Stress culture, and the glorification of “being busy”, is a concept that dominates Western society and cultivates the mainstream novelty that is the “child prodigy.” It is this concept of becoming a prodigy that perpetuates a societal pressure to attain a certain level of accomplishment by a certain age; an age that has continued to lower over the years.
The culprits of this crisis are hard to pinpoint, but ultimately can be categorized by a shared issue of consumerism. Producers target an audience that will pay for extra SAT prep, schedule their days down to the minute, and participate in multiple varsity sports; all in an effort to succeed. An audience that, in this day and age, is considered “well rounded”, “productive”, and most importantly “prodigious”.
Western society’s obsession with child prodigies is escalating the issue of chronic stress and mental illness in today’s youth. The constant media outpour of successful children, teenagers, and young adults, is contributing rapidly to the growing stress culture in America. In 2011, Forbes magazine launched the 30 under 30 list, under the direction of Randall Lane. This list honored the 30 most successful entrepreneurs under the age of 30 that year. Since then, the list has popularized and has continued to grow its following, coming out with its most recent article this past December. This list was the tipping point of what would become a global phenomenon.
In 2020, Billie Eilish became the youngest solo artist to receive an album of the year award at the Grammys, a massive feat for someone only 18 years of age. In 2021, Olivia Rodrigo rose to fame, debuting her hit album “Sour” at only 17 years of age. But entrepreneurs and singers are not the only accomplished youth being published and posted left and right. Ellen Degeneres is known for inviting incredible children onto her talk show, from gifted 12-year-old ukulele player Feng E. to 3-year-old periodic table expert Brielle. In the political realm, there is Amanda Gorman, who made her debut as the youngest inaugural poet at the 2021 inauguration. The onslaught of successful youth televised in America doesn’t let up, from Olympic gold medalists to culinary experts on MasterChef Junior. There is a reason Western society values these individuals so highly, and it is because they represent the achievements and perfection our culture strives for. There is a certain infatuation, a certain awe that comes with such impressive young people. This infatuation, however entertaining, is incredibly detrimental to today’s youth, who constantly absorb media coverage of these events.
The issue lies not in the existence of these successful individuals, but in the agenda that is pressed forth by media outlets. From YouTube videos to Tiktok to Instagram, Gen Z is able to access the highlights of every person’s life. Emphasis on highlights. Of course, a 10-30 second clip, or even a 10-minute video, is only going to address the more respectable qualities of a person’s day or endeavors. Constant reminders of others' highlights are fueling stress in today’s youth, and, as a result, creating mental illnesses that may not have otherwise been present.
In a 2020 survey conducted by the New York Post, Americans consider themselves old at the age of 57. Each year, this age continues to decrease, and American stress levels continue to rise. In a 2021 study by CNN, scientists found that one in four adolescents globally are “experiencing clinically elevated depression and anxiety symptoms”. The pandemic has only intensified this already prevalent issue of overachieving, and consequently, overworked, youth. From college reaction videos to AP art portfolios to Carnegie Mellon pianists, other people’s successes are now a part of Gen Z’s own entertainment, and oftentimes, begin to influence their actions, thoughts, and lives.