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Takeaway: Although overall stress levels have improved in the last few years, young adults are particularly stressed out, thanks largely to the econom

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It’s often said that Millennials have a positive outlook about the future, but is anxiety getting in the way of their optimism? The American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America survey reports that even as overall stress levels have been declining since 2010, young adults are experiencing higher levels than older generations, and many say they aren’t coping well. The bulk of this anxiety can be traced to the economy: Money and job security top the current list of Millennial worries.

The study asked U.S. adults to rank their stress level on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being "little or no stress" and 10 a “great deal of stress." The average figure reported by all age groups was 4.9—a slight improvement over the 2011 level of 5.2. Still, Millennials and Gen Xers both reported a stress level of 5.4, considerably higher than those of Boomers (4.7) or Silent (3.7). Fully 39 percent of Millennials say their stress level has gone up in the last year, compared to 36 percent of Xers, 33 percent of Boomers, and 29 percent of Silent.

More ominously, Millennials are struggling to­ manage their stress, and it’s having a negative impact on their health behaviors. Nearly half said they didn't think or weren't sure they were doing enough to manage their anxiety. Nor is the problem improving with time: The percentage of Millennials who believe they are doing an “excellent or very good job” at stress management has actually decreased from 33 percent in 2010 to 32 percent in 2011 and down to 29 percent in 2012. Over 52 percent reported having lost sleep at night due to stress at least once in the past month, compared with 48 percent of Gen Xers, 37 percent of Boomers and 25 percent of Silent—a fact that sheds light on the recent finding that younger people are most likely to fall asleep while driving.

The major outward driver of Millennial anxiety is clearly the economy. The issues that Millennials report as their main sources of stress—work (76 percent) and money (73 percent)—reflect the fact that youth have been hit hardest by the recession. Unemployment, underemployment, and crushing student loan debt add up to dim prospects for young adults, leaving many completely or partially dependent on their parents. Taken together, the magnitude of these factors seems substantial enough to stress anyone out.

But is it just the economy that is driving Millennial stress? Some observers point out that young Gen Xers and Boomers, after all, also weathered rough economic patches without showing signs of the same shell-shocked anxiety. They propose another culprit: the Millennials’ own “attachment parents,” who shelter and coddle their children so much that they never were able to develop a sense of resilience. Shielding children from failure, intervening to fix their problems, and lavishing them with constant (and often undue) praise has resulted in a “teacup generation” that falls apart at the slightest setback.

While research shows that parents who maintain close ties with their children actually improve their outcomes, it is true that they may have also inadvertently set Millennials up for disillusionment. Specifically, the current economic climate and its dearth of opportunity is proving to be especially painful for a generation that grew up being told that they were special and could achieve anything. The contrast between “the sky’s the limit” aspirational worldview and the current reality of high unemployment and ultra-competitive job markets has been a shock for many young adults. As one expert explained, “Individual failure is difficult to accept when confronted with a sense you’re an important person and expected to achieve.”

Of course, none of this is to say that Millennials are giving up hope. Stress is not to be conflated with pessimism, and recent studies indicate that Millennials are still overwhelmingly optimistic (one Gallup survey reports that 80 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds believe that their standard of living is improving, by far the highest of any age group questioned). But these same high expectations may also be sparking a quarter-life crisis among young adults as they struggle to gain a foothold in today’s economy.

Though they’re having the hardest time managing anxiety, Millennials aren’t the only generation facing it. Xers also reported an average stress level of 5.4, which is logical considering that they’re experiencing economic hardships as well. Nor is it surprising that the age 67 and older group is the least stressed (3.7), since they’re much more insulated from the economic and work-related worries that plague younger Americans. It’s notable that although Boomers reported higher stress (4.7) than the Silent, this figure was still significantly lower than Millennials’ or Xers’. This indicates that the downward pattern of reported stress levels by age group doesn’t reflect the “happiness U-bend” pattern, which shows that people are generally least happy during midlife. Rather, economic conditions seem to be the most reliable predictor of stress reported by each respective age group.

The roots of stress in young adults and whether or not they learn to manage it effectively will have serious implications down the road. As the study’s authors point out, chronic anxiety is linked to a slew of health issues, including heart disease, depression, and obesity. Millennials already struggle to maintain healthy lifestyles and are putting themselves at risk by not addressing stress-related issues. Younger Americans are more likely than Boomers and Silent to react to stress by eating, drinking alcohol and smoking. Poor stress management could very well feed into a vicious cycle, breeding further anxiety and unhealthy behaviors. Productivity and achievement also suffer; for many Millennials, anxiety poses a serious barrier to completing high-pressure activities such as taking tests.

Part of the problem, according to the APA report, is that young people aren’t finding any recourse for anxiety-related issues in the health care system. Although most Millennials agree that it’s important to discuss stress symptoms with a doctor, a mere 17 percent claim that their health care provider supports them "a lot or a great deal," with stress management. This isn’t isolated to young people: Over half of all U.S. adults reported receiving little or no support for stress management. Despite its myriad health risks, the stress issue isn’t getting nearly enough medical attention. The fact that anxiety levels are closely tied to economic insecurity makes the task of public education all the more urgent. While we may not be able to control the economy, we need to learn to manage our reactions to it—and in some cases, revise our own expectations.

TAKEAWAYS

Although U.S. adults report less stress now than in recent years, they still experience higher levels of anxiety than what they consider to be healthy. Younger generations report the most stress, and Millennials are having the hardest time managing it. They’re particularly worried about economic pressures such as work and money. What does this mean for marketers and employers?

  • Millennial anxiety is strongly rooted in this gener­ation’s achievement ethic. Millennials are drawn to anything that can give them an edge and help them stand out from the crowd. This quality has driven exploding demand for everything from energy shots and smart drugs to online courses and graduate degrees. At the same time, Millennials also yearn to democratize this achievement ethic—to make it something accessible to all and not just the “rat race” winners. One of the most talked-about ad campaigns of 2012 was Nike’s “Find Your Greatness,” which attempted to challenge the notion that achievement belongs only to the elite.
  • Peer communities are critical to stress manage­ment. Spending time with others is a de-stressor for people of all ages. Yet it’s especially important for Millen­nials, who (according to the APA survey) are more likely than any other generation to manage stress by spending time with friends or family. Millennials are also more likely than recent young-adult generations to live with friends or family. Positive reinforcement from peers is critical because so much Millennial stress stems from a fear of not keeping up with their peers or of somehow letting them down.
  • A suppor­tive workplace and the right mix of employer ben­efits can reduce employees’ stress. Reducing stress makes employees more produc­tive and less vulnerable to burnout. Emotional support from management and “counseling” benefits go a long way in alleviating risk-averse Millennials’ anxiety over health and financial issues. The most success­ful companies do everything they can to promote zealous employee engagement and a worry-free climate of creative inno­vation. Google’s famously generous benefits have continuously landed it the top spot on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For. Executive Eric Schmidt described the company’s goal is to “strip away everything that gets in our employees’ way.”