Generation Stress

Stress research is sounding a wake-up call for the Millennial generation (the 18 to 33 year-olds) and Generation X (the 34 t0 46 year-olds).

The American Psychological Association’s new stress study [1] found that Millennials are currently the most stressed demographic in America. 

And  Generation X is very close behind. On some stress indicators, Gen X is actually doing worse than Millennials.

As a result, Millennials and Gen X have been dubbed Generation Stress. Not a happy nickname and not a happy finding for companies in the throes of developing talent.

There’s a Solution: There’s no need to lament. There’s a solution for Generation Stress, which I’ll get to in a moment, but first let’s look the problem square in the eye.

  • Millennials and Gen Xers report almost twice the level of stress that’s considered safe from serious health risk.
  • 52 percent of Millennials and 45 percent of Gen Xers say their stress has continued to increase over the last five years.
  • Over 40 percent of both generations say they’re having problems with anxiety, anger, irritability, and depression.
  • Over 70 percent of Millennials say they are not getting enough sleep.

Both generations cite work as their primary stressor (76 percent of Millennials, 65 percent of Gen Xers) and here is where the news gets worse: 71 percent report that they are not doing a good job of managing their stress.  Worse, they are significantly more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors such as drinking alcohol and smoking. The problem is not entirely their fault. Chronic stress travels a vicious cycle. Negative behaviors become habitual faster in chronically stressed people and the brain becomes cognitively predisposed to doing the same self-defeating things over and over. It’s a kind of neurological rut that digs a deeper and deeper hole.

There’s bad news for business as well. Unabated stress equates with low employee engagement (Gallup, 2010) and low employee engagement equates with declining revenue (Towers Perrin, 2008). The decline is largely a matter of declining brain function. Chronic stress shrinks the brain’s executive functions that enable human beings to be goal directed, creative, and to sustain high levels of performance.

Clearly, Millennials and Gen Xers need a path to a better brain for a better life. In trying to alleviate stress we often look for it in all the wrong places.  Work stress has more to do with genes than the job, according to research at the University of Notre Dame (Judge, Ilies, Zhang, 2012). If we have a problem with stress it has a lot do with the way genetics and a troubled past has wired the brain for hyperactive stress response system. The good news is we can change the way the stress gene is expressing.

In the case of the stress gene, its expression can be changed to enable the brain to regulate the stress response system more effectively. In one study, researchers found that a three-month program involving a healthy diet, moderate exercise and daily stress management had the effect of turning up 48 genes and turning down 483 genes (Ornish, Magbanua, et al 2008).

Therein lies the solution to stress.  How does one do it? Turning off the stress gene involves a specific and sustain change in mindset that literally changes gene expression to change the brain’s auto-pilot from one that habituates stress and anxiety to one that generates a calm state of engagement that’s much more creative.

A Tool to Get Started: Here’s a tool to get your brain moving toward the good life. It’s called the Mindset Tool.


[1]Stress in America commissioned by the American Psychological Association and conducted by Harris Interactive (2011, 2012)