, especially those working in hospitality, leisure, and retail.  

However, using the Household Pulse Survey, we found that the share of young adults living in lower-income households (making less than $25,000 a year) decreased during the pandemic, dropping from 26% to 19% (Figure 3). Meanwhile, the share of older adults living in low-income households increased slightly.

While this may be partially explained by more young adults living with parents during the pandemic, we found similar patterns for job and housing insecurity; young adults’ economic well-being improved relative to older adults over the period examined, yet their anxiety rates did not fall in proportion to these improvements.

Figure 3. The Share of Young Adults Living in Lower-Income Households Declined During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Percent of persons living in lower-income households by age group and period

Note: Lower-income refers to persons living in households with incomes below $25,000. Early pandemic covers the period from April 23, 2020, to March 29, 2021, and Late pandemic covers the period from April 27, 2022, to October 17, 2022.

Source: PRB analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.


5. The pandemic uniquely affected areas of life young adults were already more worried about.

Because young adulthood is a period defined by personal, professional, and educational transitions, the pandemic’s impact on the economy, education systems, and opportunities for social interaction uniquely affected people in this age group. Pandemic conditions such as lockdowns, social distancing, shifts to virtual schooling, and restrictions on travel, intensified these areas of stress and worry that young adults were experiencing before the health crisis occurred.

Young adults were more likely to report that COVID-19 made it feel impossible for them to plan for their future, that their plans had been disrupted, and that their close relationships were negatively impacted. They were also more worried about issues unrelated to the pandemic that occurred during this period, including political elections, changes to abortion laws, rising suicide rates, and increased media reporting of sexual assault cases. Relative to older adults, more young adults report a desire to stay informed, but that following the news increased their stress and worry. While the relative health risks of the pandemic were lower for young adults, disruptions to the milestones associated with young adulthood made this age group particularly vulnerable to the mental health tolls of the pandemic. While recent media have emphasized the mental health crisis affecting teens, less has been reported about young adults’ psychological well-being.  More research is needed to determine the lasting impacts of pandemic disruptions on the mental health of those who entered and navigated the so-called best years of their lives during this period of global uncertainty.”


1 Statistically significant at <0.0001.