Millennials, or Generation Y (also called the Net Generation, Trophy Generation, Echo Boomers, or even “GenMe”), refer to the generation of individuals born in the latter 1970s or early 1980s through the early 2000s. Plenty has been examined about the Millennials, and much has yet to be understood. In their lifetime, this generation of people has witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union and of the Berlin Wall; the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle; the Gulf War; the tragedy of 9/11; and the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Millennials are the first generation of people to grow up with the Internet and with cell phones; the digital era is their era. They are foremost multitaskers. It’s nothing to find a Millennial in a busy coffee shop with iPod ear buds in place, music turned up, seated in front of a laptop, working on a spreadsheet due first thing in the morning. Maybe he is drinking a complicated espresso order, but it’s also likely our young person is working while drinking an imported beer – something dark and bitter most older people have never heard of – one after another.
This Millennial, we’ll call him Mark, was born to parents who both went to college. After college, they married and planned the number of children they would have, Mark among them. It was a time of legal abortions and safe birth control options, so Mark was a happy, planned-for pregnancy – a wanted child. Mark and his peers were raised to believe they were “special,” unique snowflakes. At tee-ball and little league, every child in Mark’s generation likely received a trophy just for participating. It was the era of the Self-Esteem Movement in parenting, and Mark and his generation was taught they could be anything they wanted to be when they grew up; nothing was standing in their way.
When Mark did grow up, however, college tuition had become much more expensive than it was when his parents were in school, and the economy and housing markets had tanked. The help his parents had planned to offer, they could no longer afford to give. Despite federal student loans, Mark couldn’t afford to go to the colleges of his choice. The cost of living had dramatically risen, too. When his parents were young, it took one person with a high school diploma to achieve a middle-class income, but today, two college-educated earners must work to afford the same lifestyle. Mark’s expectations that he could be anything he wanted hit a cement wall. Reality was nowhere near what he’d been led all his childhood to believe.
Rise of Anxiety
When Gen X was coming of age, depression was the mental illness du jour; Elizabeth Wurtzel and her memoir Prozac Nation sufficiently sealed the zeitgeist. Today, however, anxiety has surpassed depression as the leading mental health concern. Millennials are raised to believe they can have and be anything; their egos are stroked and their self-esteem boosted at every turn. But when adulthood hits, reality smashes around them. They face surmounting concerns about the facts of life, and it isn’t pretty. If Gen X was considered the slacker generation, Gen Y might be called a generation of cynics.
Jean Twenge, PhD, the first to truly examine the wealth of data that exists on generational studies explains that “[t]oday’s young people face a competitive workplace and the economic squeeze created by sky-high housing prices and rapidly accelerating healthcare costs. After a childhood of buoyancy, [they are] working harder to get less.” The Daily Mail reports that 3 million 20-to-34-year-olds now live with their parents due to the unstable economy.
Anxiety Leading to Self-Medication
While researchers point to addiction as frequently having a genetic component, a strong self-medication hypothesis exists in the addiction arena. Self-medication is the use of mood altering substances – alcohol, prescription drugs, or illicit drugs – to assuage the uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety or depression. When self-medication is the cause of substance abuse, the underlying issue of anxiety or depression can be overlooked. It’s important to recognize in these circumstances that substance use is a symptom belonging to a mental health disorder, rather than simply being an issue of addiction alone. In the case of Millennials, more research needs to be done to determine their rates of addiction related mental illness, but the rise of anxiety in this generation and its link to addiction is clear.
The lives of Millennials are very different from the lives of the Baby Boomers who most often raised them. When Boomers look at this group of young people, they often see a group of individuals intent on staying young forever. They’ve been called “adultescents” for their video gaming habits, their unwillingness to marry, start families, or save for a down payment on a home after college like their parents did. While this generation appears to have a protracted adolescence it may not be entirely their fault. The adults who raised them taught them they deserved all this freedom, but failed to prepare them for a world that would refuse to give it to them. Our children may well be unique, special snowflakes, insofar as there are 7 billion special snowflakes. What’s important is that we recognize the uniqueness of the increased anxiety disorders and its attendant capacity for addiction this generation faces, and be willing to meet them where they are.