Posted in: thought leadership

2nd August 2022

The Kids Are Not Alright

By Halla Tómasdóttir, CEO of The B Team

This essay featured in the August 2022 edition of The Catalyst, The B Team's monthly newsletter. Learn more and subscribe to receive leadership insights, advocacy opportunities and conversations between business and civil society leaders exploring a better way of doing business for people and planet.

"Mom, I'm thinking of changing my major to psychology. It feels like everyone around me is suffering from anxiety, depression and a general lack of mental wellbeing. Maybe I can help.

My daughter Ina shared these words with me halfway through her first year in college. She’ll always have my love and support no matter what path she chooses in life, but her willingness to take on the growing mental health crisis fills me with admiration and gratitude.

Ina’s shift in thinking also reinforced my growing fear about our unjust world. Citizens of the Global South are disproportionately bearing the brunt of a climate crisis they did not create; similarly, young people will be saddled with a future of threats, uncertainty and shrinking opportunity — a cruel gift imparted to them by my generation of leaders.

As many young people see it, the world doesn't make much sense anymore. Can you blame them? The ongoing pandemic has dramatically reshaped their most formative years, and not for the better. We are sleepwalking into a future with 1.2 billion climate refugees by 2050, estimates the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In America, the Supreme Court has signaled through recent rulings that the right to carry concealed firearms is more sacred than women and girls’ bodily autonomy. Another mass shooting — this time at a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois — left seven people dead, 46 wounded and a two-year-old wandering the streets alone, his parents among the casualties.

No one is built to handle perpetual trauma. Anxiety, depression, despair and avoidance are on the rise, particularly among the young. Three in five US college students report being diagnosed with a mental health condition — a significantly higher percentage than the general population. UNICEF and the WHO report that at least one in seven children in sub-Saharan Africa endures significant psychological hardship. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15- to 19-year-olds in Europe. As I shared in our May newsletter, guns are now the leading cause of death among American children.

The kids are not alright. They’re coming of age in a world that’s given them little reason to believe our leaders will act boldly on their behalf. Trust is essential to a thriving society, yet young people are losing faith in our institutions and collective capacity to act with the future — their future — in mind.

Mental illness and the erosion of trust are our rising, interconnected pandemics. I worry for adults as much as I do young people: Gallup's latest annual global update reveals that the world is “a more worried and more stressed-out place than it was the year before,” pushing Gallup's Negative Experience Index to “yet another new high” in 2021.

So what can each of us do? The most important thing we can do as leaders is recognize, honestly and without excuse, that our youth are persevering through post- and pre-traumatic stress. It is our duty to work together across generations and address its root causes. In addition to investing in the mental health of our own children and employees, we must invest in our own resilience — and find the energy to become beacons of hope and stewards of trust for emerging generations.

Many of us are currently questioning our own agency, resilience and capacity to contribute. While I consider myself a stubborn and relentless optimist, I struggle more days than I care to admit. Yet if we resign ourselves to the view that the support, change and leadership required to meet this moment is not possible, then we lose everything.

Resilience can be the difference between action and inaction, wellness and illness, life and death. Resilience means embracing the belief that “I can survive even if the state of the world is what it is.” Hope is the foundation of our inner and collective resilience — a buttress against despair. Activating for a better future begins with hope. Hope prompts action, and action breeds hope. It is our duty as business leaders to activate this reinforcing loop, now!

The B Team Compass sets out the type of business leadership we believe is urgently needed to co-create a better world. We place humanity at its heart, and the principles of sustainability, equality and accountability unify our efforts. Our sustainability agenda is largely oriented toward climate and nature action, but it doesn’t end there. We must sustain ourselves and each other. If we are to build a future in which rising generations can flourish, planetary and personal wellbeing have to be placed at the heart of business purpose.

Progress is fortunately afoot. Last month, the Society for Human Resource Management and Thrive Global, a behavior change technology company founded by B Team member Arianna Huffington, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, calling on business leaders to pledge to prioritize “the well-being and mental health of our employees through the uncertain times that lie ahead — and maintain our investments and commitments in this critical area.” More than 100 companies and nonprofits have signed the #MentalHealthPledge. I encourage you to do the same.