Are young people really less resilient? What the research tells us

Eminent Australian Ita Buttrose opens a can of worms in her assessment of young workers.

Ita Buttrose

Peter O'Connor, Queensland University of Technology

Young workers lack resilience and “need hugging”, according to eminent Australian Ita Buttrose.

The 78-year old ABC chair told a forum of the Australia-United Kingdom Chamber of Commerce:

They’re very keen on being thanked and they almost need hugging. That’s before COVID of course, we can’t hug any more. But they almost need hugging […] they seem to lack the resilience that I remember from my younger days.

Not surprisingly, many young people have been unimpressed by her comments. They’ve found older allies too, such as 80-year-old department store king Gerry Norman, who said every generation believed younger people weren’t as tough.

So are younger people really less resilient at work? Or is this simply an example of older people holding negative stereotypes about younger people?

Fortunately we have decades of research on personality change, mental health and even COVID-19 to answer this question.

Most research does clearly indicate younger people are – on average – less resilient than older people. They are more prone to stress, less emotionally stable and less tolerant of ambiguity than older people.

What drives these age-related differences is less clear. It is partly to do with maturity. People become more resilient as they age. A baby boomer is likely to be more resilient than a millennial by the sheer fact of being older.

The bigger question is whether young people now are also less resilient than previous generations at the same age. On this the jury is still out, though some evidence does support Ms Buttrose’s imputations.

A correlation, but it’s weak
In previous published research I have found younger people cope less well with work ambiguity, and more easily experience stress in response.

In recent months I have been collecting data on how Australian workers are coping with COVID-19 work changes. Preliminary analysis indicates younger people are more stressed and less satisfied than older workers – and these results are not due to the extra pressures experienced by young people (financial strains, having young children, etc).

However, it is important to note that while numerous studies confirm a “statistically significant” relationship between age and resilience, it’s comparatively weak.

In my data the correlations range from 0.1 to 0.3 (0 being no correlation and 1 being a perfect correlation). This indicated that while younger workers, on average, were less resilient than older workers, there were many exceptions. Some of the most resilient workers were young, and some of the least resilient were above 60.

So a young person can still be highly resilient.

Comparisons to past generations
As noted, the jury is still out on whether young workers today are less resilient than young workers in the past.

This is in part due to the methodological challenge of disentangling maturation from cohort effects, along with reconciling findings from studies conducted in different countries.

There is emerging research, however, that seeks to disentangle the maturation and cohort effects and suggests younger workers now are less resilient than young people used to be.

US psychology researchers Kenneth Stewart and Paul Bernhardt, for example, compared 2004–08 university students with pre-1987 undergraduates. They found the 2000s cohort had lower psychological health and higher narcissism – traits associated with low resilience.

Cross-sectional studies from Australia have reported similar patterns. Neuroticism seems to be increasing in younger generations, as does the need for recognition, whereas optimism is falling.

Products of coddling?
One explanation for why resilience might be declining in young people is outlined in the 2018 book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by psychologist Jonathan Haidt and co-author Greg Lukianoff. It argues good intentions from adults and three “great untruths” have hurt young people’s resilience. The untruths are:

  1. what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker
  2. always trust your feelings
  3. life is a battle between good and evil people.

Lukianoff and Haidt suggest these messages (from overprotective parents and others) have reduced children’s exposure to the challenges and stressors they need to develop and flourish. They have also increased the tendency to engage in black-and-white thinking.

The authors make a well-reasoned case consistent with much of the existing evidence.

Improving workplaces
Ms Buttrose noted younger workers “like more transparency” and “need more reassurance and they need to be thanked”.

But let’s distinguish these issues from the question of resilience. Employees of all ages appreciate recognition and psychological safety. Such expectations are not a sign a worker lacks resilience.

So yes, it appears younger people today are less resilient than previous generations. But generational differences in resilience are small and probably exist due to a range of factors young people have little control over.

We should take care not to write off a range of effective workplace practices as unnecessary actions to appease non-resilient young people.The Conversation

Peter O'Connor, Professor, Business and Management, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Do you have a view on whether young people today are less resilient than we were when we were in our 20s?

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    To make a comment, please register or login
    28th Jul 2020
    My experience of younger workers dates from ~6 years ago, but I do recall thinking that things haven't really changed much from my own youth - know little, think you know it all, those old farts are useless, I am bulletproof.

    Maybe this little virus might waken them up to the realities of what us old folk actually knew and did. You don't know what you have till you have it no more.
    28th Jul 2020
    They are being adequately described by Ita, not all of course. But find many rude, self opinionated and disrespectful.
    29th Jul 2020
    ......... lol - yeah right - just like the majority on this site!
    28th Jul 2020
    Ms Buttrose needs to go away and butt out. Fancy working for her! I think she’d be a nightmare. As to saying people want to be hugged, if a man said that, he’d be rightly accused of inappropriate behaviour.
    28th Jul 2020
    maybe young people are more stressed at work than we were is because when we were young if we didnt like a job we could tell the boss to stick it at lunch time and have another job before the end of the day. Which I did on more than one occasion. Another reason may be because of all the political correctness twank which they have to observe in the workplace. Cant be much fun working now. We relieved a stressful situation by having a laugh or a flirt or giving someone a mouthful, all things which will have the human relations prefects come down on you like a ton of bricks. My working life was spent during the best period in Australia and I feel sorry for young people starting out now.
    28th Jul 2020
    I always struggled to get work firing the so called good times even having to overseas on the early 70's to get work. P the other hand when times were hard to find work and unemployment was high as now I thrived and have never earnt so much.
    28th Jul 2020
    Maybe at 78 Ita is too old to be in such a powerful position as Chair of the ABC and a younger person may be able to approach this demanding role with youthful enthusiasm and vigor. Its easy to criticise young people but in my experience they display, in the main, a sound work ethic and a willingness to meet consumers needs far better than some of the older workers out there, particularly in retail and hospitality.
    Country John
    28th Jul 2020
    I don't think all young people are less resilient.. some for sure would be. I was an employer for 20 of years. I found the younger people to be more rude (don't give up their seats for older people) less tidy (don't arrive at work clean shaven) and certainly don't like being told to cover their tattoos and remove all their rings and knobs and chains of of their faces. I don't think it's professional appearing with all that exposed. I am told it's the fashion.
    Resilience in my workplace was pretty good generally although there were a couple that were not so good. As far as today's youth resilience it's hard to tell. Things generally are very different and to say that today's youth are not as resilient is pretty hard thing to say. I wonder if part of that belief could be the generation gap?
    28th Jul 2020
    People that are employed always say its easy to find work. Having said that I think casualisation of the work force causes a lot of stress. During covid19 its actually causing deaths and proving that its not such a good thing. Ofcourse the young find it hard as the chances they are on yearly contracts even in government jobs. I don't know what the fix is but a casual work force is not the answer.
    28th Jul 2020
    At `14 years of age many young boys signed up to go to WW!....could not in a million years see that happening with the current generations. I agree with Ita...and she is definitely not my cup of tea at all
    28th Jul 2020
    I suspect that when I was a teenager my elders in their 70s, who had been through 2 world wars plus the great depression, said much the same as Ms Buttrose said about my generation. I suspect they thought we had it too easy, working only a 44 hour week and unemployment benefits if we inadvertently lost our job. The more things change the more they stay the same.
    One reason I retired when I did was I could not keep up with technology like my younger work colleagues, for someone who did engineering with a slide rule and a set of Log tables, the modern age of computerization was leaving me behind. I simple stood aside and was glad to do so. I suspect in 50 years time the twenty somethings of today will be saying the same about the generation born in the the 2050s.I think it is called progress.
    28th Jul 2020
    Yes they are less resilient but it is not all bad. I was old then at 67 in a local govt.being bullied by a boss supported by the powers to be (as always). I had no choice but to be resilient. About 20 young ones left and I remained. I had nervous break downs with no support from the powers to be. The support was from the young ones who left.
    28th Jul 2020
    I tend to agree with Ita on this one! I wouldn’t say all younger people are less resilient but I would agree that the majority are. Moreso than when I was younger - we tended to be able to ‘buck up’ and keep going if things got bad and push through to the finish, then breathe a sigh of relief. These days it seems that it’s always someone else’s problem and everything has to be fixed for them. We have 4 children ages from 33 - 28 and they were brought up to be resilient; to do things for themselves
    and To go out and get what they wanted instead of waiting for it to be handed to them. They are all doing well and don’t have any mental health issues which seems to be the plague of the young people these days. Perhaps their expectations are too high and they can’t deal with not having ‘everything’ they think they need to be happy. I don’t remember the govt bailing out our generation like it does now when there’s a disaster - we just climbed on our insurance and moved on. I think the perception the the Govt is responsible to ‘make things right’ all the time breeds a dependant population that has a strong sense of ‘entitlement’. Goodness knows there are so many people on ‘welfare for generations’ in this country who believe that’s actually a way of life! It was never like that years ago.
    28th Jul 2020
    Don't forget Ita did not even applied for the job like every thing this Government does it is for there mates she would not know what a hard days work was
    29th Jul 2020
    Over the last 30 years we have worked really hard at removing any kind of 'stress' or disappointment for kids. Every child gets an award (can't leave someone out - bad for their psyche), there are no competative games (no winners or losers), you must invite every child in the class to a birthday party (even those your child doesn't like) QLD Dept of Education even issued a directive not to use a red pen when marking work because seeing red ink pointing out errors was 'upsetting' for students, grades have been removed from reports so no child 'fails', teachers can't say 'No'. Every possible danger has been removed from the school playground so much so, running is forbidden, no handstands: even in kids playgrounds all possible dangers have been watered down so the little darlings don't take risks or heaven forbid, fall off and hurt themselves.

    Then add to all this the medicalising of just about every human emotion - no one gets nervous any more they suffer with anxiety, no one is ever sad - they are depressed, parents rush to sort out playground fights instead of letting the kids sort it out for themselves. Nothing is ever a childhood fight by the way, it is now all 'bullying'. Kids are no longer taught to be strong, self reliant and independent,- its all about 'rights' and no responsibility all largely driven by minority groups with inferiority complexes and chips on their shoulders.

    With all this, is it really any wonder that the younger generations (and not just Millenials) are less resilient than in the past? They have been cossetted to within an inch of their lives and this is to the detriment of their development to adulthood resulting in petulant, fragile demanding narcissists who expect the world to be given to them on a plate.

    Just looking round my own workplace, it is quite evident that there is a vast difference in resilience between the staff over 55 and those recent Masters Graduates who think the world owes them a living. The constant 'thanking' that goes on in meetings (for little more than turning up and doing the job they were employed to do - forget going above and beyond) is frankly nauseating and devalues those who have really achieved something remarkable.

    And yes it is not all young people, just as not all older people are supremely resilient, but given these kids have never really been challenged or had to deal with difficulties or disappointment, is it really any wonder? Society reaps what it sows, and by and large we have sown delicate little flowers unable to weather the lightest shower.
    29th Jul 2020
    Well said. Lets hope that those of us that could see this coming have raised our children to be resilient.
    29th Jul 2020
    Yep, Ita is correct and so are you. Lot of current M generation believe if they do their job they deserve recognition. To me the recognition is them retaining their job. A lot are self serving, ego driven who do not understand the meaning of going the extra yard. Lot lack common sense and are unable to follow direction. I fear for our society, to pinch an M saying, "going forward".
    29th Jul 2020
    KSS, cannot fault what you say.

    We have bought this upon ourselves.
    29th Jul 2020
    It would be great if the author of this article could speak plain English, e.g. paragraph with the heading of " comparisons to younger generations" is just showing off.
    29th Jul 2020
    It would be great if you were able to express yourself clearly enough for us to understand just exactly what you are talking about.

    Using paragraphing has nothing to do with showing off.
    Big Kev
    30th Jul 2020
    I think they are more resilient. We had one job for life. They often have to change jobs every 2 years. Many I know are on contract and don't get rec, leave, sick leave or long service. Many have bosses who set them up on artificial sub-contracts.
    30th Jul 2020
    You must be 1 of the lucky ones having a job for life. I've had many jobs some permanent but mostly casual and so have most people I know.
    30th Jul 2020
    One thing that is not in the article and should be is that the public school and sport sytem for children has a lot to answer for. Namely, every child gets an award for participating or attending school. Why get awards for doing what is expected of you. You get awards for achieving ahead of others in a group. Playing football is another example. They have games where scores are not kept or there is not a winning team. Then you hear of universities having a room where you can let emotions out etc. For goodness sake, the world and life is competitive. Stop mollycoddling kids. Yes love them and let them be kids but above else let them experience failure and the emotion that goes with it. Teach them to get up and try try again. They may then be more resilient to work bloody hard and not expect someone else to pick up their slack. Ita, this one you have got right.

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