Even before COVID, we faced more stress than in the ’90s

"We thought that with the economic uncertainty, life might be more stressful for younger adults," Almeida says. "But we didn't see that," says David M. Almeida. "We saw more stress for people at mid-life."(Credit: Jason Swaby/Flickr)

Even before the novel coronavirus started sweeping the globe, life may have become more stressful than it was in the 1990s, according to a new study.

Researchers found that across all ages, there was a slight increase in daily stress in the 2010s compared to the 1990s. But when researchers restricted the sample to people between the ages of 45 and 64, there was a sharp increase in daily stress.

“On average, people reported about 2% more stressors in the 2010s compared to people in the past,” says David M. Almeida, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State.

“It may have to do with people at mid-life being responsible for a lot of people.”

“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% more stress in 2010 than in 1990. And that translates to 64 more days of stress a year.”

Almeida says the findings were part of a larger project aiming to discover whether health during the middle of Americans’ lives has been changing over time.

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

For the study, the researchers used data collected from 1,499 adults in 1995 and 782 different adults in 2012. Almeida says the goal was to study two cohorts of people who were the same age at the time researchers collected the data but born in different decades. Researchers interviewed all study participants daily for eight consecutive days.

During each daily interview, the researchers asked the participants about their stressful experiences throughout the previous 24 hours. For example, arguments with family or friends or feeling overwhelmed at home or work. The participants were also asked how severe their stress was and whether those stressors were likely to affect other areas of their lives.

“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.”

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that participants reported significantly more daily stress and lower well-being in the 2010s compared to the 1990s. Additionally, participants reported a 27% increase in the belief that stress would affect their finances and a 17% increase in the belief that stress would affect their future plans.

Almeida says he was surprised not that people were more stressed now than in the 1990s, but at the age group that was mainly affected.

“We thought that with the economic uncertainty, life might be more stressful for younger adults,” Almeida says. “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.”

Almeida says that while there used to be a stereotype about people experiencing a midlife crisis because of a fear of death and getting older, he suspects the study findings suggest midlife distress may be due to different reasons.

“It may have to do with people at mid-life being responsible for a lot of people,” Almeida says. “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.”

Additionally, Almeida says the added stress could partially be due to life “speeding up” due to technological advances. This could be particularly true during stressful times like the coronavirus pandemic, when tuning out the news can seem impossible.

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

The research will appear in American Psychologist. Additional researchers from the University of California, Irvine; Penn State; Humboldt University Berlin; Oregon State University; Boston University Schools of Public Health and Medicine; and Department of Veteran’s Affairs contributed to the work.

This research is part of the Midlife in the United State Study. The National Institute on Aging and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation supported the work.

Source: Penn State