Millennials: America’s most Anxious Generation

“1 in 5 College Students Stressed, Consider Suicide”. “One in Three College Freshman Report Mental Health Disorder”. “College Students Are Anxious, and Extremely So”. Today, mental health is a growing concern among members of our society who raise awareness for the poor mental health of young adults. At first, we might dismiss these claims of anxiety growing among millennials. However, there is evidence that suggests that millennials are the most anxious and stressed generation in history. As millennials become increasingly anxious, there is a growth in economic burden, decreased economic prospects, and decreased productivity. But what is causing this problem that riddles our society with financial and social dilemmas? The growing anxiety rate among millennials is caused by (1) academic stress, (2) a competitive economic environment, and (3) dependence on technology. Although the anxiety rate shows no signs of slowing down, a plausible solution is making treatment for mental health issues more accessible.

With many severe economic consequences, just how bad is the problem of anxiety amongst millennials? All across America, depression and anxiety rates are soaring for millennials. Over the past 60 years, the rate for adolescent suicide has tripled which makes suicide the second leading cause of death for this age group. Not only that, 32% of adolescents (age 13-18) have been diagnosed with anxiety disorder at least once in their life while adults reported 29% (Vastag 2). Moreover, according to the American Psychological Association, 12% of millennials have an officially diagnosed anxiety disorder, greater than the percentage of baby boomers (“Stress by Generation”). All of these facts showcase that the prevalence of anxiety is growing with each successive generation. However, what has caused anxiety to be on the rise with millennials today?

With many millennials studying in college, it is no surprise that college students who exhibit symptoms of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts state academic pressure as the main factor. According to Alicia Flatt, “1,455 American university students were surveyed, and 53 percent reported increasing depressive symptoms since beginning college, and academic problems were most frequently cited as the cause of their depression” (2). Upon hearing this revelation, one might say that academic pressure is nothing new to the life of a student; in fact, it has existed for several decades. Sure, there is the occasional all-nighter to complete a paper or study for a final exam, but nothing that should be alarming. Although academic pressure isn’t a new concept, it has escalated to alarming heights for young adults because of many external conditions and how they are raised. When growing up, many millennials experienced an unhealthy amount of parental pressure to strive for academic excellence. This is affirmed by Richard Weissbourd, faculty member of Harvard’s School of Education and a child and family psychologist, who believes that “achievement has, in many cases, become the chief goal of child-raising” (Weissbourd 8). This focus on achievement causes many millennials to hold high expectations for themselves in terms of academic excellence in order to live up to their parents’ wishes for them. With such expectations set throughout one’s adolescence, these millennials carry their parents’ burden of excellence and achievement when they enter their post-secondary education. However, when millennials attend college, they find that there is a stark difference between their academic expectations and reality. This is because the caliber of high school classes is low compared to its college counterpart. This is shown by the decrease in students’ grade average in college compared to high school. In order to gain admission into a university, students are expected to maintain a grade average at around 80%. However, the grade average for college freshmen students is 65% which indicates that millennials are achieving lower grades than they did in high school (Wintre and Yaffe 10). The academic disparity amongst millennials from high school to college overwhelms many students who have to come to terms that they cannot achieve their unrealistic academic expectations (Flatt 3). This “personal failure” for millennials and their inability to cope with it have profound effects on their mental health which is best summarized by Watkins:

As high expectations are met with a disappointing reality, students are left in a panic, and in some cases, an identity crisis. Students have been pressured to achieve but they have never been taught how to fail, which is an important part of growing upThe ingrained understanding of the importance of success, the struggle to meet the demands of academic life in university, and the inability to cope with failure are all contributors to the mental health crisis on campus. (Watkins 213)

Even though there are many factors that contribute to the growing anxiety amongst millennials, it is evident that academic pressure plays a role.

Millennials often experience academic pressure which contributes to an increase in the number of our youth that has poor mental health. However, why is there a constant expectation for millennials to strive for excellence? We know that millennials grew up with parents that placed achievement as the central goal for their children, but why? It is safe to say that this obsession with achievement is for millennials to stand out in the competitive economic environment that we live in today. Most of us believe that internal feelings and thoughts contribute to the depreciation of an adolescent’s mental health. However, there are external factors that play a role which millennials have no control over. Sadly, many college students believe that a stable career is indicative of future success and happiness. Following this idea, many millennials strive to make themselves stand out and hope that amongst the plethora of resumes, theirs stands out. This is supported by a study that reported that both male and female college students were experiencing academic stress because of employment conditions, economic outlook, and financial burden (Flatt 3). The wish to land a decent career after college has led many millennials to a nervous and stressful breakdown as they try to outcompete their peers for a certain position. Vying for a limited amount of coveted positions in the competitive job market has contributed to millennials being known as the most anxious generation in history.

The nurturing and economic environment that adolescents grew up in contribute to millennials’ growing anxiety. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the technological advancements that many millennials grew up on can impact their mental health in profound ways. In the age of social media, millennials have developed unrealistic expectations and an obsession with instant gratification. With engaging platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, adolescents have been exposed to the lives of others which might seem “too good to be true”. For example, if one was to scroll through their Instagram feed, they’ll see posts of others documenting their “glorious” lives. Traveling to some foreign country. Eating at a Michelin starred restaurant. “Body Goals”. All of these are topics that one sees when scrolling through their social media feed. However, these posts don’t reflect true daily life. Instead, they focus on the rare highlights of one’s life. Either way, adolescents that view these posts start to disorient the way they should view their lives. In fact, many millennials will find themselves being in a fit of envy and wondering, “How come my life isn’t like this? Why can’t I be like him/her?”. The process of thinking about these questions over and over can easily lead someone to develop lower self-esteem, a sense of isolation, and/or depression. In her research, Young discovered an association between habitual internet use and several mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, social isolation, shyness, low self-esteem, and a lack of social and emotional skills (3). With millennials having their eyes fixated on their phones and constantly using social media, it’s no surprise that it’s very common to see these issues occurring frequently in millennials. In addition to developing unrealistic expectations for their lives, millennials have become obsessed with instant gratification. With the world wide web, young adults can receive answers to questions in seconds by simply typing their question in a search engine. If a student was stuck on how to solve a math problem, they could type the question in Google and find an answer on websites like Chegg or Slader. If an adolescent was sad and they wanted to feel happy, they can find a cat video on YouTube and feel better in an instant. These scenarios present the idea that many millennials look at the Internet and think that it can make their problems disappear in seconds. The key concept here is that all of this happens in seconds. Who needs to look through their math textbook and solve the problem on their own? Who needs to take the time to find out why they’re sad and generate long-term solutions? With the Internet, millennials have grown accustomed to instant gratification. The dependence on technology has left many millennials with the inability to effectively solve a problem when they encounter one. This is best explained by Watkins who states:

I think students that are arriving on campus are different today than ten years ago. They’ve grown up with cell phones, instant messenger, internet, the instant gratification and resolving things very quickly has been a growing issue for 20 or 30 years but there is a way in which students are not accustomed to, not everybody, but many students are not accustomed to have to tolerate and work through stress. (Watkins 228)

Although technological advancements have improved society and our general wellbeing, it has placed a handicap on millennials who rely on technology to solve their problems. This reliance has led many millennials to be overcome with anxiety when they can no longer turn to the Internet for answers and must solve problems by themselves. With technology being more advanced and young adults becoming more dependent, it’s no surprise that the anxiety rate amongst millennials has skyrocketed.

Although anxiety has become more prevalent among millennials, there are some people that believe that the prevalence of anxiety hasn’t increased significantly. Dr. Borwin Bandelow states, “‘I have a list of possible problems in my head. If all the real problems are solved, I turn another one into a problem so that I can worry about it. These are constant facts of life. It [anxiety] is not increasing. It has always been like this'” (7). In his paper, “Epidemiology of Anxiety Disorders in the 21st Century,” Bandelow states that anxiety has a significant genetic factor with 30-50% of anxiety in a population being traced to genetics (9). Therefore, an increase in anxiety rates isn’t necessarily conducive to the idea that millennials are becoming more and more anxious. However, the number of people suffering from anxiety due to genetics should remain stable over the years. This is because the prevalence of genes takes centuries to alter. Thus, any changes in anxiety rates in the past few centuries can be attributed to external factors due to an insignificant change in the prevalence of anxiety-causing genes.

With anxiety on the rise for millennials, what exactly is it costing us? Some people might think that the poor mental health of our millennials is a “phase” and that it will pass sooner or later. However, research shows that three consequences of increasingly anxious millennials are: (1) decrease in economic prospects for young adults, (2) loss of economic productivity, and (3) increasing economic burden. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, individuals with severe mental health conditions are 6-7 times less likely to be employed whereas those with mild mental health conditions are 2-3 times less likely to be employed (“Mental Illness: NAMI”). If anxiety rates continue to rise in the young adult population, we will be faced with a massive number of unemployed adults who are willing to work. In addition to an increase in young adult unemployment, there will be a loss in productivity as more millennials take a leave of absence to deal with their mental health issues. According to a study conducted by the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy, the number of young adults who missed a day or more of work due to mental health problems increased by 10% in California alone during the years 2011-2015 (Scheffler 2). The combination of both mass unemployment and loss of job productivity will result in a loss of overall economic productivity as the output per work hour decreases. Not only that, economic productivity is a key contributor for a country’s gross domestic output (GDP); decrease in economic productivity will result in a lower GDP which indicates a decrease in a country’s economic health. With a decrease in economic health, it’s no surprise that mental illnesses also produce a huge burden on a country’s economy. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the overall cost of serious mental illnesses in the United States was $317 billion in 2002, a 59% increase from 1992 (Insel 1). Moreover, the rise of mental health issues among young adults contributed an increase in loss of earnings by $100 billion during this ten-year period (“Quantifying the Cost of Depression”). Others might think that the growing anxiety rate among millennials isn’t a big deal and is something that can be swept under the rug. However, its consequences show that the mental health of millennials shouldn’t be taken lightly.

The dire consequences of the growing anxiety among millennials show that we must collectively work to develop a solution. While there are a variety of solutions that exist, a pragmatic one that is worth noting is increasing investments in mental health. According to a study published in The Lancelet Psychiatry, investing $1 on anxiety and depression through clinal treatments and medications can yield a $4 return (Chrisholm 6). Not only that, the benefits of increased investments in mental health treatments are 3-5 times greater than the cost of treatment because of the boost in economic productivity that is produced (Chrisholm 7). Although seemingly simple, increasing the number of resources available to millennials experiencing anxiety can help decrease the increasing rates of anxiety. As the number of millennials suffering from mental health issues decreases, the magnitude of the consequences that mental health produces will also decrease.

All in all, evidence shows that millennials are the most anxious generation in history and that anxiety rates for millennials continue to grow. After further examination, it has been determined that three factors that contribute to this phenomenon are a significant amount of academic stress, a competitive job market, and a strong dependence on technology. All of these factors contribute to a great deal of pressure on millennials who have to solve problems dealing with academics and prospective jobs with no ability to create solutions for them. As anxiety continues to grow for millennials, the severity of its consequences is significant such as a costly economic burden and rising unemployment. Efforts to reduce the growing anxiety in young adults include investing more in mental health by providing accessible treatment. Nowadays, millennials are known for being the most anxious generation; however, millennials don’t need to be labeled as such in the future if there are effective solutions in place.

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