With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and the contentious presidential election from the fall, 2020 was a uniquely stressful year for Americans. According to a team of researchers led by the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in Germany, these crises may have significantly impeded the social development of young adults at a critical time in their lives.
“If everything goes well, young adults select into social networks, initiate friendships and romantic relationships, and find their occupational niche,” said study lead author Janina Bühler, an expert in personality development at JGU. “Our findings, however, show that external stressors and environmental variations may set young adults on a less fortunate path.”
The scientists compared the social development of 415 young adults in 2020 with that of 465 ones in 2019. The participants – aged between 18 and 35 – were asked to share updates on various factors affecting their development over the course of eight months. The 2020 cohort reported decreased levels of intimacy and relationship satisfaction, while the group surveyed a year earlier reported slightly higher levels of social support and inclusion over time. Although the changes were not dramatic, even small effects can have long-lasting consequences.
“Environmental conditions and contexts are critical for development, because they provide the opportunities that people need to grow in a healthy way,” Dr. Bühler explained. “In the case of 2020, the average young person may have had fewer of these opportunities, causing fear and anxiety while potentially hindering their development.”
Surprisingly, one aspect of social functioning which did not appear to be affected by 2020’s multiple stressors was loneliness. “Irrespective of whether young adults were exposed to collective stressors or not, the degree and development of their loneliness was similar,” Dr. Bühler said.
Future studies are needed to assess the variation in the effect of such stressors on individual participants and to compare the stressors’ impact on different demographics and nationalities. Moreover, examining the coping mechanisms of those less affected could potentially lead to more effective resources and support for young adults.
The study is published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.