Millennials: 'We've Sold Our Children a Very Narrow Definition of Success'

The millennials are an impressive group. Although often maligned for being self-centered and entitled, they are also the most highly educated, well-traveled, open minded, and tech savvy of any generation before.
11/10/2015 09:55 am ET Updated Nov 10, 2016
Friends running in park
Friends running in park

As a psychotherapist, mother and university lecturer, engaged daily in the lives of those 18-25, I am concerned about the mental health and well-being of our millennial generation. For all of their achievements academically, these shining stars, the hopes for our collective future, are struggling, struggling with overwhelming levels of anxiety and depression fueled by a lack of purpose, meaning and connection to something greater than themselves. I am concerned that we have unintentionally failed our children as parents, educators and as mental health professionals. But I believe that encouraging our children to participate in a year of national service is a simple, yet profound solution to this problem. Providing opportunities to serve will help to improve their overall mental health while also improving the quality of life for many others in our communities.

The remedy for our millennial crisis lies in the vision of the Franklin Project's big idea that making a year of full-time national service a cultural expectation, and a civic right-of-passage for every young American will help to unify this generation in a common experience and provide them with a transformative experience that will inspire them as citizens and individuals. Finding a way to provide this opportunity for every interested young person, is why I am an Ambassador for the Franklin Project in San Luis Obispo County joining 45 other Ambassadors around the country who have committed a year to growing this big idea of service in hopes of creating an up swell of excitement and action toward change across the United States.

The millennials are an impressive group. Although often maligned for being self-centered and entitled, they are also the most highly educated, well-traveled, open minded, and tech savvy of any generation before. They also struggle with more mental health issues than any other; primarily with anxiety and depression. According to the CDC and National Mental Health Association (NMHA), 12-18 percent of college students are currently being treated for a psychological disorder and suicide rates in adolescents have tripled over the last 60 years making suicide the second leading cause of death for this generation.

So why are the millennials struggling emotionally when they seem to have so much going for them? It's partially a parenting issue and partially a cultural norm. We've sold our children a very narrow definition of success. It begins with the idea that it doesn't matter what they do as long as they are happy. Which sounds great in theory but ultimately becomes a huge burden for those who have no idea how to achieve this goal, or what to do if they don't feel happy even when they do everything right. The other modern parenting flaw is attempting to protect our children from all disappointment, loss, failure, grief, frustration and sadness. Again -- this sounds great in theory but the protection doesn't give children the chance to test their limits, discover who they are and teach a fundamental lesson that every life well lived includes its share of heartache, misery and stress. The job of parents is not to shelter but to give our children the space to experience feeling devastated and to then develop the resilience, coping skills and understanding that it's okay to flail and fail and that victory is sweeter when it is hard won. Without being allowed to face adversity with the support of family nearby and lacking the tools for dealing with personal challenges, many young people leave home and are unprepared to deal with their first great wounding, which can send them into an emotional tailspin.

We've pushed this generation along the conveyor belt of childhood, over-scheduled, over-stressed and so busy checking off life experience boxes -- compete in sports, play an instrument, speak a language, take AP classes, do volunteer work, get perfect grades, go to the best college, get an internship, get the best job and then make the most money -- that they rarely have time to play, dream, create or determine whether they are actually enjoying the journey. They may discover that they are following a path that promises financial rewards, but lacks a clear sense of purpose, personal direction or strong connection to anything other than achievement. This early existential crisis can lead to feelings of emptiness, disillusionment and confusion -- which fuels anxiety and depression.

The key components necessary for improving and maintaining mental health include finding meaningful work, developing deeply committed relationships and service to others. By stepping away from the pressures of personal achievement and devoting themselves to a year of civilian service, young people will have the opportunity to improve their mental health while working to help address social needs and improve the lives of others struggling with issues such as poverty, education and the environment.

The good news is that millennials are ready to serve. They sense the need to be a part of something greater than themselves. They are searching for meaning and a way to be engaged and make a difference. But one of the barriers to service is meeting the demand for placement. In 2011 AmeriCorps reported having 580,000 applicants for 80,000 positions, making the opportunity to serve as competitive as getting into college. To address this issue, I am devoting my year to working with my local university and their Center for Service in Action -- to partner with local leaders, elected officials, non-profits and interested stakeholders in an effort to identify a community need, create service positions to address the need, recruit young people to fill these positions and secure funding to provide them with a modest stipend. It is my hope that this will lead to the creation of a local service corps that builds bridges between the University and the community while providing a way for students who are feeling dissatisfied or disillusioned, depressed or anxious and ready to serve a chance to step away from their pre-programmed lives and experience the mental health benefits of being a part of something bigger than themselves.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Aspen Institute's Franklin Project in conjunction with Giving Tuesday. The series, which will run for the month of November, features pieces written by Franklin Project Ambassadors, local leaders who are working with community stakeholders in 25 states toward the Franklin Project's vision of making a year of national service -- a service year -- a cultural expectation, common opportunity, and civic rite of passage for every young American. For more on service year opportunities and organizations, visit https://serviceyr.org.