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The Costs of Being a Millennial

Adapting to the new economy has made young people drastically more worried and dissatisfied than their parents' generation.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

In economics, they measure costs in time, effort, and ultimately money. The Millennial character is a product of life spent investing in your own potential and being managed like a risk. Keeping track of economic costs is important, especially when so few commentators and analysts consciously consider the lives of young people in these terms. But there are other kinds of costs as well. Just because economists don’t consider the psychic costs for workers who have learned to keep up with contemporary capitalism, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.

More competition among young people—whether they want to be drummers, power forwards, scientists, or just not broke—means higher costs in the economic sense, but also in the area of mental health and social trust. If Americans are learning better and better to take whatever personal advantage we can get our hands on, then we’d be fools to trust each other. And as the stakes rise, we are also learning not to be fools.

In March of 2014, Pew Social Trends published the results of a survey taken between 1987 and 2012 on whether or not “generally speaking, most people can be trusted,” broken down by generation. The Silent Generation was able to pass most of their trust to the Baby Boomers, but Gen X took the first half of the 1990s hard, dropping all the way to 20 percent before edging up over 30 percent by the end of the survey period. But if Gen Xers are more cautious than their parents, Millennials are straight-up suspicious. Only four data points in, except for a brief Obama bump, we’ve hovered around 20 percent, dropping to 19 percent by 2012. The rate of American suckers born per minute shrank by half in twenty-five years.

When we think about the environmental conditions under which young Americans are developing, a lack of trust makes sense as a survival adaptation. A market that doles out success on an increasingly individual basis is not a strong foundation for high levels of social interdependence. With all youth activities centered on the production of human capital, even team sports become sole pursuits. Add this to the intensive risk aversion that characterizes contemporary parenting and the zero-tolerance risk-elimination policies that dominate the schools and the streets, and it’s a wonder Millennials can muster enough trust to walk outside their own doors. 

The market and the institutions it influences—from the family, to the schools, to the police—select for competitiveness, which includes a canny distrust. Parents and teachers who raise kids who are too trusting are setting them up for failure in a country that will betray that trust; the black and Latinx boys in Victor Rios’s Punished learn very quickly that they can’t trust the authorities that are supposed to look out for them. Generalized trust is a privilege of the wealthy few for whom the stakes aren’t so high, those who are so well-off they can feel secure even in a human-sized rat race. For everyone else, the modern American condition includes a low-level hum of understandable paranoia and anxiety. That’s a cost too.

There’s a big difference between 40 percent of the population finding others trustworthy and 20 percent. Obviously, there’s the quantity—a combination of factors cut the trust rate in half—but there’s also a qualitative difference between living in the first country and living in the second. The ways we interact with each other and think about the people around us are highly mutable, and they shift with a society’s material conditions. We aren’t dumb, we’re adaptable—but adapting to a messed-up world messes you up, whether you remain functional or not. The kind of environment that causes over 80 percent of young Americans to find most people untrustworthy is likely to have induced additional psychic maladies, and there has been no institutional safeguard to put the brakes on the market as it has begun to drive more and more people crazy.

No researcher has spent as much time examining the comparative mental health of American Millennials as psychologist Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University, the author and coauthor of numerous papers and books on the topic. Twenge’s most meaningful insights come from historical meta-analyses of results from decades of personality surveys. Her methodology is premised on the idea that the generation a person is born into has an important impact on their state of mind, at least as deep as the two traditionally recognized correlates of personality: genetics and family circumstance. Twenge describes her outlook in her 2000 paper “The Age of Anxiety? Birth Cohort Change in Anxiety and Neuroticism, 1952–1993”:

Each generation effectively grows up in a different society; these societies vary in their attitudes, environmental threats, family structures, sexual norms, and in many other ways. A large number of theorists have suggested that birth cohort — as a proxy for the larger sociocultural environment — can have substantial effects on personality.

In “The Age of Anxiety?” Twenge compares dozens of surveys, taken between 1952 and 1993, that asked college students and school-children to self-report their anxiety. For both groups, reported anxiety across the body of research increased linearly over the time in question. The growth was substantial—almost a full standard deviation. “The birth cohort change in anxiety is so large that by the 1980s normal child samples were scoring higher than child psychiatric patients from the 1950s,” Twenge writes. What Twenge and other researchers found is that temporary historical events like wars and depressions have not meaningfully affected America’s long-term mental wellbeing. The Great Depression was an economic phenomenon, not a psychological one. Lasting trends, on the other hand, have really moved the needle. The sociocultural environment, for which birth cohort is a proxy, has grown increasingly anxiety-inducing.  

Along with a generally accepted air of mistrust, American kids and young adults endure an unprecedented level of day-to-day agitation. Given what we know about the recent changes in the American sociocultural environment, it would be a surprise if there weren’t elevated levels of anxiety among young people. Their lives center around production, competition, surveillance, and achievement in ways that were totally exceptional only a few decades ago. All this striving, all this trying to catch up and stay ahead—it simply has to have psychological consequences. 

The symptoms of anxiety aren’t just the unforeseen and unfortunate outcome of increased productivity and decreased labor costs; they’re useful. The Yerkes-Dodson law is a model developed by two psychologists (Robert Yerkes and John Dodson) that maps a relationship between arousal and task performance. As arousal heightens, so does performance, up to an inflection point when the arousal begins to overwhelm performance and scores decline. Our hypercompetitive society pushes children’s performance up, and their common level of anxiety with it. The kind of production required from kids requires attention, and lots of it. The environment aggressively selects at every level for kids who can maintain an optimum level of arousal and performance without going over the metaphorical (or literal) edge. It’s a risky game to play when you’re wagering a generation’s psychological health, and we can read the heavy costs in Twenge’s results. 

The dramatic psychological changes don’t stop at anxiety. The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) is one of the oldest and most elaborate personality tests, and one of its virtues is that its endurance allows for comparisons between birth cohorts. Twenge and her coauthors analyzed MMPI results for high school and college students between 1938 and 2007. They are blunt: “Over time, American culture has increasingly shifted toward an environment in which more and more young people experience poor mental health and psychopathology,” including worry, sadness, and dissatisfaction. We as a society are tending toward these pathological behaviors, and for good reason.

Restlessness, dissatisfaction, and instability (which Millennials report experiencing more than generations past) are negative ways of framing the flexibility and self-direction employers increasingly demand. Overactivity is exactly what the market rewards; among the finance pros whom Kevin Roose studied for his book Young Money, those who didn’t display hypomanic behavior also didn’t last long on top of the world. The best emotional laborers have a sensitivity to and awareness of other people’s feelings and motives that score paranoiac compared to past generations. Twenge spends a lot of energy criticizing narcissism among America’s young people, but a hypercompetitive sociocultural environment sets kids up to center themselves first, second, and third. All of these psychopathologies are the result of adaptive developments. 

Our society runs headlong into an obvious contradiction when it tries to turn “high-achieving” into “normal.” The impossibility of the demand that people, on average, be better than average, doesn’t excuse any individual child’s average—or, God forbid!, subpar—performance. The gap between expectations and reality when it comes to the distribution of American life outcomes is anxiety-inducing, and it’s supposed to be. Anxiety is productive, up to a limit. But increased worker precarity means most firms are less incentivized to look out for the long-term stability of their human capital assets. It’s less expensive to run through workers who are at peak productivity and then drop them when they go over the edge than it is to keep employees at a psychologically sustainable level of arousal. This generation’s mental health is a predictable and necessary cost of the current relations of production, a cost that is being passed to young workers.

The link between anxiety and performance is strong, but other psychological maladies are tied to intensive production even more directly. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and sluggish cognitive tempo (SCT) are both increasingly diagnosed conditions that pose a danger to children’s ability to compete effectively. There’s some debate within the field of psychology as to whether these constitute two separate diagnoses, but they basically refer to two different ways of being distracted in class. A kid with SCT stares out the window, while one with ADHD squirms in his seat. It’s a simplification, but good enough for our limited purposes. They’re attention disorders—attention being the mental work that matters more and more in (automated) American production. 

Students who are unable to muster the necessary attention over time can be diagnosed with an attention disorder and given medication and certain testing allowances to improve their performance. Sure, a few students are probably gaming their doctor and faking ADHD to get extra time on their SAT—but the reality is that some kids are just better at sitting still and paying attention for long periods than others, and our culture has pathologized those who aren’t, because pathologies can be treated. Parents and teachers—the adults who traditionally spend the most time with children—both have good reasons to seek that treatment for low-attention kids, in order to turn them into high-attention kids. Their life outcomes might very well depend on it.

As the amount of attention required grows (more schoolwork, homework, studying, practice), more children will fall short. The number of American children treated for ADHD has grown significantly, from under one per hundred kids in 1987 to 3.4 in 1997 and from 4.8 percent in 2007 to 6.1 percent in 2011. Though the two studies used slightly different age ranges, the trend is abundantly clear to all observers. Between 1987 and 1997, the socioeconomic gap in diagnosis closed as the rate for low-income kids jumped; by the turn of the century, poorer children were more likely to be labeled attention disordered. In 1991, the Department of Education released a memorandum that clarified the conditions under which students with attention disorders were entitled to special  education services, giving students who think they might fit the diagnostic criteria incentive to get certified by a medical professional. 

The most popular (on-label) medications for ADHD are stimulants like Adderall and Vyvanse, which chemically boost a user’s ability to concentrate and get to work. And with millions of children and young adults taking these pills, a thriving secondary market has sprung up among people who want to increase their performance without the medical formalities. One study of non-medical use by college students found rates of up to 25 percent, with abuse concentrated among students with lower grades at academically competitive universities. The steady flow of drugs from legitimate prescriptions makes illicit use impossible to contain. Whatever the official justifications for distributing them into the environment, many young people—diagnosed and not—routinely use amphetamines to keep up in the race to accumulate human capital. It’s not for nothing they call it “speed.”

In the context of zero-tolerance school discipline, heavier law enforcement, and intensive parenting, increased medicalization of attention deficiency looks a lot like another form of youth control, a way to keep kids quiet, focused, and productive while adults move the goalposts down the field. Still, there’s not much an individual can do about it. Once again, we’re confronted with the conflict between what nearly everyone will recognize as a social problem (“Too many kids are being medicated to improve their academic performance”) and the very material considerations that weigh on any particular decision (“But my kid is having a really hard time focusing, and the PSAT is only a year away!”). This system demands too much of children—that must be clear by now—and if a pill can help them handle it better, with less day-to-day anguish, and maybe even push them toward better life outcomes, what parent or teacher could say no? A minority, as it turns out. Of American children currently diagnosed with ADHD, more than two-thirds receive medication.

There are a lot of ways to think about the widening of these diagnoses and the prescriptions used to manage them. For an individual parent, it might very well be a question of helping a child cope with an overwhelming sociocultural environment. Teachers face all sorts of pressures when it comes to the performance of their students (recall the high-stakes testing that undergirds education reform), and guiding a disruptive pupil toward medication can make their lives a lot easier. Employers want employees loaded with human capital, with a superior ability to focus and a casual relationship to the need for sleep. How they get that way isn’t so much the boss’s concern. Kids themselves who take a long look at the world around them might well decide to ask for some pills—and then again, they might not have much of a choice. (Some students do a different calculation and start selling the “study aids” to their classmates.) Underneath all the concerned rhetoric about young people abusing medication, there’s no way to be sure that America can maintain the necessary level of production without it. And we’re not likely to find out. The economy runs on attention, and unending growth means we’re always in danger of running a deficit. In this environment, a pill that people believe can improve focus will never lack for buyers.

Given the psychological burden that Millennials bear compared to earlier generations, we can also expect an increase in depression. The competitive system is designed to turn everyone into potential losers; it generates low self-esteem like a refinery emits smoke. It’s very difficult to imagine that the changes in the American sociocultural environment have not led to more of the population suffering from depression. Sure enough, another Twenge-co-authored meta-analysis suggests that depression has increased 1,000 percent over the past century, with around half of that growth occurring since the late-1980s. If we’re counting costs, then a tenfold increase in depression is a huge one, with an emotional cost to our population that’s immeasurably bigger than the half-trillion dollars a year that New York Times reporter Catherine Rampell estimated depression costs the American economy. 

It’s another case of firms passing production costs to workers themselves, and depression has the added benefit of hiding social costs behind the veneer of individual psychosis or incapacity. But as Twenge reminds us, birth cohort is a proxy for changes in the social environment, and the increase in depression over time shows us that this is not a problem that emerges from the isolated turbulence of sick minds. These emotional costs are real, and Millennials bear them more than any generation of young people in memory.

This piece is excerpted from Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials by Malcolm Harris, out this month from Little, Brown and Company .