Psychology and Relationships

Young adults are now more neurotic, less agreeable, study finds: The pandemic may have 'disrupted maturity'

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Young adults are more neurotic now than they were pre-pandemic, according to a new study published in PLOS ONE. They are also less agreeable and less conscientious. 

The study used the five-factor model of personality, a psychological theory which states that personality can be boiled down to five traits: neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Researchers recorded how these traits changed from 2020 to 2022 in 7,109 participants across three age groups: 30 and younger, 30 to 64, and 65 and older. 

In 2021 and 2022, the 30 and younger group experienced a significant increase in neuroticism, which is a tendency to see the world as distressing or unsafe, and a decrease in agreeableness and conscientiousness. They changed more than older study participants.

These findings suggest there has been "disrupted maturity" in that cohort, says Angelina Sutin, a co-author of the study and a professor at Florida State University College of Medicine.

Personality in younger adulthood is more 'malleable'

In 2020, all age groups participating in the study showed a decline in neuroticism compared to pre-pandemic levels, while the other four traits remained the same. 

Unlike in those 30 and younger, neuroticism continued to decline into 2021 and 2022 for adults between the ages 30 and 64 and those older than 65. The other four traits declined less significantly for the middle age group but remained the same for older adults. 

Younger participants might have been more affected during the pandemic than their older counterparts because personality is more "malleable" when you're younger, Sutin says. That means young people had more room for change. 

"Although the pandemic was stressful for everyone, it disrupted the normative tasks of younger adulthood, such as school and the transition into the workforce and being sociable and developing relationships," she says. 

'Younger adults became more emotional and sensitive to stress'

Sutin isn't sure whether these changes are long-term or temporary. Still, they will likely affect how 20-somethings make decisions day to day.

"The pattern of changes suggests that younger adults became more emotional and sensitive to stress, less trusting and straightforward, and less organized and disciplined," she says.

Although the pandemic was stressful for everyone, it disrupted the normative tasks of younger adulthood.
Angelina Sutin
Professor at Florida State University

If these turn out to be long-term personality changes, they could affect younger people as they pursue bigger life goals. Regularly viewing the world as a threatening place, for example, can make it harder to apply for that dream job or ask someone on a date.

"These traits, particularly neuroticism and conscientiousness, are associated with many important outcomes, including educational and career success, relationships, and mental and physical health," she says. "The changes were relatively small, but the cumulative impact could be significant if the changes persist." 

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