Coming of age in an age of uncertainty

Bekassine, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0
Bekassine, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

From my window I can hear the bustle of the university’s orientation week in the courtyard below. But the noise is more muted than in previous summers. The absence of the large contingent of Chinese students trapped by the travel ban is noticeable.

Over the next few weeks it isn’t just university students starting a new chapter in their lives. All over Australia, young adolescents are braving another major life event: entering secondary school. Both educational settings are environments that will shape their identities. They promise learning, challenging minds and bodies, friendship and first loves. Why, then, is it such a frightening prospect for so many? And why do more and more young people struggle during these transitions—struggles that can lead to life-long mental health problems?

A world of volatility

Transitions in adolescence are fraught with shifting environments and responsibilities, and adolescence has long been associated with uncertainty. The novelty of new schools alone cannot explain today’s rise in the rate of mental health problems among young people worldwide. What about the general uncertainty they are experiencing in the world around them?

The students downstairs have arrived in these unfamiliar surroundings while bushfires give way to floods. They don’t know what parts of the country will still be habitable or affordable when the time comes to make their own homes. They worry about air quality, and how it will affect the children they hope to bring into the world. They don’t know when their fellow students quarantined in China will be back. They witness the adverse effect of recent natural disasters and a world health emergency on the Australian economy.

Adolescents entering high school this year were born at the height of the global financial crisis, and recent graduates grew up amidst a background of flux and volatility. Unlike the financial climate into which the Baby Boomers and their offspring were born, progress today seems precarious and talk of volatile markets and bubbles has become common parlance. In brief, young people today face uncertain economic and environmental futures.

Threatening social environments

Yet, the most immediate uncertainty that young people fear is the social uncertainty of their new surroundings. Adolescents are sensitive to social rejection—especially from peers—which threatens their emerging sense of self. Approval becomes the most valuable commodity.

Most adults have vivid, visceral memories of an embarrassing moment in front of their adolescent peers (in my case, accidentally spraying a mouthful of salad into the face of my high school crush) or of a painful rejection. Adults may also remember seeking safety in the non-social space of their bedrooms. But with today’s social media and mobile devices, refuge beyond social scrutiny is harder to find.

“High levels of intolerance to social and other uncertainty are known risk factors for depression and anxiety, which have some of the fastest rising rates among mental health problems.”

Surprisingly, for most young people this does not appear to be an issue. Large scale data from more than 350,000 young people as well as data from prospective studies show little association between mental health and device use at the population level. However, research has shown that people vary in their sensitivity to social and other forms of uncertainty. High levels of intolerance to social and other uncertainty are known risk factors for depression and anxiety, which have some of the fastest rising rates among mental health problems. Those adolescents most sensitive to uncertainty, then, may suffer from the omnipresent social world introduced to them with their first smartphone.

Learning to live with uncertainty

Schools are geared toward acquiring certainty, the knowable truth. Indeed, society equates progress with the eradication of uncertainty. We aim to predict the weather, stock markets, and the future of our oceans. We should continue to do all these things, but with an awareness of the unexpected, unknowable, and the increasing speed of change.

How can we equip young people to weather these storms of uncertainty? Helga Nowotny, an Austrian sociologist and long-time president of the European Research Council, proposes changing the way we teach our children about uncertainty beginning in primary school. She argues that learning to cope with uncertainty is one of our most valuable cultural resources.

“Learning to cope with uncertainty is one of our most valuable cultural resources.”

Scientists know that everything we learn is falsifiable, and research, Nowotny writes, is “a powerful and systematic process that seeks to transform uncertainties into certainties, only to be confronted with new uncertainties again.” Instilling a thirst for this process in children and society as a whole could make our young people more resilient in the face of very uncertain futures.

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