Americans Agree: 2020 Was the Worst Year in a Lifetime

Survey explores the top factors affecting Americans' quality of life

Published Dec. 14, 2020

 

What many of us have been thinking all year is now official: 2020 is the worst year ever experienced.

We asked 1,812 adults aged 18 and older to identify the worst year of their life, and 2020 topped the list. Nearly 1 out of 3 people chose 2020 as the worst year they’ve experienced, which was the highest rate for any year selected. And when broken down by age, 2020 was most frequently selected as the worst year by respondents from each age group.

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Graphic showing the years most commonly selected as best and worst, by age

Key Findings

  • While a plurality of respondents from each age group identified 2020 as the worst year, the likelihood of choosing 2020 as the worst year decreased with age. Those over the age of 65 were only half as likely as those in their 20s to say 2020 is the worst year of their life.

  • Most respondents cited losing a loved one or financial hardship as the main factors for choosing their worst year. Men were more likely to cite financial or professional loss, while women were more likely to cite romantic, family or friend relationship struggles as the reason a year was their worst.

  • Only 6% of all respondents said they were currently living their best life

COVID-19 Made 2020 the Worst, Though Many Older Adults Have Seen Worse

At the time we conducted our survey, the COVID-19 death toll in the United States was approaching 300,000. The national unemployment rate in 2020 peaked at 14.7%, which was the highest rate since the Great Depression. Reported rates of depression were approximately four times higher in 2020 than those reported in 2019.

When asked to provide a specific reason why they chose 2020 as the worst of their life, 61% of respondents cited COVID-19. 

Why Was 2020 the Worst Year of Your Life?

"My business I started 6 months prior [to the COVID-19 outbreak] had to close its doors due to the pandemic."

"This year has been one disaster after the other. There is a pandemic. I am closing in on thirty and my life is not going anywhere. I barely make any money. I still live with my parents. The country is falling apart."

"The pandemic more than anything. I lost my job and lost family and friends."

"2020 has been the worst year by far. The combination of deaths, the pandemic, government issues, and racial injustice have made it the worst year."

"I don't think I need to explain."

Our report suggests, however, that those who chose 2020 as the worst year of their life may just need further perspective.

While 2020 was the top choice as worst year among every age group, the percentage of people who chose 2020 as the worst year of their life decreased with each successive age group. Our oldest respondents were only half as likely as our youngest participants to select 2020 as the worst year they’ve experienced

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Graphic showing percentages of people who said 2020 was their worst year, by age

We also asked our participants to select the best year of their life. 1985 received the most votes as the best overall year. While 1985 brought Americans Nintendo, “We Are The World” and the first version of Microsoft Windows, it’s likely that a number of participants experienced more personal meaningful events in 1985.

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Graphic showing the years most commonly selected as best and worst

1985, however, was curiously also the second-most chosen year as the worst, behind only 2020. It was older respondents who were more likely to say 1985 was the worst year. In 1985:

Whether attributed to recency bias or an association with the last good days before the pandemic, three of the six years most commonly selected as the best (2015, 2016 and 2019) all came since 2015.

People’s Worst Years Include Personal and Financial Loss

When asked what kind of factors played into choosing the worst decade of their life, “death of a loved one” and “financial hardship” ranked as the most common answers, while “lost a job” was fourth.

While each of those factors were front and center in 2020, they were consistently cited as the primary factors contributing to a respondent's worst years. 

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Graphic showing the reasons people chose as top factors in their worst years

Men were more likely to cite the loss of tangible items such as paychecks or a car, while women were more likely to cite personal issues such as death of a loved one, deteriorating family relationships or being the victim of bullying.

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Graphic showing the reasons cited as top factors in their worst years, by gender

The definition of a respondent’s worst year also differed according to their age:

  • Those aged 18 to 24 were more likely to cite hitting rock bottom or experiencing the negative emotional effects of social or political turmoil as the top factors of their worst years.

  • Those aged 25 and older were more likely to cite financial hardship, death of a loved one or pet, poor health or job loss

Many younger people also cited “failed at something” as a main factor in their worst years. The frequency of that answer decreased with age until disappearing altogether among older respondents.

Love and Romance the Top Factors in the Best Years

The things that defined 2020, 1985 or any other year as the worst in one’s life are equal parts varied and consistent. So what makes for the best year of a person’s life?

Overall, participants cited “meeting a special romantic partner” and “getting married” as the top two events that defined their best decade.

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Graphic showing the reasons people cited as top factors in their best years

As with the reasons given for the worst decade of one’s life, the reasons cited for one’s best decade also differed between men and women:

  • Women were more likely than men to cite personal milestones such as having children or grandchildren, getting engaged or spending meaningful time with friends or family.

  • Men were more likely than women to cite material events such as winning a prize or financial award, getting a car or their first paycheck and attending a notable live music event. More men than women cited their “first kiss” as a primary factor in their best years. 

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Graphic showing reasons people cite as top factors in their best years, by gender

When asked what were the primary factors of their best years, younger people were more likely to cite factors such as attending college, learning to drive and getting their first job, while those 25 and up were more likely to cite living on their own, meeting a special romantic partner, getting married and having a child.

Conclusion

Many adults believe 2020 to be the worst year of their lives. This is true for adults of all ages, but claiming 2020 as one's worst year decreases in frequency with age. 

The worst times of people’s lives are most often defined by tragedy and financial hardship. Women tend to place more value on relationships and personal milestones than men when it comes to identifying the best or worst time of their life.

Methodology

This study was conducted on December 8, 2020, using an audience pool gathered using MTurk, a survey platform tool. The total survey included 1,812 respondents aged 18 to 79. 5% of participants were aged 18 to 24, 31% were aged 25 to 34, 26% were aged 35 to 44, 12% were aged 45 to 54, 13% were aged 55 to 64, and 12% were aged 65 and older. 

Participants were filtered based on completion time and failure to follow written instructions within the survey.

Margin of error: +/- 4% (95% confidence interval)

This survey relies on self-reported data.

Fair Use Statement

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