“COVID was a period of real upheaval for young adults. And we also know that this is an age group where mental illness is probably at its highest.”—Dr Kate Lycett, School of Psychology, Deakin University.
- In 2021, people aged under 35 had personal wellbeing scores below, or at the bottom of, the normal range. They were also more like to suffer high levels of mental distress, and had low levels of resilience, social connectedness and sense of achieving.
- People aged 66-plus had personal wellbeing scores above the average range during the pandemic, which was a significant jump from their 2019 scores.
- Loss of income, loneliness and a lack of connection may all have had an impact on younger Australians’ wellbeing during the pandemic.
Everyone knows the physical transformation that ageing brings. Wrinkles emerge, joints stiffen and hair starts to turn grey. Yet, internally, our outlook and priorities are also liable to change as the years tick by. As a result, it’s probably not surprising that the COVID-19 pandemic affected different age groups in very different ways.
A period of upheaval
The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index—which has been tracking the wellbeing of Australians in partnership with Deakin University for more than 20 years—found that younger Australians, aged younger than 35 years old, were more likely to have struggled during the pandemic. In 2021, this age group recorded personal wellbeing scores at the bottom of, or below, the average range , and were more likely to have high levels of mental distress. They also had low levels of resilience, social connectedness and sense of achieving.
Lead researcher Dr Kate Lycett from Deakin University’s School of Psychology believes that one contributing factor was that young people were particularly susceptible to income loss because they were disproportionately represented in jobs with less security, like hospitality.
“We know that many young adults work in the gig economy or casual employment,” she says, “and they were the ones that often lost their jobs overnight.”
This was reflected in the research, which showed that Australians aged 35 and under were most likely to have suffered loss of income ; it also showed that people who experienced decreased income had notably lower wellbeing scores.
Getting by on less money is invariably a tough adjustment. But people in this age group were also more likely to find successive lockdowns hard due to their stage of life. Your twenties, for example, are often a time that involves lots of partying, travel and hijinks—so being forcibly deprived of those opportunities was particularly challenging.
“COVID was a period of real upheaval for young adults,” says Kate. “We also know that this is an age group where mental illness often peaks.”
“Not being able to connect with people probably exacerbated some of these problems. They're supposed to be out experiencing the world, socialising with friends, and in lockdown their lives were restricted to four walls. So I think that explains why we see the higher levels of distress in those groups.”
Dr Grant Blashki, lead adviser at Beyond Blue and a practising GP , agrees: “The research certainly identifies loneliness as an important precipitant of mental health issues, which is not surprising given we are very social beings.”
Grant is blunt in his assessment of the impact of the pandemic on our youngest. “We can't be Pollyanna about it,” he says. “It's been horrible for lots of people and particularly for some of our young people, it’s been really hard.”
Older and happier?
Conversely, people aged 66 and over registered very different results during the pandemic. Their personal wellbeing scores rose above the average range and were markedly higher than their 2019 scores ; they were also higher than those for people aged 18–25, 26–35 and 46–55 years.
Kate concedes this significant rise left her slightly puzzled, even allowing for the fact that older people were probably less impacted than younger folk by the deprivation of certain forms of nightlife and entertainment.
“For example, some grandparents couldn't see their grandkids for a whole year or two. You think that would've had a negative impact. So I honestly don't know why we saw such a bump in that age group.”
The bigger picture
Beverly Smith finds these results less confounding. In her role as Australian Unity’s Executive General Manager Residential Communities , Beverly oversees the delivery of services into retirement villages and aged care homes. Working closely with the 66-plus age group on a daily basis, she understands why their experiences in the pandemic may have been less negative.
“My observation would be that the resilience in our customers has been very evident, and I think that often comes down to them having an extraordinary lifetime of experience to put the events of the pandemic into context,” says Beverly. “There was that sense of this too shall pass.”
These residents, Beverly points out, have typically moved past the responsibilities of raising a family and paying off a mortgage. As a result, they tend to have more time to look back and reflect on what's truly meaningful in life.
“They talk a lot more about relationships and connections,” she says. “There's often a perception that people are beyond it when they get to these years. But in fact, it's a very rich time in life.”
Beverly talks of team members drawing genuine solace and inspiration from the example of the older residents’ positivity and stoicism. “Some of our own team members took a lot of comfort and reassurance from that resilience of the residents and how they thought in terms of that bigger picture of life,” she says.
“For the younger team members that gave them a certain reassurance, even if the pandemic was the worst thing they had experienced in their young lives.”
Disclaimer: Information provided in this article is of a general nature. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest. Interviewee titles and employer are cited as at the time of interview and may have changed since publication.