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Managing stress for the millennial generation

Heather Rudow February 20, 2013

(Photo:Flickr/LordKhan)

(Photo:Flickr/LordKhan)

Authors William Strauss and Neil Howe are widely credited with coining the term “millennial,” a name they give to those born from 1982 to 2004. The idea of the millennial has been picking up steam as of late — in the past year, it has become part of modern nomenclature and the subject of myriad media critiques and television shows.

And, fittingly, this generation is the focus of a newly released study by the American Psychological Association (APA) that revealed that millennials are more stressed than ever before and more stressed than their older counterparts.

An online survey of 2,020 U.S. adults 18 and older found that 39 percent of millennials reported that they were more stressed this year than the previous year. That’s compared with 36 percent of those in Generation X, ages 34 to 47; 33 percent of baby boomers, ages 48 to 66; and 29 percent of matures, 67 and older.

On a 10-point scale, where 1 means “little or no stress” and 10 means “a great deal of stress,” the 2012 average between all generations is 4.9. Millennials reported a 5.4 on the scale.

Managing stress is also harder for millennials compared with other generations. Sixty-two percent of millennials reported making efforts to reduce stress, yet 25 percent say they are not doing enough to manage it, compared with 15 percent of boomers and 7 percent of matures.

In addition, only 29 percent of millennials say they are doing an excellent or very good job of managing their stress, compared with 50 percent of matures, 35 percent of Generation Xers and 38 percent of boomers. In fact, since 2010, the percentage of millennials who reported doing a good job managing stress has decreased: in 2010, the APA reported the number at 33 percent, and in 2011, it was 32 percent.

However, Brian Van Brunt, a past president of the American College Counseling Association, a division of the American Counseling Association, and senior vice president of professional program development for the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management Group, says he is not too concerned by the findings.

“These kinds of studies tend to attract national attention because we like to see the newest generation struggling with their adjustment to the world,” Van Brunt explains. “This isn’t all that different from my generation, Generation X, being labeled as ‘slackers’ and ‘adrift.’”

To Van Brunt, the statistics actually portray a generation with fairly average stress levels.

“When you look more closely, you discover that [the study is] on a 10-point scale, where 1 means ‘little or no stress’ and 10 means ‘a great deal of stress’ [and] the 2012 average is 4.9,” Van Brunt says. “The article goes onto to state that millennials are stressed at a 5.4. I’m not convinced that this is cause for alarm. While these students certainly have a host of problems in front of them, keep in mind what it would be like to rate your stress one a 10-point scale. This study is saying that the average amount of stress millennials are putting down on the keyboard is just slightly over the halfway point. To me, that seems right on par for college students struggling with today’s challenges of increased tuition, [balancing] work, life and academic pursuits, and working in a country that appears to be struggling a bit as we come out of a recession.”

Jane Rheineck, an associate professor in the Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education at Northern Illinois University and a member of ACA, says developmentally speaking, millennials are often at a crossroads in their lives, which contributes to heightened feelings of stress.

“They are at the beginning of their careers, which inherently creates stress, and the unpredictability of the job market adds another level of stress,” says Rheineck, who is president elect-elect of the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling, a division of ACA.

Rising costs in education has lead to an increased burden on students, “[making them] wonder, ‘How am I going to pay for my education?’ or, ‘How will I be able to afford to pay back student loans?’”

Through his work with students in this age group, Van Brunt has found the main causes of stress to be the same as when he was a college student 20 years ago.

“I would agree with the survey’s findings that things like work, worrying about student load debt, academic demands [are causing stress],” says Van Brunt, who was previously director of counseling at Western Kentucky University. “During my time in college counseling working with stressed, anxious and depressed millennials, I would often hear them trying to figure out their place in the world ­— looking for a job or sense of purpose — upset about friendships or relationships that didn’t work out, overwhelmed by balancing their academic coursework and trying to have enough money to live on while at school.”

Rheineck, who is also a past president of the Association for Adult Development and Aging, a division of ACA, offers the perspective of millennials as graduate students.

As an educator, she has seen the stress of going to graduate school, working and family obligations, as well as the increased cost of going to school increase stress levels for students.

“In most cases, I think the image of being a ‘care-free’ graduate student is long gone,” Rheineck says.  She has found that those competing obligations can certainly contribute to stress.

The study found the top stressors of millennials are money, work and the economy: “All are direct ties to finances,” Rheineck says.

Van Brunt believes that if there is aspect in which millennials worry more than previous generations, it is in “the struggle of trying to find their place in the world, given the changes going on in the college and workplace.”

Thinking back to his time in college, Van Brunt says, “the old saying went, ‘It used to take a high school diploma to get a good job, but now you need a bachelor’s.’ Now, I hear students saying they need a master’s to be successful, and even then, there are no guarantees that the effort they put in will pay off in the end.”

“I think millennials worry about the investment in college and wonder how this investment matches up with their dreams,” Van Brunt continues. “Entering college is kind of like getting on a train that goes faster and faster as the years pass. It’s very hard for an 18-year-old to have a sense of their career and life goals when they get on the train. It becomes almost impossible to get off once they have invested so much money and time into their college years. I’ve seen that create panic and anxiety in the students I counsel.”

In terms of the significance for counselors, Van Brunt says they need to “remain on those front lines to help out students who might feel lost or pressured by their college choices. I’m reminded of the film Dead Poet’s Society, where the main character commits suicide over the pressure to become something he ultimately was not. Counselors help these students better manage their stress, expectations and help them develop conflict-resolution skills to bring these discussions around [so they can talk about] where their life is ultimately heading.”

Rheineck thinks counselors need to be aware of the unique, cultural changes facing each generation.

“Being 18 in 2013 is very different than being 18 in 1983, or even 2003,” she says. “That being said, every generation has had unique historical, sociological challenges that have impacted adult development and, as a result, stress.”

As a way to help the millennials he counsels, Van Brunt finds he is “leaning more heavily on Irvin Yalom’s existential therapy work as well as some of Michael White’s narrative therapy to help clients better understand their sense of story and place within the world. These approaches help them wrestle more directly with the problems that are causing the anxiety and worry in their lives. While there are no easy solutions here, the broadening of perspective can be helpful to relieve some of the stress.”

Additionally, he recommends counselors utilize cognitive behavior therapy, which he says “offers some tried and true technical approaches to help students better organize their lives and look more closely at where their goals fall out of step with their actions. I also find James Prochaska and Carlo DiCliemente’s work in this area extremely helpful to assist students build a more realistic frustration tolerance when they don’t perform perfectly right out of the gate.”

Rheineck stresses the need to for counselors to pay attention to any minorities or subgroups within the millennial generation.

“For example,” she says, “LGBT persons face a tremendous amount of stress from being oppressed. This population, for example, is two to three times more likely to attempt suicide and face addiction issues; couple that with the universal stressors that effect all millennials, the recipe for disaster can be enormous.”

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at hrudow@counseling.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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