A Closer Look at the Most Stressed Generation

Everyone from parents to politicians loves to poke fun at millennials. But does Gen Y deserve all that flack? While generation is a social construct, studying generational populations can help understand how culture, society, and health change over time. And surveys of millennials show some significant shifts.

Along with their alleged love of avocado toast and Instagram food posts, millennials also demonstrate dramatic mental and physical health changes. Here’s what you should know about America’s most stressed-out generation.

Who Are Millennials?

Millennials Age Range and Birth Years

Millennials, also known as Generation Y, have birthdays between 1981 and 1996.

American Millennial Characteristics and Experiences

Across studies, surveys, and trend analysis, millennials have garnered a reputation for the following characteristics, values, and lifestyle habits:

  • Value work/life balance
  • Individualistic
  • Technologically literate, use multiple devices regularly
  • Open and adaptive to change
  • Challenge the status quo and hierarchies
  • Passionate about learning
  • Make up 35 percent of the workforce
  • More openly diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality compared to prior generations
  • Team-oriented
  • Lived through the Great Recession and now the COVID-19 pandemic

Millennials have come of age with the internet. Many were born into a world where laptops outnumber desktops, and landline phones are all but obsolete. For Gen Y and those after them, technology is seamlessly woven into the fabric of everyday life.

Millennials tend to be more educated compared to prior generations. According to the Pew Research Center, 39 percent of millennials ages 25 to 37 have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 15 percent of the silent generation, a quarter of baby boomers, and 29 percent of Gen Xers.

In the past, higher education tended to correlate with better job prospects and higher income. But this isn’t necessarily true for millennials. While millennials are more involved in the workforce than their predecessors, factors such as the Great Recession set a shaky foundation on which millennials were forced to build their financial futures.

While individual earnings have remained stagnant for the past 50 years, there is a significant wage gap between those with a college degree and those without, according to the Pew Research Center. Millennials without a degree make, on average, less than baby boomers made at the same age in 1982.

Due to the high cost of healthcare, pressure to obtain degrees from respected (and expensive) institutions, lack of well-paying work, and other factors, millennials also tend to carry more debt than previous generations.

The Complicated Relationship Between Stress and Sleep

Numerous studies have found Millennials are more stressed than previous generations.

The 2020 Deloitte Millennial Survey found 44 percent of millennials and 48 percent of Gen Zs worldwide were stressed all or most of the time. According to the survey, the top concerns for Millennials are their long-term financial security and job prospects, family welfare, day-to-day finances, and physical and mental health.

While millennials were already stressed before the pandemic, COVID-19 has, predictably, compounded the issue. According to a study by the University of North Carolina and Harvard Medical School, most people in May 2020 reported being stressed by the pandemic. But those ages 18-34 reported the highest levels of distress.

What Does Stress Have to Do with Sleep?

Stress and sleep are inextricably linked. Stress keeps many people, including millennials, awake at night. Meanwhile, sleeplessness can exacerbate stress symptoms. Stress can also impact sleep quality.

In the long term, both insomnia and chronic stress can cause or worsen numerous physical and mental health conditions.

According to Medical News Today, this includes hypertension, depression, anxiety, chronic pain, arthritis, respiratory conditions such as asthma and emphysema, and sleep apnea. These conditions can also increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, obesity, and diabetes.

Millennial Sleep Statistics

Studies show millennials tend to sleep longer than other generations (about 9 hours compared to 8.6). However, this doesn’t mean Millennials are getting more quality sleep, nor does it indicate Gen Ys are less stressed. The phenomenon of “depression naps” may underscore that point.

Only 29 percent of millennials report regularly getting sufficient sleep. For some, this indicates a lack of sleep quality. In other words, hours spent in bed don’t automatically equal a solid night’s sleep.

This phenomenon may be because Millennials are not only more stressed but tend to work more hours and spend less time relaxing and thinking than previous generations. Perhaps because Millennials value self-care more than prior generations, Gen Ys may be prioritizing sleep to make up for long hours at the office.

Illustration of clock chasing woman with briefcase

What Causes Millennials Stress and Sleeplessness?

Millennials in the Workplace

Despite the stereotype of laziness and a laissez-faire attitude, millennials tend to have a perfectionist, competitive mindset that drives them to work harder and longer compared to some previous generations.

In 2017, studies indicated Millennials were more likely to be employed and working full-time compared to non-millennials. That’s not surprising since many older

generations are now retired. However, research also shows Millennials tend to work longer hours compared to their predecessors at the same age.

About three-quarters of millennials globally work more than 40 hours per week. In the United States in 2015, the average American between ages 20 and 34 worked 45 hours per week. Unsurprisingly, millennials, on average, report higher levels of stress and professional burnout as well.

Economic Uncertainty

According to The Financial Brand, Gen Ys prioritize seeking freedom and happiness rather than tangible, traditional indicators of “success.” But that doesn’t mean financial stability isn’t on their minds.

Financial insecurity—including concerns about job stability, long-term career outlook, and debt—is one of the leading causes of millennial stress. According to Mintel and The Financial Brand, about two-thirds of millennials feel they face more challenging economic circumstances than their parents.

This may partially be because many Gen Ys entered the workforce during the Great Recession. Even after the recession, wages remained stagnant and have not risen to meet increasing living costs in many areas. As a result, many Gen Ys don’t have much faith in their job security or the economy. As a result, they fear another recession and the COVID-19 pandemic has only reinforced that fear.

Reports also show millennials feel the workforce is more challenging and competitive than their predecessors, which is supported by the nation’s turbulent economy over the past several years. For these and other reasons, millennials are less likely to purchase homes or start families as early as their parents did.

Millennials and Mental Health

Mental health is another primary concern for millennials. Studies show that in addition to the prevalence of chronic stress, more Gen Ys live with anxiety or depressive disorders compared to previous generations.

According to Business Insider, a report by Blue Cross Blue Shield found millennials’ physical and

mental health is declining faster than Gen X’s over time. This decline in wellbeing (sometimes called “health shock”) is often attributed to ailments such as depression, hyperactivity, or substance abuse, according to Business Insider.

These ailments, like many health conditions, can be exacerbated by stress or insomnia. Mental illness may also cause sleep difficulties, which, in turn, reinforce those ailments.

Fortunately, Gen Ys are also more likely than previous generations to seek help for mental health issues, thanks in part to the de-stigmatization of mental illness.

How Gen Y Can Reduce Stress and Take Back Their Sleep

Stress and insomnia can feel overbearing. But it is possible to take back control of your health. Here are a few tips.

  • Make Time for Exercise– Multiple studies show diet and exercise can profoundly affect sleep quality. Just 30 minutes a day of moderate activity could make a difference.
  • Set Boundaries Between Home and Work–While the work-from-home lifestyle has plenty of perks, it also has its pitfalls. This includes the difficulty of setting boundaries and delineating between home and work life. Making a set schedule can help, as can creating a set workstation in your home.
  • Don’t Overlook Mental Health Concerns– As many millennials know, mental health is just as important as physical wellness. Whether it’s chronic stress, depression, anxiety, or substance abuse, it’s important to address mental health challenges just as you would any physical illness. There is no shame in getting help.
  • Dedicate Time to Learning Financial Literacy– Setting aside time for financial education can also help you improve your outlook and reduce finance-related stress. See how well you measure up on this financial literacy quiz from Business Insider.

Millennials Done with Counting Sheep

Gen Y may have been dealt a bad hand, but that doesn’t mean they have to settle. Millennials have the power to take back their financial, physical, and mental health and set the stage for a more promising future. But first, to get the energy and stamina they need, Gen Ys are going to need a good night’s sleep.