The pandemic has been weighing on all of us, but research shows it’s having its most disastrous effect on young adults. Between the pandemic and several other issues — a sharply divisive political climate, stark economic fallout, overdue changes to our social fabric and lengthy separation from social support – young adults are intensely feeling all of these stressors and are at the highest risk of being unable to bounce back from today’s challenges.

A new study shows that one in five young adults (ages 18-23) don’t have enough resilience to cope with unexpected stress. They’re half as likely as children or parents to have enough resilience to push through their problems, and a third rate their mental health as fair or poor, with a quarter indicating that they have sought help for a mental health issue in the past six months. And more than any other generation surveyed, 65% of them told us they are feeling stressed by the deaths of Black Americans like George Floyd.

Young people historically have been the source of courage, energy and artistic vision that moves a nation forward. As the workforce of our future, the impact of 2020 on young adults will also translate to an impact on the future of our economy, workplaces and health. We can’t let them falter. As this generation will ultimately be charged with bridging the political divide, rebuilding the economy and creating a more equitable society, their resilience should concern all of us. 

I’ve spent my career studying resilience, and recently worked on the Cigna-led study, which examined its importance during these extraordinary times. Resilience comes down to two things–our personal qualities (e.g., optimistic outlook) and being able to navigate to resources in our environment (e.g., family and friends). People with high resilience have the personal qualities and resources that let them easily take on stressful situations, while those with lower resilience generally lack the support needed to cope with unexpected stress.

Young adults were already feeling vulnerable before the pandemic, reporting lower rates of good mental and physical health and a chronic lack of companionship. And we were seeing the effects carry into the workforce. These factors lead to lower productivity at work, twice the number of sick days taken, and a much greater chance that people will quit their jobs – none of which bode well for a nation struggling to overcome the pandemic’s shocks to the economy. Lower resilience also means lower self-esteem, especially among racial minority youth who say they have far fewer opportunities to use their talents than white youth. As we struggle to build a more equitable society, we must prioritize those opportunities.

The good news is that people can build resilience in a number of ways. Research shows that this is accomplished through inclusivity, diversity and social connections – factors that all of us can influence for all generations, including young adults.

Those who report living in diverse communities show a significantly higher rate of resilience, and those who feel they belong in their communities are more likely to be healthy, both physically and mentally. Community support programs, student-to-student support programs and accessing medical care virtually also help build resilience. We should ensure that our institutions and health plans provide such support.

We must all work together to provide the support for our young adults – both those at home and those newly launched.

To young people specifically, I would add: Focus on what you can control and have faith in the institutions that exist – and your ability to hold those with decision-making power accountable to make the changes needed. Believe in your own ability to make things better and recognize that asking for help is a sign of strength. Feel empowered to tap into the network of resources around you – whether that is friends, family, professionals or institutions – and lean on your strengths and abilities. As the leaders of tomorrow, rising to the occasion is built into your very fabric of being. And as a community we will dig deep to grow and make a better world. Everyone’s future depends on it.


  • Dr. Michael Ungar is the Canada Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience and Professor of Social Work at Dalhousie University. He is also a practicing family therapist, the founder and Director of the Resilience Research Centre, and consults and trains with the World Bank, UNESCO, and the Red Cross. Dr Ungar’s research has helped to identify the most important factors that influence the resilience of children and adults during periods of transition and stress. He is the author of 16 books that have been translated into five languages, numerous manuals for parents, educators, and employers, as well as more than 180 scientific papers. His blog Nurturing Resilience is on Psychology Today. In 2012 Dr. Ungar was the recipient of the Canadian Association of Social Workers National Distinguished Service Award for his outstanding contribution to clinical work with families and communities.