Time To Rewind: Life Today Far More Stressful Than It Was The ’90s, Especially For Middle-Aged Folks

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Just 21 short years ago we were all using beepers, debating the legitimacy of Y2K, and marveling at the wonders of America Online. A whole lot has changed and improved since then, but a new study finds that modern life may be much more stressful than the simpler times of the 20th century.

Using data collected before COVID-19 appeared on the global stage, a team of Penn State researchers noted higher levels of reported stress among all age-groups in comparison to the ’90s. However, middle-aged adults between the ages 45-64 have seen the biggest jump in stress levels over the past decades.

“On average, people reported about 2 percent more stressors in the 2010s compared to people in the past,” comments David M. Almeida, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State, in a release. “That’s around an additional week of stress a year. But what really surprised us is that people at mid-life reported a lot more stressors, about 19 percent more stress in 2010 than in 1990. And that translates to 64 more days of stress a year.”

Life moves at a quicker pace these days, and thanks to advancements in technology, we all have 24/7 access to news and pretty much any other information we may desire.

“Certainly, when you talk to people, they seem to think that daily life is more hectic and less certain these days,” Almeida explains. “And so we wanted to actually collect that data and run the analyses to test some of those ideas.”

Data collected from 1,499 adults in 1995 was compared to another dataset from a completely different group of 782 people gathered in 2012. Both groups were interviewed on a daily basis for eight straight days. During those interviews participants were asked about their stress levels over the preceding 24 hours. More specifically, they were asked what was causing the stress, how intense the stress was, and if they believed it was influencing other areas of their life.

“We were able to estimate not only how frequently people experienced stress, but also what those stressors mean to them,” Almeida says. “For example, did this stress affect their finances or their plans for the future. And by having these two cohorts of people, we were able to compare daily stress processes in 1990 with daily stress processes in 2010.”

In all, the findings were quite clear; people in 2012 indicated higher stress and lower wellbeing than the 90s group. Moreover, the modern group reported a 27% increase in the belief that stress is impacting their finances and a 17% jump in the belief that stress will affect their future plans.

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The study’s authors weren’t all that surprised to see people are more stressed nowadays, but they were taken aback that middle-aged adults appear to be having the toughest time.

“We thought that with the economic uncertainty, life might be more stressful for younger adults,” Almeida notes. “But we didn’t see that. We saw more stress for people at mid-life. And maybe that’s because they have children who are facing an uncertain job market while also responsible for their own parents. So it’s this generational squeeze that’s making stress more prevalent for people at mid-life.”

For what it’s worth, Almeida doesn’t think the stereotypical “mid-life crisis” is to blame for these results.

“It may have to do with people at mid-life being responsible for a lot of people,” he theorizes. “They’re responsible for their children, oftentimes they’re responsible for their parents, and they may also be responsible for employees at work. And with that responsibility comes more daily stress, and maybe that’s happening more so now than in the past.”

I’s hard to imagine that these findings aren’t at least partially due to smartphones and other technological advancements. Furthermore, considering that the modern data used here was from 2012, it’s very possible that people are even more stressed out today than they were eight years ago.

“With people always on their smartphones, they have access to constant news and information that could be overwhelming,” Almeida concludes.

The study is published in American Psychologist.

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