Why are seniors now happier than the young?

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New Zealand is one of four countries in which the young are getting more unhappy, particularly in comparison to the over 60s, according to the recently released World Happiness Report 2024.

The report, which covers more than 140 nations, saw NZ drop out of the top 10 happiest countries in the world, losing its number 10 spot to Australia and coming in at number 11 instead.

However, within that overall ranking was a considerable variance between the happiness of different age brackets. Those aged under 30 were ranked 27th in the world, compared to those 60 plus who came in at sixth. 

The report says the received wisdom in the West is that the young are the happiest and that happiness declines until middle age, after which it recovers. However, this has not held true for NZ.

Along with the United States, Canada and Australia, we are among the few countries surveyed where the young are less happy than the old.

The report states that both age and generation matter for happiness. Those born before 1965 (boomers and their predecessors) are happier than those born after 1980 (Millennials and Gen Z). It also showed that for this group of countries, loneliness was twice as high among the Millennials as it was for those born before 1965.

Victoria University Professor Arthur Grimes, who is the Chair of Wellbeing and Public Policy at the Wellington School of Business and Government, says public policy in NZ has favoured those over 65 for some time and that those under 30 are bearing the bulk of depression, mental illness, and suicide.

The latest OECD Programme for International Student Assessment also revealed a very poor performance in the happiness stakes for NZ 15-year-olds, a result that Grimes describes as “disastrous”.

He says NZ adolescents are in despair compared to those in other countries.

“There is a real feeling for many adolescents that there is nothing to live for really.”  

He says wellbeing in NZ has gone down over the last 15 to 20 years as a whole.

“We know there is a discrepancy now between older people and younger people…. It’s deeply concerning for the future.”

Grimes says it doesn’t yet know exactly what is behind the unhappiness of the young and can only speculate. Potential causes could be an emphasis on “doom and gloom” information for our youth, such as around issues like climate change. They also know that loneliness and mental health issues are two of the biggest factors in lowering overall life satisfaction.

Meanwhile, older people may be more resilient to tough times, having seen them before. They are also experiencing improved health outcomes and life expectancy.

Grimes says that while COVID-19 may explain some of the results, it doesn’t explain why we are different from other countries who also experienced COVID-19. However, wellbeing is negatively impacted by repeated lockdowns, he says.

“I think the whole experience of lockdown was a really calamitous one for adolescents.”

The World Happiness Report is published by the Oxford Wellbeing Research Centre and is a partnership between it, the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and the World Happiness Report’s Editorial Board.

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