Research — 05 January 2018

A woman with her phone at the spring/summer ’18 shows in London. Photo: Vogue

Millennials are the most tech-savvy generation in human history, and the most anxious. Coincidence?

Keeping too many tabs open will drain your batteries, my five-year-old daughter likes to remind me before helpfully offering to close them. 

It might be a ploy to get her hands on my phone, but it is also a neat metaphor for modern life: many of us are running around with too many tabs open inside our heads. We constantly toggle between screens, compulsively check social media, multi-task and then cancel commitments because we are so exhausted.

So it’s no surprise recent studies have declared millennials, especially women, the most anxious generation in history. 

Anxiety wasn’t officially recognised as a condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) until 1980, so the record-keeping on mental health prior to that was patchy. What we do know is that it’s become more prevalent. According to a National Health Survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, anxiety affected 3.8 per cent of the total population in 2011–2012, and 11.2 per cent of us in 2014–2015.

Meanwhile, for those born between 1978 and 1999, Western life has become a perpetual cycle of technology, sleep deprivation and spectacularly high expectations set by social media.

Like the rest of us, millennials are also dealing with unprecedented challenges including political and economic uncertainty, global warming and rapid technological change.

“All is clearly not well,” says social researcher and author Hugh Mackay. “We are a society in the grip of epidemics of anxiety, obesity and depression – 20 per cent of Australians experience some form of mental illness. It’s already clear that many of us are severely stressed by the struggle to keep up with the rate of change in our lives, and one of the consequences of that stress is anxiety.”

Mackay says that while anxiety and depression are not confined to any particular social or economic stratum, life, as a young person, is more difficult for millennials than it was for previous generations.

The current crop of Australian adolescents are the offspring of our most divorced generation of parents, which means many of them are dealing with the consequences of family breakdown.

“Typically, if both parents are around, they are both working, and therefore more busy, tired and on a shorter fuse than in previous generations of parents,” Mackay says, adding that this generation experienced more out-of-home childcare than in any previous generation, bringing new emotional challenges.

And while they may be digital natives, he adds that millennials have been conditioned to confuse data transmission with communication and to assume that connections via social media are much the same as person-to-person encounters.

“The IT revolution has actually made it easier than ever to stay apart from each other, and that fuels anxiety too,” he says.

A recent Deloitte Mobile Consumer Survey found 18- to 24-year-old Australians check their phones up to 56 times a day and some check it more than 200 times daily. Sound familiar?

More than 80 per cent of Australians can’t last an hour after waking before checking their phones, according to the survey of 2,000 Australians aged between 18 and 75. And half of 18 to 24-year-olds check theirs within five minutes of waking.

Just don’t assume they want to talk to you. Instant messaging usage surpassed voice services for those under 24 in 2015.

So we are high on Wi-Fi, texting like crazy and living in an almost perpetual state of “fight or flight”. It’s no wonder then that conversations about mental health are more common.

Lena Dunham, actress, producer and creator of the HBO series Girls, for instance, has been very honest about her anxiety disorder. “Part of being human is that you’re in a constantly transitional place,” Dunham once said in an interview. “I think something that can be hard is the idea that people would say: ‘I used to have this and now I’m cured.’ And the fact is, I still go through phases of crippling anxiety.”

According to the Beyondblue support service for depression and anxiety, Australian data suggests that among 10- to 24-year-old females, seven to 14 per cent will experience an anxiety condition in any given year. “Mental health is commonly ranked as a top concern for young people, and they are more likely than older generations to recognise the signs of anxiety, talk about it with their friends, post about it on social media, look up information online and seek professional help,” says Beyondblue CEO Georgie Harman.

Anti-sugar crusader, author, entrepreneur, blogger and former journalist Sarah Wilson’s latest book, First, We Make The Beast Beautiful: A New Story About Anxiety (Macmillan Australia), is a brave deep dive into her lifelong battle with anxiety, insomnia, teenage bulimia, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, hypomania and bipolar disorder that has at times made her suicidal.

She knows a thing or two about mental health and has some theories on why anxiety is on the rise among otherwise “normal” people. “The lives millennials are living is very conducive to turning up the dial on anxiety,” says Wilson, a 43-year-old Gen Xer. “For those of us who might have an anxiety disorder, the conditions are not conducive to handling it well,” she says. “And there are more people experiencing panic attacks who in the past probably would not have, because life would not have put them in that position.”

Living further away from family and a lack of community are also having an impact, according to social psychologist Dr Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled and More Miserable Than Ever Before. “Just a few generations ago, depression and suicide were considered afflictions of middle age,” she wrote in a 2011 article for the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. In her book, she argued another factor was the disconnect between expectations and reality – young people were told: “You can be anything you want to be”, and then found that reality was not quite so easy. 

Mackay says Western society’s “me” culture encourages anxiety-inducing individualism and materialism. “Think of the primary uses of social media – not to communicate but to brag,” he says. “Think of the growing emphasis on personal entitlement rather than civic responsibility.” He argues humans are social creatures who have evolved to cooperate in close communities rather than compete. “If we focus too much on our own wants, our own entitlements and our own gratifications, with little regard for the needs and wellbeing of others, there will be an inevitable threat to our mental health,” he says.

The good news is that there is mounting evidence to suggest mental health is becoming a priority for millennials.

Supermodel, coder, philanthropist and millennial poster girl Karlie Kloss actively encourages girls to learn to code. But she advocates a weekly digital detox, too. “I think it’s important to step away for a minute and actually reconnect with people and reconnect with yourself.”

Millennials are more willing than previous generations to consult a therapist and talk about it openly, says Rachel Krautkremer, an insights and strategy director at New York trend forecasting company Cassandra Report. “They are eradicating the stigma around therapy,” Krautkremer says.

She says millennials have a more holistic view of wellness, believing that mental and spiritual health are just as important as fitness and nutrition. “They are starting to see the negative repercussions of their always-on lives,” she says. “This is leading them to embrace mindfulness, meditation and sound therapy.”

Wilson includes many of the self-care hacks she uses to support her mental health in her book, including building boundaries, turning off social media, embracing simple routines, quitting coffee and sugar (naturally), daily exercise and meditation.

But perhaps her best tip of all is that we learn to embrace the beauty of imperfection.

This piece by Jody Scott was first seen on ‘Vogue’ 4 January 2018.


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