The Millennial Challenge: 

Why Stress Management Can Be

More Difficult For Young Adults 

by Anthony R. Ciminero, Ph.D., author of the iCope Book Series 

© 2014 Anthony R. Ciminero

From the book:

iCope: Building Resilience Through Stress Management

This chapter covers some additional issues for younger adults who are sometimes referred to as Millennials. This group, the biggest since the baby boom generation, includes those roughly between ages of 20 and the early 30s. As an author of scholarly as well as self-help psychology books, I always try to keep my work based on solid research that supports the findings and recommendations in the book. This chapter is slightly different in that I am writing as a clinician who has worked with many clients/patients who would fall into the millennial group, and as a parent who raised two Millennials, each with their own separate social networks that I have gotten to know well over the past several years. From this perspective I can share insights based on a fairly large sample of young adults. If you think this information might help your family understand some of your issues, please share this with them.

The reason this chapter title refers to a challenge is that the social, educational, economic, and family changes that have occurred in the last 25-35 years have created some unique obstacles for many young adults. For example, when those who grew up in the baby boom generation reached their late teens, they would make certain decisions about whether to go to college, enter the job market, enter the military or simple get married and start a family. All of these choices led to a career/work/lifestyle path that was likely to be relatively stable and predictable.  The economy was fairly strong and many people got jobs (with or without a college degree) and could expect to stay at that same company for 30 plus years, and retire without much change in their career/work path which happened to be set rather early in life. Most of the young adults of this generation were economically sound enough that they could leave the family home for a home of their own. These things are not as stable and predictable for Millennials.

Family structure in addition to the economy has changed a good bit in the past 40 years making certain family stressors more prevalent now. For example, the divorce rate in the late 1960’s was about 25% but went up closer to 50% from the 1970s to today. This means that roughly double the number of young adults had to cope with parents who no longer lived together. This has also increased in the number of those who grew up primarily in a single parent household or in a blended family with a stepparent. These factors can add to the general sense of instability in life in general. This lack of stability and predictability would make life a little more uncertain because it often leads to a feeling that there is not much control in your life.

Additional changes are occurring in marriage and family life for Millennials. For example the average age of marriage has risen steadily since 1980 when the average age of first marriage was 22 years old and now it is 27 for women and 29 for men. In addition to the increases in marital age there is a big increase in the number of children born to single women. Currently about 48% of all children are born to unwed mothers. Clearly the importance of “marriage” as a goal is shifting. One study found that 91% of young adults believe they need to be financially independent before they get married. If financial security continues to be more difficult because of the economy, it can be expected that even more young adults will postpone marriage in the future.

Another major adjustment for Millennials has been exacerbated by the economic problems that started in 2007-2008. More young adults have to live with their parents for pure economic reasons. A survey in 2013 found that over 30% of Millennials live with their parents. This could create even greater adjustments for those younger adults who prefer the independence and the privacy of living on their own, but are prevented from living separately for financial reasons. This might even be more complicated when those returning from college or the military have to return to the family home where parental expectations, house rules, or general scrutiny could create even more conflict and stress.

In addition to economic and family changes that can be challenging, other societal factors create additional stress for Millennials. There has been an increasing pressure in our school systems to increase academic testing to prove that performance is where it should be in your educational pursuits.  It’s not a joke that in many large cities, children are competing to enter the right pre-school! This emphasis on competition can be quite challenging and is likely to be a persistent requirement for success by Millennials in our culture. So, students now face more testing than ever before, and in many high schools there is great pressure to perform extremely well on the various tests that will help get students placed in a good college. If you are fortunate enough to get a college education, there is even more pressure to do very well there if you want to go on to graduate, medical, or law school.  In this way, success will breed greater stress to compete further and perform well compared to your peers.

A recent book by Po and Merryman (2013) on competition highlights the wide range of factors that influence our competitive styles in educational, business, and sporting environments. Their review covers material from genetic influences, experience with prior stressful challenges in life, gender differences, ability to tolerate risks, and the skills that help us compete. They reinforce the need to learn good arousal control to keep the physiological stress response in check, the importance of a healthy psychological way to look at competition, and the need to get life experiences in competing. Their review reinforces the tenants of the iCope book that there is an effective stress zone that produces the best performance and that the psychological perception of the stressor is extremely important in determining how well you will do. Further, Po and Merryman also summarize research indicating that regardless of how well prepared you are, you will experience some stress in competition of any sort, especially if you are being judged by others and fear there is the potential for failure.

With all of these factors in mind, Millennials will need to be well prepared to meet these challenges to not only be successful, but also to maintain a healthy sense of well-being.  When I use the phrase well-being, I am referring to much more than your physical health although that is an important facet of well-being. I am referring to the much broader notion of well-being that encompasses your social life with significant connections to others, your satisfaction with school/work/career accomplishments, and some general sense of happiness, life satisfaction, and positive emotions (Seligman, 2011). The core coping skills that are covered in the iCope book could help you prepare for this complicated set of challenges at this crucial period in your life. These coping skills can certainly buffer you from unnecessary stress, minimize any physical complications from the stress you do encounter, and improve your performance in high-pressure situations. Earlier chapters of this book help reinforce these steps with more general ways to enhance your resilience to deal with the uncertainties you might encounter at any time in your life. Other supplemental chapters that follow in the book focus on steps that can help you improve your self-esteem, handle anger in healthy ways to protect your significant relationships, and be prepared to deal with any major life events.

The strategies covered in the book are in no way a cure all for the challenges ahead. Factors such as the economy in general, your financial resources, work and educational opportunities, and even the political situation can present certain obstacles for you. Aside from learning the methods taught in this book, what else can improve your success? From my observations as a psychologist of successful individuals from all age groups, there are some general qualities that can help you as a millennial adult.

The first quality that will help is patience. In current times there are not as many quick or easy solutions to getting what you want in some major areas in life. Delayed gratification rather than immediate reinforcement will be needed for years to come. So, whether it’s a job, a relationship, or getting into a college or post-graduate program, you might have to be very patient for certain opportunities to develop.  For example it is becoming more common to see students in graduate school, law school and medical school who have gotten years of experience doing others things before they pursued their post-graduate education. In many cases the extra years of experience actually proved to be beneficial in helping them get admitted into their programs.

A second factor in success is flexibility in how you approach your goals. If there is not a direct path to your goal you might need to consider a different approach. This is true for every generation, but seems even more important for the added challenges that Millennials face. For example, the daughter of one of my closest friends decided after two years in the Teach for America program that she wanted to pursue a medical degree. Unfortunately, she did not have the undergraduate science curriculum to get into medical school. She dedicated the next two years to taking all of the required science courses. She is now successfully enrolled in a great medical school. This major shift in career plans required both her patience and flexibility.

Another quality that is more essential than ever before is being a reasonable risk taker. This does not mean being impulsive or reckless. This requires a willingness to take some risks in your decisions when you are not guaranteed the end result you are hoping for or expecting. This is especially true for those who have an entrepreneurial spirit to start a business or other venture where they are not working on a traditional career path. This is more common now than any other time in history.  However, most successful true entrepreneurs or even those willing to work in unproven business opportunities have some setbacks or false starts before their ventures develop fully. Sara Blakely, the billionaire owner of her startup company Spanx, said her greatest lesson in business life was learning how to accept and cope with failure. Many start-up companies now expect that those who come to work with them will also be willing to take a chance on future earnings or opportunities.

You have to be willing to take these reasonable risks if you are not taking some traditional job or career path. However, it should be evident that even taking a job with a well-established company is no guarantee that this employment will last indefinitely. In my corporate consulting experience, I have seen many employees with more than 10 – 25 years with a company lose their jobs because of mergers, corporate downsizing, or technological changes.  Most large companies will still expect you to take risks by moving into new positions or taking on new responsibilities to grow within the company. The message here is that whether you work for yourself or for someone else, you are likely to be less stressed and more secure if you have some willingness and awareness that you are taking some risk, the results are not guaranteed, but most importantly, that you can cope with it if things do not go as planned.

A fourth factor related to your successfully meeting any challenges that lie ahead is maintaining your perseverance in spite of any setbacks or failures. This is not limited to job/career choices but is also relevant in relationships.  Just like job security is not carved in stone, our relationships might not last either. As mentioned above, the divorce rate now hovers above 50%. For couples who cohabitate and have a child, almost 40% will break up within five years. Keeping in mind that this is for couples who believed that they could make a serious commitment to each other, it would be reasonable to think that the majority of all other intimate relationships can eventually end.  However, if everyone gave up after the unwanted end of a relationship, there would hardly be anyone starting new relationships! Hopefully you will work toward being in the 50% who eventually succeed in establishing and maintaining a long-term committed relationship.

Perseverance is similarly important with certain career paths that require admissions tests or licensure exams for advancement, such as those going on to do post-graduate work, or even those who have completed their studies and need to pass state or professional exams. Often times, you might not get high enough scores to enter a program or to be licensed, but the critical issue for meeting this type of challenge is whether you have the perseverance and courage to try again. This persistence will clearly be a factor in your resilience to deal with any other possible setbacks in both careers and relationships.

The reason for discussing these four qualities (patienceflexibilitywillingness to take risks, and perseverance) is not to paint a picture of doom and gloom.  Yes there will be some big challenges for you to be successful, independent, and happy with your life. However, the good news is that all of these personal factors can be developed more fully if you believe you are deficient in any of these areas. Many variables have affected your development of these personal characteristics, but you can have a big influence on the future growth of any of these qualities.

The iCope book is not directly aimed at developing these four qualities. However, the coping skills taught in the book can help indirectly. For example, the psychological skills covered in the book would help in learning how to cope with setbacks, losses, or disappointments. This in turn would help you maintain your perseverance. Similarly, creative problem solving skills help develop some flexibility in coping with various demands. In order to be a good risk taker, you have to maintain your self-esteem and confidence which is discussed in one of the supplemental chapters on this site. Finally, to learn the skills in this book also requires some patience, so the simple fact that you could read and learn from this experience would reinforce your patience. Combined, all of the core iCope skills and the supplemental materials should improve all of your abilities to successfully cope with change, which is necessary for every successful adult regardless of age. Coping with change and the various demands that life presents is the essence of stress management. However, more than this, these are life skills that will help protect you emotionally and physically.