A recent survey commissioned by the American Psychological Association measured the relative stress levels of four generations:
- Matures (Post-WWII workers, aged 67+)
- Boomers (48-to-66)
- Gen Xers (34-to-47)
- Millennials (Gen Y, ages 18-to-33)
For clarity’s sake, we’ll define anxiety and stress this way:
“The unpleasant emotional state consisting of psychological and physiological responses to anticipation of unreal or imagined danger, ostensibly resulting from unrecognized conflict within the mind.”
These stresses manifest themselves physically and emotionally.
Physiological impact includes symptoms like increased heart rate, altered respiration rate, sweating, trembling, weakness, and fatigue.
Psychological manifestations include feelings of impending danger, being powerless, apprehensive, and tense.
The study’s most disappointing finding? Two-of-three Millennials live with extreme to middling stress. This, of course, is a heavy emotional yoke that young people should not be resigned to carry around.
Why this matters
The Millennials are, by an alarmingly significant margin, the most likely of the four generations to struggle with depression and anxiety. A heartbreaking one in five Millennials admit to having been diagnosed with depression and anxiety orders. They suffer depression 25 percent more frequently than Gen Xers, 50 percent more often than Boomers, and nearly twice as frequently as old, Mature workers.
Compared to the Millennials’ ratio of one in five, the other generations aren’t that severe. For Gen Xers the frequency of depression and anxiety is one in seven. For Boomers: one in eight. Matures, one in nine. The gaps when measuring anxiety instead of depression are similar. The Millennials struggle the most.
What Millenniums worry about
Millenniums are consumed with worry that correlates to five things.
Foremost among their concerns is Work (76 percent). Work worries take a lot of all-consuming forms: having it, keeping it, finding it, and liking it.
Money is second (73 percent). Ours is a materialistic society. Many Millennials were raised with an expectation of material pursuits due to the conditioning of their upbringing. Boomers turned us from a saving economy to a leveraged economy, and now the tight economy has created an era of new austerity. With advertisers having more portals to the mind—the Internet is now a virtually garbage dump of interruptive intrusions (and worsening)—the pressure of money comes to the young from every angle: making it, spending it, keeping it, investing it, finding more of it. Things the boom economy took for granted—like cars and home ownership—are now a heck of a challenge with jobs paying less than they traditionally might and limited raises based upon past comparison.
Relationships are a concern for 59 percent, while Family Responsibilities worry 56 percent. Millennials face tough social challenges, too. For many this is the stage of life where interactions and inexperience in love and heartache magnify both good and bad. Romance is an emotion-driven industry. When you have not been dumped before, or have not dumped someone else, this is rocky, new, emotional terrain. While these events are a rite of passage to maturity, they can be emotionally debilitating for those who have never been through it before.
Family is the fourth issue, for several reasons. Many parents lost their wealth, identity, or self-esteem in the crush of the recession. Boomerang kids retreat home after being unable to support themselves for a variety of reasons. Some young college graduates can’t even leave home. They have graduated but find themselves unemployable or, if employable, underemployed or minimally compensated.
Even working couples are not immune. Increasingly they are becoming economic hostages to divorce or separation. Although love has been snuffed out, neither partner can afford to move out on his or her own to begin the healing process.
Lastly, the Economy is cited as a Millennial stress creator for 55 percent. In the macro sense, this is foolish to worry about since no one can control it. In the micro sense, a restrictive economy causes gun-shy conservatism when planning or committing.
This layer of economic “what if” worry did not exist during our robust economy. But it is omnipresent now, and now is the only reality the Millennials have ever faced.
Why the big numbers?
Timing and social customs provide clues why the work climates of each generation determine their varying degrees of managed or heightened stress.
- The Matures (born 1945 and earlier) were born into a post-World War II economic boom. The industrial revolution created jobs, industries, an expanding economy, and a more leisurely way of life. College was a coin toss, an advantage but not a workforce requirement. This generation’s entire working prime unfolded during a time of economic prosperity.
- Boomers (born 1946-1964) inherited a workplace of economic expansion, job stability, career progression, and job security. Loyalty was a paved street blacktopped in both directions: Companies invested in Boomers and Boomers committed to their companies. Careers were escalators. Stick around and rise. College degrees increased in number and expectation. Until 2007, entire working careers evolved during a sustained economic run-up. Boomers borrowed money to make money—something their previous generation did not do—and role-modeled the insatiable hunger to consume that typified this materialistic generation.
- Gen Xers (born 1965-1978) ushered the integration of technology into the work place, which (for office workers) was the final bastion of efficiency advancement. While robotics and automation had improved productivity on the production floor, technology was slower to reshape the office. Gen Xers championed this transformation and took the lead integrating technology into daily business practices. Gen Xers were also better educated than the two prior generations. The expanding economy made it easy for motivated young people to enter the workforce.
Parents used to succeeding, therefore, raised Millennials, priming their children to trump their predecessors. A series of things went wrong that hijacked the generation’s dreams and expectations. For example:
- Hovering parents coddled unrealistic expectations and inflated expectations of self.
- The free and easy money generated by previous decades of economic prosperity evaporated. The Boomer formula of borrowing, leveraging, and accumulating wealth—emulated by many Gen Xers—was not a viable tactic for Millennials.
- As the economy collapsed, so did the job market. Students graduated with major debt and no means to begin making payments. The unemployment rate for 18-to-29-year-olds is 13 percent but actually higher, since 1.7 million more have given up looking for work. Without a career path to follow, disillusionment arrived with the diploma for hundreds of thousands of each year’s million or so college graduates.
- Faced with debt, a dead job market, no confidence in the economy, and a dim expectation of future opportunities, the Millennial’s pessimistic point of view is predictable. This negativity blanketed Millennials who are book smart and highly educated but stymied. Since their parents had never before dealt with a recession, many Millennials struggle for coaching on how to deal with adversity and tough times.
- When uncontrollable forces crush the dreams of dreamers, resignation and defeatism are logical results. It takes courage to keep pushing, to keep grinding, to try and make your own breaks. A generation that received participation trophies rather than championship trophies—all the while insulated from criticism—suddenly found itself ill prepared to compete in a hardscrabble world surrounded by survival instinct competitors.
- Technology snapped the directional rudder of what many young people will do with their lives. Because companies cannot commit to employees in a volatile workplace, the employees will not commit to the companies. Without emotional equity, roots of loyalty are shallow. Workers become Bedouins who come and go.
- Business maturity is lacking when sheltered people not used to coldblooded competitive business arrive on the scene with fragile egos and a blind spot of naïveté. Immaturity creates conflict, real or perceived, which in turn heightens stress. So does failing to meet expectations. Cool hands drive business. Emotional fragility does not.
To the Millenniums’ credit, they are better educated, more efficient with tools, and smarter about seeking help than previous generations.
They are also using less self-destructive ways of dealing with stress than their predecessors. In the past four years, the number of Millenniums that deal with stress by drinking has dropped from one in six to one in eight. Overeating has dropped from one in three to one in four. Cigarette use is at an all-time low, and cocaine and amphetamine use is dropping.
So what? Why does this matter?
With a generation of younger people having such a statistically significant higher stress level than older people, this red flag is far too important for friends, family, and employers to ignore.
Education is the quickest solution. Access to relevant information, packaged and accessible through the organic tools of this exciting generation, is key.
Colleges should teach head management as a core requirement. While schools teach core academic courses, they do not teach life skills, which means millions of young people are turned loose into a transitory stage of life bridging parental protectionism (or the structure of daily school life) with the difficult new world of working—or trying to work—for a living.
Businesses should own, and not ignore, the results of this generational reality. They should invest in baseline coaching that teaches relevant life skills for all young workers.
High schools, already under too much pressure to squeeze blood from too few dimes, would be well served to discuss the prioritization of real world thinking into its educational core, too.
Several years ago when I decided to take Managing the Worry Circle out of the propriety of my executive classrooms and put it out into the public domain as a popular book that has been sold and discussed around the world, I did so for one reason: to help people.
Based on the findings of this recent APA survey, it is obvious that the time is now for each of us to proactively reach out and coach or mentor this up and coming generation on how best to manage their heads and, consequently, their hearts.
When it comes to having a positive influence on a generation dealing with too much self-imposed stress, keep it simple: Do it, do it right, and do it right now.
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