02/19/2013 06:05 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2014

Millennials Come of Age as America's Most Stressed Generation

First came the "Baby Boomers," then came "Generation X." The branding of the subsequent generation, the one that came of age during the 2000s, was less definitive, ping-ponging between "Generation Y" and "The Millennials." I'd like to add a third name: "Generation Stress." According to Stress in America, a study commissioned by the American Psychological Association, Millennials are the most stressed demographic. And from what we heard out of Washington last week, the conditions creating that stress aren't going away anytime soon. But there's still cause for hope.

The study asked participants to rank their stress level on a scale of 1 ("little or no stress") to 10 ("a great deal of stress"). Millennials led the stress parade, with a 5.4 average. Boomers registered 4.7, and the group the study labeled the "Matures" gave themselves a 3.7.

The findings were consistent across almost every question. Nearly 40 percent of Millennials said their stress had increased last year, compared to 33 percent for Boomers and 29 percent for Matures. Over half of Milliennials said that stress had kept them awake at night during the last month, compared to 37 percent for Boomers and 25 percent for Matures. And only 29 percent of Millennials say they're getting enough sleep, compared to 46 percent of Matures.

These levels of stress are taking their toll. Irritability and anger from stress were reported by 44 percent of Millennials, 36 percent of Boomers and 15 percent of Matures. And 19 percent of Milliennials have been told they're suffering from depression, compared to 12 percent of Boomers and 11 percent of Matures. "Stress is a risk factor for both depression and anxiety," says Norman Anderson, psychologist and CEO of the APA. "We don't have data on the specific causes of depression and anxiety in this sample, but it does make sense scientifically that the Millennials who report higher levels of stress in their lives are also reporting higher levels of depression and anxiety."

In fact, it's reasonable to assume that higher levels of stress put the Millennials at higher risk for all sorts of destructive downstream consequences of stress. "Stress is a huge factor when we look at medical problems such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes, cardiac disease," says Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC's chief medical editor.

Over 25 million Americans already suffer from diabetes, and almost 70 million have high blood pressure, making them four times as likely to die from strokes and three times as likely to contract heart disease. And yet only 17 percent of Millennials believe their health care providers give them "a lot or a great deal" of support in managing their stress.

Not surprisingly, work is one of the biggest causes of stress, with 76 percent of Millennials reporting it as a significant stressor, compared to 62 percent of Boomers and 39 percent of Matures. "Many of these young people have come out of college or graduate school with horrendous student debt into a job market where there are not very many jobs," said Katherine Nordal of the APA. "This has put their life plans, probably, on hiatus."

The job numbers are indeed grim. According to Generation Opportunity, the unemployment rate for Millennials rose to 13.1 percent in January, up nearly 2 points from December. Among young African-Americans, it's a whopping 22.1 percent. And if you count those 18-29 year-olds who have given up and dropped out of the labor force, the overall youth unemployment rate stands at 16.2 percent.

And even for the lucky ones who are working, the picture remains bleak. According to the Economic Policy Institute, between 2000 and 2011 wages adjusted for inflation fell by over 11 percent for young high school grads and by 5.4 percent for young college grads. It doesn't help that, as a study by the Center for College Affordability found, 48 percent of working college grads are in jobs that don't require a college degree and 38 percent are in jobs that don't require a high school diploma. The report concluded that from 2010 to 2020, while 19 million college grads will be hitting the job market, the economy will add fewer than 7 million jobs requiring a college degree. That's a pretty serious -- and stress-producing -- gap.

Those numbers add context to President Obama's push for colleges and universities to increase enrollment and the number of degrees they grant. That's a great goal, but it highlights the fact that, to the extent that we even talk about jobs in our political conversation, we tend to talk about them without mentioning what kind of jobs. Nearly all the conversation on the first Friday of each month when the previous month's jobs numbers come out is about whether the number went up or down. But when there's an uptick -- and don't get me wrong, an uptick is much better than a downtick -- nobody talks about the context and conditions that have far more impact on people's actual lives, such as the fact that putting heavily indebted young adults to work at half the salary they had four years ago isn't exactly a way to win the future.

And any of those heavily indebted, heavily stressed-out Millennials listening to President Obama's State of the Union speech would not have gotten much stress relief. He did acknowledge the increasingly untenable cost of higher education -- "Today, skyrocketing costs price too many young people out of a higher education, or saddle them with unsustainable debt" -- and declared that he would "ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid." That sounds promising. If it ever happens. But it's hard to imagine Washington wielding that stick strongly enough to truly make quality higher education affordable. Even if college tuition stopped increasing right now and just stayed exactly where it is for the next decade -- which we all know is not going to happen -- it's still a huge problem.

A more promising approach would be to take strong action on student debt, which last year hit a record $1 trillion. The disastrous 2005 bankruptcy "reform" bill, which excluded student debt from being discharged in a bankruptcy, has created a new form of indentured servitude, in which tens of thousands of college grads live their entire lives with a crushing debt burden. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau head Richard Cordray seems open to reform, but actually doing it will take a sense of urgency. "It would be prudent to consider whether they [Congress] wish to modify the code," he told The Huffington Post in July.

Color me skeptical that, in the absence of being pushed, John Boehner is going to wake up one day with a burning urge to modify student debt regulations. It would be great to hear the president say something along the lines of: "If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will." That's what he said about climate change during the State of the Union. That's certainly a vital issue, and so is "protecting future generations" from crushing student debt.

As for the perspective from the other side of the aisle? "Today, many graduates face massive student debt," acknowledged Senator Marco Rubio in his response to the State of the Union. So what's Rubio's solution to this massive student debt? "We must give students more information on the costs and benefits of the student loans they're taking out." Ah, yes, more information! Not exactly problem solved! All the more reason to include student debt in the president's "Things I Will Take Executive Action On" folder.

Even those lucky Millennials who land a decent job often face a workplace rife with destructive definitions of success. And, given how few jobs there are for them, it's the Millennials who have the least amount of leverage to push back. This is still a world in which, according to Tony Schwartz, author and CEO of The Energy Project, the prevailing work ethic is one in which "downtime is typically viewed as time wasted," and "rewards still accrue to those who push the hardest and most continuously over time." But, he adds, "that doesn't mean they're the most productive."

As Schwartz points out, more than one-third of American workers regularly eat lunch at their desks, and a recent study showed that an average of 9.2 vacation days were skipped last year. All this overwork inevitably leads to sleep deprivation, which costs American businesses over $63 billion a year -- even though studies show that for each 10 hours of additional time off, productivity increased by 8 percent. "Strategic renewal," Schwartz writes, "including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations, boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health."

But given the harsh job market they're entering, Millennials are incentivized to ignore the path to strategic renewal. Even so, we know they are looking for ways to lower their stress level. The APA study found that 62 percent of Millennials had tried to reduce their stress in the last five years. But only 29 percent of them, compared to 38 percent of Boomers and 50 percent of Matures, reported that they were doing a good or excellent job of it.

Amidst all this gloom, there is a sliver of sunshine: a recent Gallup poll that found that, even given the battered economy they're entering, 80 percent of Millennials were optimistic about their standard of living getting better.

Yes, as the cliché goes, the next generation is the future, etc. etc. etc. And, without fail, at some point, the future will be theirs. So here's hoping that as they advance through the ranks of the workplace, Millennials will channel that optimism to do themselves -- and the generation after them (Generation Z?) -- a favor by redefining success. Perhaps the mountain of stress they are currently scaling will give them the perspective to change what my generation has handed off to them.