As Millennials enter the workforce, many are clinically depressed

Duke University psychiatrist Doris Iarovici, blogging for the New York Times, believes that anti-depressant medications can help her patients, but she also expresses deep concern over an increasing share of young people who are using them:

…(A) growing number of young adults are taking psychiatric medicines for longer and longer periods, at the very age when they are also consolidating their identities, making plans for the future and navigating adult relationships.

This trend is especially significant for people finishing school and entering the workforce:

Indeed, the psychologist Jeffrey Arnett calls the young adult years “the age of instability.” Dr. Arnett coined the term “emerging adulthood” to define a new psychological developmental stage for 18- to 29-year-olds in industrialized countries. But now, growing numbers of young people experience rapidly changing living situations, classes, jobs and relationships only while taking an antidepressant.

Iarovici adds that some of these younger people are arriving at college “so burned out by the pressures of high school that they get to college unable to engage in the work,” and they are “so fragile or overprotected in their formative years that they fall apart at the first stress they encounter.”

In a piece for, Dr. John Grohol echoes some of these observations, noting high levels of depression and weak emotional coping skills among many Millennials:

All of this is informed conjecture, of course, as there’s not much research that’s been done in this area. But some of it rings true to me, and from talking with others — both therapists and young adults — I’m not the only who sees more and more young adults who just don’t seem to have the emotional and psychological coping skills as young adults that were once more commonplace.

Implications for workers and workplaces

These trends do not bode well for those individuals and the places that employ them.  Some folks will arrive at work dependent upon anti-depressants to get them through the day. Some will struggle to deal with stressful work situations that inevitably arise. They also may lack the means to build personal resilience toward life’s ups and downs, some of which will be related to work and careers.

Their employers also will pay a price, dealing with a larger share of a workforce pushing the boundaries of psychological well-being and less capable of handling the emotionally challenging aspects of employment.

I can’t say I’m surprised about burnout symptoms appearing as early as college. The competition to get into the “best” schools has become brutal, and the treadmill of activities, prep classes, and AP classes necessary to play that game has become steeper and faster. Young people are being pushed to relentlessly chase their futures before they know what they want those futures to look like.

Let’s not blame the Millennials

These observations should not be taken as a slam on a generation. As an NPR program this week noted:

The “millennial generation” has been getting a bad rap in popular culture in recent years. Millennials, roughly defined as people born in the 1980s and ’90s, frequently see themselves depicted as entitled, coddled and narcissistic.

But many — including millennials themselves — dispute those characterizations. Young adults today are tolerant, civic-minded and entrepreneurial, they note, and are thriving despite entering into a tight job market, often with significant amounts of student loan debt.

Lots of Millennials are being raised a certain way and then pushed into a world that has raised the credential bar for their success and saddled them with other burdens passed on by preceding generations. In terms of weaker coping skills, Grohol points to the “helicopter parent” mentality and overly protective upbringings as likely culprits.

As a university professor for over 20 years, I’ve now taught students spanning three generations — Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials. In the aggregate, I do see generational differences, and I can offer generalizations about each, some positive, others less so.

Like any generation, the Millennials bring their strong and weak qualities to the workplace. It is disturbing, in any event, that depression appears to be disproportionately present among them. This reflects most critically not on the Millennials themselves, but rather on the preceding generations that have ushered them into the world.

5 responses

  1. Boomers had downtime, especially in childhood. Have Millennials ever had that? In many cases, they’ve been pushed from grade school on. No wonder they’re depressed.

  2. I think high expectations definitely have something to do with it. Millennials get rewarded and encouraged for doing well, so naturally they’d want to exceed and continue the trend of meeting large goals. We’re also competing for jobs more than other generations, and long strings of unemployment can lead to feelings of inadequacy–other generations never taught us how to cope because they kept giving us trophies and shuffling us along to the next grade level. These studies definitely hit home, even for those of us who aren’t clinically depressed. Thanks for posting.

  3. As a parent of two teenagers who are clinically depressed, both of who have been suicidal and hospitalized in the past year, I appreciate this post but also want to caution everyone about making generalizations about the causes of depression. The link seems to strongly imply that bad parenting is a major contributing factor. It’s also true that asthma and allergies are also on the increase in millenials. Would we say the same about that? Depression is a complex medical condition that requires a multipronged treatment approach to be effective. To blame parents is akin to what we did to mothers of schizophrenics in the 60s and 70s (aka, refrigerator moms), and it only serves to perpetuate the stigma associated with mental illness.

    I do agree with the premise that this generation lacks certain coping skills, but I’m not convinced that is so different from when I was their age in the late 70s and early 80s. Life was so completely different then that I wouldn’t begin to presume that I understand what this generation is going through. I think we need to explore the question of why the increase and what do we as a society (remember, it takes a village) do about it? Placing blame seems to me to be a counterproductive exercise.

  4. I do agree that identifying causal trends to any phenomena is difficult,,at best,, as there are so many factors associated with any particular cluster of behavioral observations.

    Having said that, I can see where the concern is when there is a trend that seems to have an underlying theme. It sounds as though the depression is being identified more prominently in college bound students, compared to their working class cohorts.

    I have a daughter who is twenty years old and could be labelled as a millennial. She is, at this time in her life, thriving and I am so thankful for that considering she was impacted by the nine-year bullying that I endured by my immediate supervisor. I have been out of that setting for a year now, and it seems as though she is doing so much better since I was pushed out.

    Having said that, she did go through a depression period when she was sixteen-eighteen years of age. She experimented with two anti-depressants and decided they didn’t work for her.

    Currently she is medication free-so thankful to be able to say that. And she isn’t depressed.

    I have been labelled a ‘helicopter mom’ and oddly enough I consider that label a compliment to my parenting style that ensured her as much safety and boundaries as possible during her formative years.

    She, also, spent the first three years of her high school years in a private school that she found to be rather oppressive-over time- in its focus on pure academic excellence at the cost of developing her own sense of self.

    She left the school and attended a local public school for her last year. Of course, I was pulling my hair during that time,being concerned for her well-being. However, I did support her decisions although I had boundaries around them, as well.

    All things considered I am so thankful that she is doing as well as she is, considering the bullying I endured, and the resulting health issues, as well as economic issues I have been dealing with since my termination.

    Not sure what the future has in store, no one does, of course. I do feel for our young folk. They are our future and we need to embrace, honor, and support their reality as they perceive it to be.

    Sad to say, these young people enter a workforce that can be grueling and cruel-knowing that they can be subjected to abusive co-workers and superiors without adequate protections.

    Where are we headed as a human race, I ask myself. .

  5. I wonder how different the rates of depression truly are. Maybe older generations are less likely to admit being depressed or to seek medical care.

    On the other hand, I think of my niece, still in elementary school, who has homework assignments over the summer, so she’ll be able to compete with Chinese kids in the marketplace. It makes me sad that she can’t enjoy a summer without that burden, and I wonder if she’ll eventually burn out.

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