Stress and burnout have been hot topics lately. It started with the Buzzfeed News piece that introduced “Millennial Burnout” as a shared phenomenon, followed by a flurry of responses arguing that Millennials can’t claim a monopoly on burnout when everyone is a bit fried. The reality lies somewhere in the middle. While some stressors are more or less universal and timeless, the younger generations experience unique challenges — such as rapidly changing political and economic climates, constant access to social media, which can fuel social pressures and competition, and an increased focus on academic and professional achievement without the proper social, emotional, and interpersonal supports to navigate failure — all hitting at a developmentally vulnerable time. Though headlines like to target the troubles of much-maligned Millennials, doing so misses a growing threat: the suffering mental health and early-onset burnout looming over Generation Z.
It’s Not a Phase, Mom! (It Could Be Something Worse)
For Anthony Rostain, MD, co-director of the Adult ADHD Treatment and Research Program, medical director for Adult Neurodevelopmental Disorders, and co-author of The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years, skyrocketing levels of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues among young people, and particularly among those entering college, are indicative of the toxic stress young people experience early on.
Anthony Rostain, MD
According to the American Psychological Association (APA)’s 2018 Stress in America survey, Gen Zs (born between 1997 and 2012) are just edging out Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) when it comes to reporting poor mental health. A whopping 91 percent of Gen Zs reported experiencing physical or emotional symptoms due to stress in the past month, and 68 percent reported feeling significant stress about the future. Given these statistics, it’s no surprise that nearly a quarter of college students were either treated or diagnosed with anxiety last year, and a third reported feeling so depressed at times that they couldn’t function. While the APA report indicates that Gen Zs are the most likely to seek help, the problem is far from solved.
In Rostain’s view, it’s critical for young people and parents to recognize that developing resilience and readiness — for college, work, or whatever their future brings — needs to start far earlier than a few months before a major transition. This includes differentiating between tough, but manageable episodes of sadness and stress, and chronic mental health issues. If problems are left unchecked or brushed off as teenage angst, stress “combusts with mental health diagnoses and an increased risk of self-harm.”
“Today’s world may be a more competitive and less forgiving place, but when that assessment yields a constricted definition of personal success, it fans the flames of destructive perfectionism,” Rostain said. “It’s vital to recall how varied the pathways are to a happy and successful life,” to break from all-or-nothing thinking, and to develop the ability to accept disappointments and challenges without falling apart.
Braking Before a Breakdown
Rampant, chronic stress can manifest in a variety of ways. For many young people, problems with executive functioning (EF) can land them in a hole that just keeps getting deeper. EF refers to the ability to carry out actions effectively without distraction or procrastination. These problems are described in the Buzzfeed News article as “errand paralysis,” which the author explains as “the mundane, the medium priority, the stuff that wouldn’t make my job easier or my work better” seeming like “high-effort, low-reward tasks [that] paralyze me.”
For a person with EF deficits, it can seem just as impossible to do the dishes as it is to work towards professional goals. While Rostain notes that it takes until early adulthood for the brain to develop a mature EF system that can plan ahead, self-regulate, and not require supervision, allowing EF problems to run wild in the meantime can result in a “severe and [persistent] impairment” that “translates into a host of negative life outcomes: lower educational achievement and occupational attainment, chronic relationship problems, low self-esteem, and high rates of mental health disorders.”
While those with EF problems often believe they’ll be able to tackle their responsibilities eventually, the aftermath of their procrastination can lead to the perception that everything is going wrong. A need for perfection can lead individuals to believe they are incompetent, and a relentless sense of competition can lead to guilt and shame for not being able to handle the necessities of life like seemingly everyone else can. As Rostain explains, these self-defeating behaviors and a negative mindset can serve as “the first signs of trouble [and] may create paralysis, isolation, and a deepening cycle of pessimism,” all of which are significant risk factors for serious mental health problems and even suicidal behavior.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-34, which includes both Gen Z and Millennials. The APA’s survey notes that 62 percent of Gen Zs are stressed out by rising suicide rates, and at the same time, 17 percent of high school students and 10 percent of college students report having seriously considered suicide. These statistics are troubling, but this isn’t to say that every Gen Z who struggles with anxiety, depression, or executive functioning deficits will continue on the road to suicidal ideation; there are still plenty of opportunities to apply the brakes and address a crisis before it’s too late.
“Among college students who say they are depressed to the point of suicide, only about a quarter ever go for help. It’s scary how many people are walking around believing they don’t need or deserve help,” Rostain said. “Self-stigma, shame, or embarrassment may tell you to minimize your own problems, but you’re feeling what you’re feeling. Trauma, loss, interpersonal stress — they can be addressed if you don’t give up, don’t do it alone, and keep looking for the help that's best for you. Life is short, but there’s always time to go and talk to someone and get another perspective on your problem.”
Shifting Individual and Cultural Mindsets
Whether still in grade school, entering college, or starting out in the workforce, there are skills young people need to learn in order to overcome obstacles, manage stress in a healthy way, and avoid burnout. Rostain points to eight key components of social-emotional maturity: conscientiousness, self-management, interpersonal skills, self-control, grit, risk management, self-acceptance, and a help-seeking mindset. Grit in particular seems to be a sticking point for many given the rise of an “if at first you don’t succeed, you’re probably garbage and won’t achieve anything” attitude. Developing grit, or an ability to maintain motivation and persist in spite of hardships, is key to academic and professional success, and it empowers individuals to swap destructive perfectionism for flexible goal setting and a growth mindset. Accepting oneself fully is also a cornerstone of mental health and allows individuals to seek out resources without feeling like a failure for doing so.
And while Millennials and Gen Zs in particular should build these non-cognitive skills, no one is too old or too far-gone to work on them. “We never stop learning social and emotional skills,” Rostain notes. “There are no shortcuts, no easy answers. Attaining this elusive goal is a never-ending process — one that continues throughout life, requiring constant attention, energy, and practice.”
Still, it’s not completely on the younger generations; there are plenty of opportunities for supportive, affirming cultural change. The rhetoric deeming “kids these days” lazy, entitled, and coddled ignores the reality of extended adolescence and emerging adulthood. These developmental stages recognize that the traditional markers of adulthood — a well-paying job, buying a house, getting married, having kids, consistently saving money for the future — are becoming increasingly difficult to achieve.
Combine the pressure of not having well-tested social-emotional skills to fall back on, fears of failure and the associated fallout, and shaming by older generations and comparatively successful peers for not meeting expectations, and you’ve got a recipe for distress, guilt, and self-loathing. All of this is further complicated for people of color and individuals with disabilities or who are neurodivergent or LGBTQ+. While Millennials and Gen Zs can build social-emotional maturity and address fears and anxieties with the help of family, friends, and mental health professionals, the culture needs to catch up and accept that a generational shift has created “inbetweeners” who are neither fully adolescent nor adult.
“As far as self-reliance goes and being able to manage on their own, we can’t expect of today’s 18-year olds the the same things we expected decades ago,” Rostain said. “It’s becoming more of a norm in the U.S. to move back home — to be a ‘boomerang kid.’ More people than ever are going home as they figure out what to do next, but this isn’t a ‘failure to launch.’ The situation is temporary, not permanent, and it’s important to hold onto positive thoughts and feelings as you work through challenges and setbacks.”