01 Life in an Anxious Age

Life in an Anxious Age


From Chaos to Connection

By David Kinnanman, President of Barna Group
with contributions from Daniel Copeland, Aly Hawkins & Alyce Youngblood


For years now, our team has gone to great lengths to listen to the stories and experiences of teenagers and young adults across the religious spectrum—from devoted Christ followers to ex-Christians, from passionate adherents of other faiths to those for whom religion is an artifact of a bygone era. Over a decade and a half, we’ve been privileged to interview nearly 100,000 young people. We’ve been interested in every aspect of their lives, trying to put the scraps of evidence together to form a coherent picture for Christian leaders to understand and respond to.

I’ve written three books based on what we’ve heard that help to address the spiritual journeys of young adults: unChristian (2007), which asks, What does Christianity look like to young non-Christians?; You Lost Me (2011), which asks, Why do young adults walk away from church and from faith?; and Faith for Exiles (2019), which asks, What practices distinguish resilient disciples among young Christians?

Through our careful listening, we’ve come to hold several core convictions about these young adult generations, whom we call Millennials and Gen Z:

  • They are deeply misunderstood by older generations
    of Christian leaders.
  • They are coming of age in a radically different context,
    one that could be defined as chaotic, as we’ll describe.
  • Their skepticism is giving way to indifference—a much
    more intractable problem.
  • The challenges and opportunities of discipleship are
    more complex.
  • They are hungry to see courageous leaders in all facets
    of society.

This is a generation of contrast, of contradiction. As one example, they are more connected than ever before, yet their connectivity coexists with paradoxical levels of isolation and loneliness.

The book you are reading is both the latest—and by far the largest—installment in Barna’s effort to understand the contours of faith and faithfulness among young adults. In partnership with our friends at World Vision, this is our first-ever global look at 18–35-year-olds. The data we’ve collected falls naturally into three big domains:

  • Life in an Anxious Age: What is the broader context
    of this generation—the cultural, demographic and social
    trends shaping their world?
  • Engagement with Spirituality & the Church:
    How do they affiliate with (if at all) and what do they
    believe about spirituality and religion? How do they
    perceive Christianity? What factors are growing faith
    and influencing church engagement?
  • Potential for Impact: Where and how are they being
    shaped to lead? What do they care about and what motivates
    them to do things in their communities?

Here at the outset, I want to acknowledge the Barna team’s perspectives and limitations as English-speaking, (primarily) culturally American, joyfully Christian researchers, analysts and leaders. This recognition brings with it a heaping dose of humility. We are keenly aware that the insights offered in this report are informed by, and sometimes alloyed with, our cultural values, allegiances and assumptions. Still, we believe the data we have gathered presents other social observers, data interpreters, trend watchers and ministry practitioners from different backgrounds and in different places with an unprecedented invitation to listen—and then to respond in ways that will strengthen the global-yet-always-local Church.

Consider this: We’ve done more than 8,000 hours of interviews with young adults across the globe, eager to share their views and experiences with someone who will listen. And, as my daughter Annika reminds me, behind every survey is a story. A story of hope and opportunity. Maybe a story of financial insecurity and anxiety about the future, or of abuse and marginalization. A story of spiritual renewal and thriving community.

Are we listening?

To be effective leaders—of churches, businesses, cultural organizations, government agencies, development NGOs, political movements, whatever—we must slow down and listen to a generation that is too often talked at and talked about. We must stop ignoring or dismissing or rolling our eyes at teens, twentysomethings and thirtysomethings who are coming into their own. They are desperately in need of a wise, compassionate, listening ear—counand we are desperately in need of their partnership as we look to the Church’s future.

Our Chaotic Moment

I was in Honduras last spring with Annika and my son, Zack. One of our day trips was a visit to coffee fields high in the mountains, where we met local farmers and had a chance to learn about their day-to-day lives. I was surprised and then amused to hear one man’s complaint, echoed by several colleagues, about neighbors going to great lengths to obtain his Wi-Fi password so they could watch YouTube. Even at a remote elevation in Central America, YouTube is linking emerging generations to a bigger, broader world!

Technologies that enable young adults to be the most connected generation in human history—to world events, to others’ suffering, to products and services and ideas from anywhere and everywhere, to each other—are disrupting the contexts in which coming of age and passing on faith have traditionally taken place. Many teens and young adults, knowingly or not, are trading family- and community-curated knowledge for information managed by market-based algorithms. The average social media user sees only what a computer calculation determines they should see, based on their consumer potential. Users who post the most get the most attention, and those who get the most attention are favored by the algorithm.

Not the wisest. Not the most life-giving or humane. Not the most peacemaking. Not the most Kingdom-minded.

The outcome, all too often, is social and cultural commodification, polarization and—ironically—disconnection.1

My friend Mark Sayers, who does more than his fair share of listening, contends that our current moment is characterized by five trends that have thrown our world into chaos:

  • Radical Connectivity: New technology is bringing us closer together while tearing us apart.
  • Competing Visions: From a global village to a confusing, conflicted bazaar of ideas.
  • Faltering Secular Revival: We are becoming less religious and more religious at the same time.
  • Deep Hunger for a Better World: There is a growing gap between elites and the public, the haves and have-nots.
  • The Great Disillusionment: Our foundations of meaning, our stories, patterns and institutions, are fracturing under intense

His ideas have a lot in common with what I’ve come to call “digital Babylon,” the pagan-but-spiritual, hyperstimulated, multicultural, imperial crossroads that is the virtual home of every person with Wi-Fi or a mobile data plan (or, for many of us, both).3 As in ancient Babylon, living as exiles in digital Babylon stretches and strains the people of God, by turns corrupting and refining as we wrestle with how to be faithful and remain resilient in this strange land.

Radical Connectivity

Long before I’d heard Mark Sayers talk about his five trends, the Barna team began to analyze the mountain of data that was coming in from 18–35-year-olds worldwide. An early and obvious theme to emerge was broad agreement with two statements: “Events around the world matter to me” (77% all) and “I feel connected to people around the world” (57%). Since so many teens and young adults from diverse countries and cultures appeared to share a sense of global connectedness, we hypothesized this might serve as a lens through which we could bring them into clearer focus. We thus began to develop a “connectivity index,” based on a series of eight factors in four categories that speak to the unique risks and potential rewards presented to this generation. Each factor concerns a different aspect of how a person perceives he or she is connected to the world.

Let’s take stock of those four dimensions for a minute. Do you see the one factor that triggers the highest response? Global connectivity. The dimensions we measured for global connection far outpace other aspects of connectedness assessed in the study. “Events around the world” and “people around the world” surface more frequently than any of the other three areas of connection: relational, forward-looking and outward-oriented. This suggests that the vast majority of the connected generation feels the impact of broad, global trends more than they feel loved and supported by others close to them, more than they feel optimistic and empowered, more than they express an outward orientation to change and personal activism.

We also discovered a lot of good news; many young adults are thriving in unexpected ways, so don’t let these stats paint the generation with too unflattering a shade. However, the paradox of a connected-but-disconnected generation is clear:

  • Despite being digital natives, relational connection is lacking for most young adults. Only one-third of the connected generation (33%) says they“often feel deeply cared for by those around me.” The same proportion (32%) indicates that “someone believes in me.”
  • Despite living in a time of relative peace and social mobility,* most young adults are not optimistic or empowered about their future. Just two out of five (40%) claim to be optimistic about the future and only one-third (34%) says they often feel able to accomplish their goals.
  • Although this generation is rightly concerned about justice causes and healthy expressions of leadership, they often lack personal engagement in the solutions they desire. Just one-third participates in an above average-amount of charitable activities (including giving, volunteering or advocating) for causes they care about, and three in 10 say they believe that what it takes to be an effective leader is changing.

In other words, the world feels bigger, more unpredictable, more immediate and more risky. At the same time, young adults’ personal relationships, their agency to influence the future and their positive engagement with society are not always a reliable resource for these young people.

All of this adds up to a world that feels in flux. Up for grabs. Chaotic.

*Of course, this is not true for every country or context today, but the global upheaval that faced the World War 2 generation or the remaking of global order under the Baby Boomers are examples of less-stable global settings that influenced previous generations.


Clusters of Connectivity

Because we are geeks, and we like to make clusters to analyze, we grouped our 15,000+ respondents into three segments based on the number of eight connectivity factors they met. We wanted to see if certain young adults feel more connected than others.

The results look like this: About one-quarter (23%) meets five or more of the eight factors and thus qualifies as having strong connectivity. Tens of millions of 18–35-year-olds around the world seem to exhibit positive connections in the four areas we assessed—that’s good news! The second group is the largest, but only by a small margin: 39 percent of young adults meet three or four of the eight indicators, which qualifies them as having medium connectivity.

The final group has two or fewer of the connectivity flags, representing nearly two out of every five young adults (38%). That is, nearly two out of five young adults globally are dealing with weak levels of connection. Their relational connections, in particular, tend to struggle: Fewer than one in 10 in this segment says they have someone in their life who believes in them.

Grouping young adults according to their sense of connectivity allows us to take a closer look at what characteristics and experiences, if any, they have in common with others who show similarly strong or weak connectivity. After isolating isolating various demographics and running statistical regressions (I told you we love to geek out), our team found two areas that are highly correlated with young adults’ sense of connectivity: their faith commitment and their perception of financial security. Millennials and Gen Z are more likely to express strong connectivity on the eight dimensions if they are a practicing Christian (see definitions on page 12) and / or when they feel financially stable, and more likely to exhibit weak connectivity if they do not practice any faith and / or when feeling economically insecure.

I want to underscore this good news: Strong levels of connectivity are associated with faith in general and with Christianity in particular. Note that it’s not just calling oneself a Christian, but actually practicing the faith that makes such a difference. (There’s even stronger connectivity among a group we call resilient disciples, as we’ll see on page 95.)

When it comes to the other factor, financial security, a person’s experience of economic stability or instability isn’t about their actual income—or, at least, not entirely. People with weak connectivity are more likely than average to say they are unemployed, to fall in the bottom third of their country’s average educational attainment and to be divorced or separated (all of which can have a negative relationship to stability). They are also more likely than young adults with medium or strong connectivity to say they often feel “unable to do what I want” (33% vs. 26% medium, 18% strong), “uncertain about the future” (48% vs. 38%, 30%) and that “there are not enough opportunities available to me” (25% vs. 23%, 19%). Feelings of security emanate from a constellation of experiences and relational connections, not just from literal money in the bank.



Meet the Connected Generation

We call them “the connected generation” because we are listening. And what they are telling us, among many other valuable things, is that being and feeling connected helps to define them.4

As we show you what we’re hearing from young people and leaders from around the world, our prayer is that you will listen, too. Some of the precious people whom this data represents are filled with hope. Others, as you’ll see, are deeply hurting. Churches, ministries and parents who hope to make disciples who pass on their faith to future generations must listen first.

As you dive into this report, you’ll learn more about how 18–35-year-olds are positioned—with regard to their families, communities, careers and personal well-being—in an era of disruption. And, as you come to better understand the culture they inhabit, you’ll be better prepared to help them reframe their chaotic experience into strong connection.


The Connectivity Spectrum


Barna created a custom index to assess Millennial and Gen Z young adults’ level of personal connection to world events, to people around them, to the future and to making a difference (see page 23 for details on how analysts designed these categories of connectivity).

Connection Comparisons

The strength or weakness of a young person’s connectivity correlates with a host of other activities, perceptions and attitudes. All in all, those with stronger connectivity have a deeper experience of well-being—spiritually and otherwise—while those with weaker connectivity are struggling.



Connectivity Levels Around the World

Family Benefits

Marriage and parenting—often tied in faith and security—aren’t yet the norm for young adults


Much has been made of Millennials, especially in Western contexts, postponing marriage and parenthood, often in favor of pursuing education, new cities, home ownership, professional stability or other personal experiences like travel.5 Looking at this study’s sample of 18–35-year-olds, we generally see this trend bearing out around the world.

Just over one-quarter (27%) is married, and just over onethird (35%) is a parent. Though reports of having children usually accompany reports of being married, one in five single young adults in this study (19%) is a parent. Movements toward marriage and parenting tend to run parallel, with the late 20s and early 30s being the turning point for starting a family. Naturally, those on the younger end of this age spectrum are less likely to have a spouse or child: Among those under age 25, 7 percent are married and 14 percent are parents; among those ages 25 to 30, rates of marriage climb to 30 percent and parenting to 39 percent. Past age 30, having a spouse (50%) or child (60%) becomes more commonplace.


Religious Young Adults Are More Likely to Have Started Families

A main predictor of relationship and family status is faith. The closer one is to religion, the earlier they get married or have children. This is true for Christians (30% married, 40% parents) as well as those who identify with other religions (32% married, 33% parents) when compared to atheists, agnostics and those of no faith (18% married, 28% parents). The life cycle of faith is correlated with the likelihood of being married, with young adults who have always been religious (31%) leading in rates of marriage (vs. 25% of those who became religious, 21% of those who left religion and 16% of those who have never been religious).

Religious young adults who are already married or raising children may be spurred by their values or by the traditions or expectations of their religious culture. In addition, starting a family may spur a deeper engagement in faith. From either direction, there is a link between family and faith.


As Milestones Pass, Security Grows

Family-related milestones are wrapped up with, and may often follow, achievements outside the home, such as education and employment. For example, very few students are married (4%), while one-third of those in the workplace (32%) and 39 percent of those in the top tier of education have gotten married. Granted, as a result of where and how this online international survey was conducted, the sample reflects greater than average education and resources. This is important socioeconomic context to keep in mind in interpreting respondents’ decisions surrounding education, career, marriage and family—starting with the acknowledgment that they may have more decisions available to them in the first place.

Respondents who indicate having already become a spouse or parent are more likely to say they have also completed their education, become financially independent, started a career or purchased a home. One might think compounded responsibility means added stress, but tipping points in life stage seem to be accompanied by positive emotional states. Generally, those who are married or have children report optimism, satisfaction and security and are less often burdened by anxieties. Meanwhile, young adults without these personal family bonds, especially those without a spouse, are in a more precarious emotional position and are significantly more likely to report feelings of isolation, insecurity, sadness or depression. (However, there are some gendered nuances to this story, as reported on page 42.)

For church leaders, these findings should raise questions about how to connect with 18–35-year-olds who haven’t started families—a group who, remember, tend to be younger, in a season of professional or economic uncertainty, and less religious. What support might they need as they establish themselves in community, career and—maybe someday—family?

Meet the Millennial Parents

What we know about the minority of 18-35-year-olds who are already raising a new generation


Who exactly are the 35 percent of young adults who, unlike the majority of their peers, have not delayed having children? Barna wanted to know more about this segment—who represent a growing minority of their generation, a counter to many stereotypes about young adults’ delayed adolescence and a fresh area of research. Here, we’ll take a look at what matters most to these parents, how they are faring in this season of child-rearing and what they want from the future.

The Different Experiences of Single Parents & Married Parents

Young adults who are parents differ from their generation overall—and at times from one another—in key ways. The first is, perhaps, expected: Most of them are married. Sixty percent of 18–35-year-olds who have children also presently have a spouse. Another one in five is unmarried but in some form of committed partnership. A small minority of these young parents has previously been married, though 16 percent identify as single and never married. Overall, one in five respondents in this study has both a spouse and child(ren), while 14 percent are unmarried parents.

The emotional state of parents in this connected generation is correlated with marital status. Though parents in this study overall appear more emotionally secure than their non-parent peers (see page 32), the concerns and mental well-being of unmarried parents more closely mirror that of non-parents. Unmarried parents in this study are much more likely than married parents to feel lonely and isolated (25% vs. 14%) or depressed and sad (31% vs. 17%). Lacking some relational support and usually on the younger end of the age spectrum, unmarried parents are also more likely to experience other stressors—including pressure from their own parents.


Parents Prioritize Faithfulness—for Their Children

Generally, faith is a priority for these parents, more so than for their peers without children. More than four in 10 parents in this generation (42%) strongly agree their religious faith is very important in their life; less than one-third of young adults who aren’t parents (31%) says the same. Accordingly, nearly one-third of respondents who are not parents (32%) is agnostic, atheist or otherwise irreligious, while 77 percent of parents identify with a religion.

For many, these religious values have been with them since their own youth. One-third of young parents who were religious growing up (33%) says they were “very active” in their faith as teenagers.

Parents in this age group also tend to be serious about practicing their faith today, particularly when compared to members of their generation who don’t have children. On a monthly basis, nearly three in five parents (58%) in this study pray on their own (vs. 51% overall), and more than one-third (35%) prays with others (vs. 29%). Young parents are also much more likely to read scripture compared to their non-parent peers (29% versus 22%, respectively). Naturally, these percentages rise among Christian parents (74% pray on their own, 45% pray with others, 40% read scripture privately).

In Their Words: Parent’s Perspectives


Do you think the approach of parents in your age group will be different from that of previous generations?

DORIT: We are scrutinized every day in the media about what we should and should not do in order not to screw up our kids. We are told that we as parents are solely responsible for our children’s mental and physical well-being, and we have to be almost perfect. There is a lot of shaming toward parents today. I have a hard time relaxing. I am constantly focused on doing my very best and that sometimes makes me a worried, anxious parent.


Do you feel different from non-parents in your generation?

KONSTANTIN: Many of my closest friends are also in my generation and have kids. I think differences between parents and non-parents in my generation are the differences in the amount of responsibility. When you have kids you spend your time, energy and money differently. Parents are also typically not as flexible with the schedule as perhaps those without kids.


How has the responsibility of being a parent affected your faith practice?

KONSTANTIN: The hope is that they see what a natural and authentic relationship with Jesus looks like—whether it is serving the community, leading in church or how I love my family. I understand that it starts with me being an example for my family so that they can see what it looks like to serve the Lord—and through this example they will then hopefully also know and serve him.

DORIT: It is so much harder to focus on singing, praying or listening to the sermon with kids at church. To be touched by the Word and the Spirit is hard because I am constantly interrupted. I have to give a word of encouragement to a fellow church member with my baby on my hip. It might not feel very holy or like it used to, but it is my kind of discipline and spiritual devotion, and I think God knows how devoted it really is.


As you think about the next 10 years, what would you like to see happen in your life?

DORIT: We are renovating an old house. It’s our dream to see this turn into a home and a base for us and our children. I want to bless others through our home. I want to settle in the town where we moved and plant deep roots, show love to this city, serve my neighborhood by showing them Jesus and his love.

KONSTANTIN: In the next 10 years, I would like to support my wife in her calling and would love to see my kids loving Jesus and see the Church thriving. Personally, I would love to become a better leader and do my best to help others find their own purpose and calling in ministry.



Communications for Open Doors Denmark, mother to three children




Pastor, father to two children



Interestingly, of those who say they are part of a faith group, there is no statistical variation in weekly worship community attendance among religious parents and non-parents. Among their motivations for attendance, however, there is one significant difference: More than one-third of attending religious young parents (35%) says they participate in their place of worship “for their children.” This reason is the third most common motivation among parents, just behind personal spiritual priorities of learning about God or growing in faith. This suggests that, though faithful respondents are fairly consistent in their religious service attendance regardless of their family arrangement, their reasons for consistency shift after having children. This study also speaks to the reality that many adults may become more committed to church if children enter the picture; among respondents who have some connection to Christianity, 38 percent of those who aren’t parents assume they will become more involved in church if they have kids.


What’s Next for Young Parents?

As you can see, parents in this study—typically married, established in career and financially independent—have hit some tangible milestones in their lives thus far; looking forward, nearly half (45%) now have their eyes on owning a home. But other hopes they hold for the next 10 years are much like the hopes of any 18–35-year-old. Like their non-parent peers, 37 percent of parents in this study want to follow their dreams (vs. 39% of those who aren’t parents). One-fifth (21%) wants to find out who they really are (vs. 25%). These parents also share their generation’s desire to travel (31% vs. 33%), help the poor (24% vs. 22%) and mature spiritually (20% vs. 21%) in the coming decade. They also believe and behave similarly to the average young adult when it comes to humanitarian responsibility, concerns about the world or experiences of church.

For churches trying to minister to—and with—this generation, it’s important to remember the ways in which this driven group of parents are both unique and similar to their peers. Ultimately, churches aren’t just walking alongside the few parents in this generation, but also helping disciple the children to whom they are already passing down their faith.

Working Order

Young adults’ identity, achievements and emotions center around career


Much of Barna’s research in the U.S. has pointed to an urgency surrounding career—and thus a need for vocational discipleship (see page 120)—among Millennials and Gen Z, and this study underscores these themes on an international level. When asked to reflect on what they’ve accomplished in life so far, 18–35-year-olds’ top responses reveal that the priority of their early adulthood has been establishing themselves financially and professionally. About half say they have “completed their education” (48%) or “become financially independent from their parents” (46%). Four in 10 (41%) mention “starting their career,” and 15 percent have gone so far as “starting their own business” (see sidebar for more about these entrepreneurial members of this generation). Nearly one-third (31%) says they have “followed their dreams,” an effort that may be tangential to some of these more explicitly professional achievements.

These milestones are more commonly reported than ones related to family, such as “getting married” (25%) or “having children” (31%). The minority who is already married or raising children, however, is more likely to claim other markers of professional and financial stability too. Though this study does not speak to the order of such events, 18–35-year-olds who have started families also have higher levels of education and employment (see page 32). Overall, respondents seem to plot the journey into adulthood along a linear path, one that moves first through the classroom and / or the workplace before moving toward the home. In fact, thinking about the next 10 years of their lives and what they’d like to achieve, young adults generally worry more about buying a home (53%) than about the family who might fill it (41% would like to get married, 33% would like to have children in the next decade).

Naturally, there is some relationship between education and employment: Those in the top tier of education are more likely to be working (84% vs. 76% of the middle tier, 55% of the bottom tier), though one in five students in this sample says they do work in some capacity (5% full-time, 16% part-time). Men are more likely than women to be employed, and respondents who live in urban or suburban environments have greater rates of employment than peers in rural or small town settings.


Students & Unemployed Young Adults Struggle with Insecurity

There are significant emotional patterns tied to the learning and working lives of young adults. Eighteen–35-year-olds who are students or unemployed tend to express feelings of anxiety or hopelessness, while positive emotions are correlated with being gainfully employed.


The unemployed are less likely to feel able to accomplish their goals (24% vs. 36% of all working 18–35-year-olds), satisfied with their life choices (22% vs. 32%) or secure in who they are (21% vs. 31%). Meanwhile, they express more uncertainty about the future (47% vs. 38%) and feel they are unable to do what they want (40% vs. 24%) or that there are not enough opportunities available to them (32% vs. 21%). Given this, it’s not surprising that four in 10 unemployed young adults (41% vs. 24%) say they are sad or depressed, and one-third (34% vs. 20%) feels lonely. Students in particular sense pressure to be successful (45% vs. 35% of all working 18–35-year-olds), a need to be perfect (38% vs. 29%) and high expectations from parents (24% vs. 15%). Half of students (49% vs. 38%) are contending with a fear of failure.

There are a number of factors that might contribute to this reported insecurity among those who aren’t (yet) succeeding in career. For example, students are often on the younger end of the age spectrum for this study and facing a lot of unknowns, usually without the familial support that may come from having a spouse and / or children. In addition, young adults who aren’t working may feel the stress of financial burdens. But there are broader issues related to identity and community implied in the apparent vulnerability among this generation—and beyond them. At least in the United States, today’s teenagers may be even more likely to define themselves primarily by their professional and academic achievements, Barna research suggests.6

Whatever their phase of career or level of employment, 18- to 35-year-olds are navigating new professional terrain. More than a fad, a freelancer and gig economy is encountering growing pains—among them, irregular income, which a global Pay-Pal study indicates is a significant problem in Southeast Asia.7 Flexible and remote work options, despite their popularity and convenience, can be accompanied by loneliness and burnout.8 And, all the while, young adults in many nations also face staggering student debt conditions.9

Career-building, in general and in this era, comes with sharply felt benefits and burdens. Thus, work emerges as a core focus for the young adults in this survey—and, likewise, should be an emphasis for churches hoping to engage with this driven generation.


The Personal & Spiritual Maturity of Young Entrepreneurs

The minority of 18–35-year-olds who say they have started a business reports high levels of achievement or experience across many other realms of life, from starting families to traveling the world. A lot of their hard work appears to have occurred internally, and signs of faith and fortitude line the ambitious path of entrepreneurialism. Though this study can’t speak specifically to their success, these young adults are more likely than their non-entrepreneurial peers to say they have followed their dreams (49% vs. 28%) or found out who they really are (45% vs. 34%). For the most part, they express more positive emotions, though they are similar to young adults who have not started their own businesses in their levels of anxiety over big decisions (40% and 41%) or fear of failure (41% and 40%). A particularly religious group—six in 10 (59% vs. 40% overall) say faith is very important to them—they are also inclined to say they have become spiritually mature (52% vs. 38% of non-entrepreneurial young adults) or have cared for the poor and needy (41% vs. 22%). Accordingly, they are more likely to look for opportunities to fight injustice when they engage with a church.

Addressing Financial Anxiety

Q&A with John Thornton Jr.

Going Abroad

A glimpse of the young adults who’ve had the formative, fortunate opportunity to travel internationally


One uniquely global narrative to surface in this study: 43 percent of young adults have visited other countries, while one-third (32%) hopes to do so in the next decade.

Though a sense of global connection or even wanderlust is ascribed generally to young adults today, 18–35-year-olds who have actually traveled internationally stand out. Given the means that travel may require, a fairly privileged group comes into focus. Nearly one-third (31%) falls into the top tier of education, and it’s possible some journeys have been part of school programs or gap years. Young adults who have gone on trips to other countries often point to multiple other accomplishments such as having achieved financial independence (60% vs. 36% of those who haven’t traveled internationally), completed their education (60% vs. 38%), started a career (54% vs. 31%) or purchased a home (29% vs. 14%).


Signs of stability extend to their emotions and relationships too. Compared to their peers who’ve stuck close to home, they feel more connected to people around the world (62% vs. 53%) and deeply cared for by those around them (40% vs. 28%). More than one-quarter (28%) qualifies as having strong connectivity—though, interestingly, their exposure to other places hasn’t significantly increased their concern for others’ welfare or engagement in justice work.

From where do young adults embark? Residents of Europe and Oceania are among some of the most likely to travel, while those in Africa report some of the lowest travel rates. Switzerland tops the list (72%); in Ghana, just 9 percent of young adults have visited other nations. An array of factors like affluence, security, access to travel options or proximity to other nations might influence these national trends.

Considering the religious climates of these countries, we see a greater proportion of well-traveled respondents from secular contexts (58% vs. 31% in Christian climates, 43% in multi-faith climates) or with no religious affiliation (33% vs. 26% of those who’ve never traveled internationally are atheists, agnostics or nones). They have lower opinions of religion’s import in society (48% vs. 57% of those who haven’t traveled internationally) or their personal life (27% vs. 41%).


The Well-Being Gap

Women lag behind men in several markers of emotional security


On the whole, it’s reasonable to consider the literate, well-connected 18–35-year-olds in this study as beneficiaries of great global advances in gender justice and equality, with many thanks to the generations preceding them—yet there are still telling discrepancies between the experiences of these young men and young women.

Looking at emotional health, women are more likely than men to report a range of negative feelings, especially anxiety about important decisions (47% vs. 33%) or uncertainty about the future (45% vs. 34%). Granted, it’s possible that women may be more in touch with or at least more open about the troubling emotions they face, while many men around the world still sense cultural pressures that may stifle such introspection or expression. Still, these differences are vexing when reminded of the gaps that don’t exist between these young men and women today—for instance, overall, they are similarly religious, similarly educated and so on, factors that typically act as boons to well-being.

These disparate emotional experiences appear to be compounded and complicated by whether a man or woman has a job and / or whether a man or woman is raising children. Meaning, in terms of emotional profile alone, women fare worse than men, mothers fare worse than fathers—and mothers who don’t work are in a particularly precarious position.



Men are slightly more likely than women to be working, a divide that deepens among parents. Three in four fathers in this survey (74% vs. 42% of men who are not parents) work full-time, compared to 44 percent of mothers (and 40% of women who are not parents) who report full-time employment. One in four mothers (25%), meanwhile, is a stay-at-home parent, an arrangement that is still rare for fathers (2%).

Though some gender patterns in responses are tempered by employment status, mothers who don’t have full-time jobs (a group that represents 46% of all moms in the study) profess the lowest levels of optimism about the future (33%)—lower than working mothers (46%) as well as fathers of any employment status (48% employed, 43% unemployed). Mothers who don’t work are more likely than other parenting categories to live in small-town or rural settings (33%), tend to be lonely (27%) and less inclined to sense a connection to the world around them (49%). Accordingly, nearly half of this group of women (46%) score low on Barna’s connectivity metric (vs. 30% of working fathers, 35% of unemployed fathers and 32% of working mothers who have weak connectivity). One in three expresses feeling sad or depressed (32%) or unable to do what they want (32%). Thus far into adulthood, they appear to have had a harder time than their working peers when it comes to feeling like they’ve followed their dreams (21% vs. 36% of working moms) or found out who they really are (33% vs. 40%).

Considering the baseline career-orientation and economic anxiety that pervades this generation (see page 37), combined with recognized barriers to women’s professional development and success (which vary significantly in severity across the countries in this study), it’s not surprising to see the well-being of women and mothers so tied to the provision, identity or stability that employment suggests. In Barna’s previous research in the U.S. alone, we’ve noted that women’s general satisfaction in life and engagement with their vocation wanes as they get married and / or have children, while these positive measures only increase for men as they progress into both career and family.10 At the same time, we’ve seen that mothers continue to bear much of the responsibility at home, as support systems for their partners as well as children’s primary partners in conversation, recreation and spiritual development.11

These dynamics are front of mind for young women in this study of 18–35-year-olds. When asked to think about challenges to leadership, more than one-third of women (35%) identifies gender inequality as one of the world’s greatest problems; one in four men (24%) feels the same. Yet, even among Christians alone, men are more likely than women to say they have found support for their professional development in the Church.

For myriad reasons—whether gender discrepancies in pay, domestic labor, parenting expectations or a sense of personal security and safety—the young women in this study show greater vulnerability than their male peers. It’s plain that helping 18–35-year-olds navigate career and family are pressing needs of this generation’s discipleship and development and, for young women, there may be more twists and turns along the way.

Empowering Women

Q&A with Natasha Sistrunk Robinson and Rev. Dr. Lydia Mwaniki

Connectedness Does Not Equal Community

Why do so few young adults feel cared for by others?


Our world may be increasingly digitally connected—but the experience of connection in one’s daily life isn’t a guarantee. Just one in three 18–35-year-old respondents (33%) says they feel deeply cared for by those around them. Meanwhile, nearly one in four (23%) encounters feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Looking at the 25 countries included in this study, there are some surprising social trends. The U.S. and Australia top the list in reporting frequent loneliness and isolation (34%), followed by the UK and New Zealand (31% each)—all very Westernized contexts. On the other end of the spectrum, young adults in countries like Indonesia (11%), Kenya (12%), Mexico (13%) and Romania (13%) less often report this kind of detachment.

There are certainly many factors that may shape these social climates, including cultural attitudes that place more value on either individualism or community, either career or personal life and so on. It’s worth noting too that many of the nations regarded as developed or affluent show noticeably higher degrees of reported loneliness.13 For example, Mexico and Romania, are among both the least affluent surveyed countries and the least likely to be associated with loneliness. Meanwhile, many countries where respondents report being isolated are more affluent than their continental neighbors, as in the case of Chile (28% vs. 16% in Colombia and Brazil) and South Africa (26% vs. 12% in Kenya, 15% in Nigeria, and 16% in Ghana). Despite having access and resources that might foster connectivity on a broader scale, respondents in most of the countries where loneliness is prevalent also tend to feel less connected to people around the world, indicating a consistent lack of relational richness.

When it comes to countering loneliness on a personal level, respondents who belong to a faith tradition seem to have stronger feelings of being in relationship with others. Respondents who identify with Christianity (19%) or other faiths (22%) are less inclined than their counterparts without a faith (31%) to say they feel isolated. This effect is emphasized when sorting religious respondents by those who value and are active in their faith (16% of practicing Christians, 15% of practicing adherents of another faith vs. 21% of non-practicing Christians, 25% of non-practicing adherents of another faith). This apparent relationship between faith and a sense of belonging is not definitive, and it should be considered that some of these religious respondents are not as willing to recognize or express negative emotions such as isolation. However, we do see evidence that some key mentorships and friendships are common among young Christians, and patterns in the data at least suggest religion may play some role in keeping loneliness at bay.

The Emotional Climate of the Connect Generation

Mixed Emotions About Moving Forward


The 18–35-year-olds in this survey are just as likely to feel optimistic as uncertain about the future (40% each). In fact, 28 percent feel both optimistic and uncertain as they look ahead. There are a number of life factors that may influence a young adult’s feelings about the future, including faith practice, employment and relationship status.

Representatives of an Age of Anxiety

Worrisome truths about the mental and emotional well-being of 18-35-year-olds today


Throughout this study, there are several signs that 18–35-year-olds are not quite at ease in the world—a main one being that they tell us so. Respondents had an opportunity to provide a portrait of their emotions, and the image is one of a generation gripped by worry. Anxiety about important decisions is widespread (40%), as well as uncertainty about the future (40%), a fear of failure (40%) and a pressure to be successful (36%). Though this study alone can’t speak to actual diagnoses of mental illness, nearly three in 10 overall (28%) call themselves sad or depressed.

Some of these negative emotions are fairly common across the sample—general worry about big decisions, for instance, is not so exclusive to particular segments or contexts. To recognize the prevalence or severity of deep anxiety among this connected generation, Barna grouped respondents into an “anxious” category if they say they feel at least three of the following: anxious about important decisions, sad or depressed, afraid of failure and / or insecure in who they are. Overall, one in five young adults (20%) meets this more pointed qualification. They’re also a group that is more likely to experience other negative emotions included in the survey, from a lack of opportunity to a sense of being judged by older generations.

This is a select group of young adults who, in addition to ranking low in connectivity (45%), are clearly under significant strain. How can church leaders support their well-being? To summarize this section of the report and our findings about this generation thus far: Addressing the anxious state of 18–35-year-olds today also means addressing vocation, money, community and spiritual growth.


The Stress of Striving

Financial and professional instability may contribute to the spread of this anxiety epidemic. A global survey from Deloitte highlights the pervasive pessimism Millennials feel about the economy at large and their personal employment.14 A study from the American Psychiatric Association found that, across several factors that might influence mental well-being—such as health, safety, finances, relationships and politics—Millennials most often felt anxious about paying bills.15 Research out of England and Wales shows that worries about money and cost of housing (in addition to concern over Brexit) are driving a recent surge in anxiety of young women.16 In a viral BuzzFeed article, journalist Anne Helen Peterson reflects on how her U.S. Millennial peers have become, as she calls them, “the burnout generation”—and she primarily points the finger at unrealistic expectations for academic, professional and financial success. “Efficiency was supposed to give us more job security, more pay, perhaps even more leisure,” she writes. “Our efficiency hasn’t bucked wage stagnation; our steadfastness hasn’t made us more valuable.”17

In this Barna study, when controlling for several factors at both local and global levels, financial security is among the greatest predictors of anxiety. Relatedly, anxiety fades somewhat among respondents with more stable employment (18% working vs. 27% unemployed show markers of anxiety) and among those on the older end of the 18 to 35 age range. Thus, as they look toward the next decade of life, those who express emotional or mental insecurity are especially concerned about starting their career (44%) and gaining financial independence (43%)—goals that have, so far, shaped the aims and identity of the connected generation (see page 37).


The Anxious Feel Like They’re on Their Own

The majority of respondents under great stress also says they are lonely. An alarming six in 10 in the group that expresses a series of anxious feelings (59%)—compared to one-quarter of all respondents—reports a sense of isolation.

When segmented by their marital status, we see one relational dimension to anxiety. Generally, respondents who have spouses have lower odds of experiencing such fears and insecurities (12% married vs. 23% single qualify as anxious).

Anxious young adults, perhaps sensing their detachment, are more likely to cite relational motivations for participating in communities of worship, such as being involved in community (34% vs. 23% overall) or accompanying family members (29% vs 20%). Thinking about what’s missing from their place of worship, friends (23%) and support groups (19%) are top of mind.

Faith communities may be seen as facilitators of connection for troubled 18–35-year-olds—but getting them in the door may be a challenge. Roughly one in five respondents who experience levels of anxiety (22%) attends a place of worship weekly, compared to one-third of others (33% of those who don’t qualify as anxious). Instead, these more anxious adults are twice as likely as others to say they used to attend a place of worship, suggesting a move away from faith engagement over time. This may be because they are on the fence, at best, when it comes to the perceived value of spirituality and religion. Respondents with heightened worries experience heightened doubts; they are more likely than others to note that issues like hypocrisy (43% vs. 29%), human suffering (41% vs. 25%), global conflict (38% vs. 24%) or unanswered prayer (27% vs. 13%) are barriers to their belief in a spiritual dimension. They are less likely to express that religion is good for people (48% vs. 57% overall) or society (43% vs. 53%) and similarly hesitant to embrace the influence of the Christian Church (39% vs. 47% say it’s important to society).

On a personal level, only about one-third of anxious respondents agrees faith plays a central role in their own life (35% vs. 44% of those who don’t qualify as anxious). Looking at affiliation, many of the negative feelings listed in this survey, including those that may be associated with anxiety, are more common among those who don’t identify with faith—28 percent of atheists, agnostics and “nones” report this level of unrest, significantly more than the percentage of Christians (16%) and other religious respondents (17%) who do.


Which comes first, lack of faith or anxiety? Disconnection or anxiety? Do anxieties blossom in the absence of community or belief—or have people found religion and relationships are ill-equipped to address their existing worries? This study can’t speak to the direction of these correlations, and they may be cyclical. What we know, from our own research and others, is there is no shortage of factors that may amplify a generational tendency toward anxiety: Internet activity that adds to overwhelming worries and robs rest from 18–35-year-olds today.18 The fear of the unknown, the pressure to succeed and the weight of comparisons to others during college years, financially lean years or single years. A lack of strong roots in religious practice, which can be beneficial to one’s spiritual, relational and mental health.19

It’s also important to consider, however, that this heightened awareness of and willingness to acknowledge anxiety may be a sign of improvement, a product of years spent chipping away at taboos surrounding mental health. Conversations about stress, fear and burnout among the connected generation could represent not just crisis, but openness. Either way, it represents an opportunity for the Church—to directly address anxiety, as well as the spiritual, digital, relational and financial circumstances that nurture it.


Signs of Anxiety

On average, one in five 18–35-year-olds around the globe identifies with feelings related to anxiety—specifically, they report feeling at least three of the four following emotions: anxiety about important decisions, sadness or depression, fear of failure and insecurity in themselves. There are some continental, and perhaps cultural, trends in this regard, though not in the way one might assume; some of the nations with the most means or opportunity are also among the most likely to present (or, perhaps, to acknowledge) feelings of anxiety. For example, those in North America and Oceania are more likely to fall into this segment, while respondents in African countries are less likely to report these apprehensions.


Harnessing a Global Awareness

A Q&A with Alan Jamieson

Building Toward the Future

A Q&A with Jefferson Bethke

Connect the Dots:
Life in an Anxious Age

Reflections and Next Steps Inspired by the Research


See the whole.

  • Paradoxes and contradictions are at the heart of the connected generation. For instance,
    they are more globally linked than previous generations, and yet they are often lonely and isolated from their surrounding community.
  • Global connectedness brings both opportunities and challenges. Many young adults feel uncertainty related to vocation and economics (especially students) and anxiety about their shared future.
  • The experiences of Millennial and Gen Z women are often quite different from the young men who are their generational peers. Young mothers, in particular, don’t seem to feel the benefits of connectivity as much as other groups.

Take time to pray.

  • For Millennials and Gen Z teens who feel isolated and relationally disconnected; for those who feel uncertain, insecure or anxious; for young women (especially mothers) who are more likely to experience these feelings.
  • For young people in your cultural context, with its unique pressures and challenges; for vocational and educational opportunities; for comfort for the lonely and encouragement for the fearful.
  • For your community to respond with grace, wisdom and understanding to the needs of teens and young adults in various stages of life; for opportunities to bring care and connectivity where there is chaos.

Create what’s next.

  • Listen. Each young person has a story—and most want to tell it! Learning starts with listening. The same goes for relationships.
  • Think. How are you helping people get and stay connected to each other and to God? How is it going? Should you do less, more, the same or different?
  • Act. Model and espouse a balanced use of digital tools that leads to better, deeper and fruitful connectivity.
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