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Why India's Gen Z and millennials feel more stressed

Tanika Godbole in New Delhi
January 29, 2024

Young people in India report feeling much more stressed than older generations. "We've literally never known a world that wasn't on the precipice," one of them told DW.

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A young couple looks over a balcony in India
According to researchers, younger Indians were more likely to face anxiety than older generationsImage: Yogesh S. More/IMAGO

Meghana AT, a theater artist from Mumbai, is the creator of an interactive show "Plan B/C/D/E." Throughout the performance, she talks about her climate anxiety and tries to come up with solutions to deal with the threat of climate change together with her audience.

"I love asking people in the audience when was the first time they heard about climate change," the 28-year-old told DW. "While older people say they heard about it in their 40s or 50s, many younger people like me have grown up hearing about it to the extent that we don't remember a life where we didn't know about climate change. We've literally never known a world that wasn't on the precipice."

"We have a lot more access to information and news from across the world. It is important to stay informed and aware, but sometimes it can be too overwhelming," she added.

A study conducted by ICICI Lombard, one of India's largest general insurers, suggested that Gen Z and millennial Indians are far more prone to stress and anxiety than older generations.

About 77% of Indians displayed at least one symptom of stress, and one in every third Indian was struggling with stress and anxiety. But younger Indians, particularly from the Gen Z cohort, were more likely to be affected by stress, anxiety and chronic illnesses, said the study.

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Modi's recipe

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears eager to confront the crisis. Since 2018, he has held annual events at which he speaks with students, parents and teachers from all over India, answering their questions and offering advice on how pupils preparing for university entrance or board examinations can reduce stress in their daily lives.

The 2024 event was held in New Delhi on Monday.  During the event, Modi warned that "pressure should not be so high that it affects one's capabilities" and students should "not stretch to extreme levels." He also urged parents, relatives and teachers to abstain from a "running commentary" on the students' performance, saying it invites "negative comparisons" and is "detrimental to student's mental well-being."

But academic pressure is just one piece of the puzzle.

What is causing all this stress?

Mohit, a 24-year-old from New Delhi, told DW that many of his peers found it hard to transition from the world of education into the early stages of their careers.

"Most of my college education happened during the pandemic. After things opened up again, I was suddenly a working professional," he said. "I also feel a lot of workplaces are toxic and have a poor work-life balance. My generation is just not going to put up with this."

This sentiment is supported by the study, which indicated a decline in well-being at the workplace, especially for female and Gen Z workers. The pandemic "has fundamentally changed workplaces, with employees expecting better mental wellbeing," the survey said.

"There is some pressure to align with the hustle culture — where young people feel the need to push themselves constantly," Pratishtha Trivedi Mirza, senior clinical psychologist at the mental health organization Amaha, told DW. "It manifests as anxiety about not doing enough or not achieving as much as they think they should.

"In addition, young people often also compare themselves to their peers or even idols [such as] celebrities, influencers, relevant industry people, and end up negatively evaluating their own selves — resulting in a low sense of self-worth and self-esteem issues."

Is my workplace toxic?

'What's the point in having children?'

A report by Sapien Labs Centre for the Human Brain and Mind of Krea University said across income levels, about 51% of Indian youth (defined as aged 18-24) were struggling or distressed. The report was based on information collected from respondents who had internet access between April 2020 and August 2023. It also showed a decline in mental well-being after the pandemic.

"At my age, my parents were ready to get married and start a family. But I don't think I am ready for any such adult behavior. What's the point in having children? It's all bad news everywhere, there's nothing to be hopeful about," Anisha, a 22-year-old student from Bengaluru told DW.

"It feels like everyone is living a better life than me whenever I open social media. But you can't really avoid being on social media either," she added.

Clinical psychologist Mirza said social conflicts and wars in different parts of the world are also part of the equation.

"Gen Z and millennials are more connected to the world through social media. It also manifests as privilege guilt when youngsters feel that they have some opportunities and resources that others don't. Overall global situations — wars in different countries, and other social-political conflicts and the uncertainties that these issues bring — are also contributing to stress in the younger generation," Mirza explained.

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Many more people willing to get help

Indians are growing increasingly aware of the significance of mental health and well-being. In a 2021 survey by the Live Laugh Love Foundation, an organization that works to raise awareness for mental health, 92% of respondents were willing to seek treatment for themselves or someone they knew, up from 54% in 2018. While the study only covered metropolitan cities, it did show an uptick in general awareness, especially among younger generations.

However, this awareness has yet to translate into better mental health for young Indians, Mirza pointed out. "While young people are more able to recognize and understand mental health concerns, they may not be aware of what to do about it. Plus, the social and self-stigma interferes in timely help seeking," she said, adding that access to credible resources may not be available for everyone.

Also, many of the larger social, cultural, political and economic challenges are outside of the control of Gen Z, compounding their stress levels, Mirza explained.

"Awareness about mental health has increased, and there is some reduction in stigma about mental illnesses and overall help-seeking post-COVID," she concluded. "But there is still a long way to go." 

Edited by: Darko Janjevic