Generation Stress: Millennials, Gen-Xers More Stressed and Cope Poorly

By: Rob Stott

In its latest "Stress in America survey," the American Psychological Association found that younger generations are reporting higher levels of stress than their elders, and they don't handle their stress properly. Let's fix that.

Alright, millennials and gen-Xers: On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being low and 10 being through the roof, how would you grade your overall stress level?

If you answered roughly a 5 or 6, you're not alone.

According to findings in the American Psychological Association's (APA) 2012 "Stress in America"survey, those of us in the younger generations believe our stress level is in that range—both generations X and Y average a 5.4 out of 10, far above baby boomers (4.7) and the matures (3.7).

Identifying the Stressors

So we're more stressed out than our elder peers, but why?

"It makes sense when you think about the experiences that younger people are going through," says Dr. David Ballard, assistant executive director for organizational excellence for APA and a member of the "Stress in America"team. "Research shows that one in four young people self-identify as being in the lower- or lower-middle class. They're facing economic hardships and they've come out of school at a time when the economy has been at a low point. So, the job market's been bad and there have been pay freezes and benefit cuts in the workplace."

Each of those stressors are identified in the survey, with work being the most significant of them all—76 percent of millennials and 65 percent of gen-Xers say their job is the number-one creator of stress. And while 61 percent of matures most often report health concerns as a leading stressor, just 51 percent of millennials and 46 percent of gen-Xers say the same.

Unmet Goals and Bad Habits

Given their high stress levels, younger generations have set goals to reduce and manage their stress, says Ballard, but the survey found that they are struggling to meet those goals. While a majority of millennials (62 percent) and gen-Xers (63 percent) say they've tried stress reduction, nearly a quarter of them say they're not doing enough.

Also, younger generations are more likely to take up unhealthy "coping strategies" to try and reduce stress.

"In terms of stress management techniques, exercising or walking tends to top the list for all of the generations, but younger generations are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors," says Ballard. "They'll do things like eat unhealthily, drink too much alcohol, smoke cigarettes, and engage in other coping strategies that actually feed into and may increase their stress levels."

Better Manage Your Stress

We all know that those coping methods are unhealthy, but they're habits that can be hard to break.

To start that process, it involves stepping back, looking at the larger picture, and having a better understanding of yourself and the things that stress you out.

"If you've identified that when you're under stress, you often eat junk food, sit in front of the TV, and play videogames, you can find behaviors to replace those unhealthy things over time," Ballard says.

Part of this includes shutting off the technology around you, which can be more difficult for millennials and gen-Xers who have grown up surrounded by cellphones and computers (and now tablets).

"Technology can be a great resource, but there can become an expectation that you're on and available all the time," says Ballard. "The key is making effective use of these tools, so that they actually make your work and life easier instead of contributing to the stress that you're facing."

It Gets Better With Age

Perhaps being stressed at the start of one's career is a sort of rite of passage in life. Looking at previous "Stress in America" surveys, you'll find that stress level by generation is fairly consistent—matures and boomers tend to be less stressed than millennials and gen-Xers.

"A lot of it has to do with their stage of life and the kinds of challenges they face during that time," says Ballard. "It may not even necessarily be a generational issue, so much as a stage-of-life issue. By the time millennials and gen-Xers are 50 or 60 years old, they'll likely be facing different kinds of issues than they are now."

Also, as we age we will get a better understanding of ourselves and how we react in situations of stress, and how best to manage those occurrences.

"There's research that suggests as people get older and have had more experience in life, they tend to become more resilient and able to deal with adversity a little more easily," Ballard says. "As people age they tend to lean more towards the positive aspects of life, and they're able to roll with the punches better."

Rob Stott is editorial assistant at Associations Now in Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]

Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor to Associations Now.