I don’t usually thrive under pressure. Indeed, I often find myself crumbling under it.
In a study conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), it was found that Millennials encounter greater levels of stress than any other generation. So much so that we’ve been bestowed the honorary title of Generation Stress. The research indicated that Millennials struggle with stress management, attributing the causes of their distress largely to money matters – speaking of which is well-embodied in Twenty One Pilots’ hit jam ‘Stressed Out’.
To some extent, I reckon that comes to no surprise, given the pressures youths are plagued by in general; the expectations to excel at school and beyond, to pursue big dreams, to carve out successful careers, to make our mark on the world.
The question then is, are we Millennials truly more stressed out than the generations before us, or do we merely feel like we are?
Because stress levels weren’t of a particular interest or concern to scientists 50 years ago, historical data on the subject has been limited. In 2012 though, a couple of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University made a first-ever historical comparison among three US surveys which found that from 1983 to 2009, stress had increased 18% for women and 24% for men, and there was a 10% to 30% spurt in stress levels in almost each demographic category. This means no matter what demographic of the population, people are more stressed now than they were 30 over years back. The analysis also suggested a likelihood of stress reducing as people grew older, with youths feeling greater pressure than their aged counterparts.
So why is the world we’re living in becoming more stressful? Dr. David Spiegel, a psychiatrist at Stanford University School of Medicine, cited rising economic pressures and an addiction to being connected as reasons why we struggle to get away from life’s pressures.
For Millennials, these stress factors are even more pronounced. We’re faced with increased financial stress and unemployment woes amid an uncertain economy, and greater technology stress than other generations. Notably, it is the being raised by the Internet that marks the difference between our generation and the ones before us. We’re getting unprecedented access to the personal lives of others especially through social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. A Pew Research Centre survey intended to figure out if the use of social media is related to higher levels of stress found a ‘cost of caring’ on social media. Accordingly, social media users feel more stressed with heightened awareness of stressful events in other people’s lives, even going to the extent of maintaining multiple social media platforms to present their lives differently to various groups of friends.
While at the workplace, Millennials feel that technology has made it such that they are “always on and cannot ever completely shut off from work”. This rings very true, considering our debilitating smartphone addiction habits which have contributed to stress- and anxiety-laden lives.
In the US, more than 5 million college students battle mental health issues, as rates of anxiety and depression soar like never before. In Singapore, youths are showing an upward trend of self-harming behaviour as a coping mechanism for stress. As an alarming epidemic of stress unfolds before an entire generation, it’s a worrying situation growing out of hand.
So no, we don’t just feel like we’re more stressed. We are.
More competitive than the generations before us, we’ve been raised with the necessary tools to reach for the stars, and instilled the notion that we can be anything we want to be. What this has done is create additional stress and fear of failure, as we end up taking it upon ourselves that there’s no excuse for failings and no room for error. The trophy kids to helicopter parents, we’ve been familiarised with a make-or-break society that runs the habit of benchmarking success against one’s level of achievement at school, the brand of university attended, and the salary raked in. And as much as we sometimes recognise that the word ‘success’ has been reduced to the mindless pursuit of predictable goals, we many a times still fall victim to a yardstick society.
It’d be ideal if society were more forgiving and all-encompassing. In a future Singapore that desires its youths to be innovative, creative, adaptable and gracious role models, we need to be given enough room to explore uncharted territories and test boundaries. Yet, 41% of 25- to 34-year-olds have a phobia of failing, admitting it to be the greatest obstacle in wanting to start a business. To be ‘future ready’, 1.2 million Singaporean Millennials will have to nip it in the bud and be able to embrace failure.
Breaking out of the cycle will mean that Generation Stress, with or without society’s help, has to make a conscious choice. To see beyond the expectations placed on them, to take a breather from the rat race, to define its success, and to pursue it on their own terms.
The good news though, is that stress, at the right levels and doses, can actually make us stronger, smarter and happier. Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal mentions ‘better health, emotional well-being and productivity at work – even during periods of high stress’, if we see it in a positive light, rather than just purely harmful. By embracing stress as a way to nurture one’s self and become more resilient to future challenges, Generation Stress could rise to the occasion.