First came the baby boomers, then came Generation X. Branding of the subsequent generation, the one that came of age during the 2000s, was less definitive, ping-ponging between Generation Y and millennials. I'd like to add a third name: Generation Stress.
According to "Stress in America," a study commissioned by the American Psychological Association, millennials are the most stressed demographic. And from what we heard out of Washington last week, the conditions creating that stress aren't going away anytime soon. But there's still cause for hope.
These levels of stress are taking their toll. Irritability and anger from stress were reported by 44 percent of millennials, 36 percent of boomers and 15 percent of matures. And 19 percent of milliennials have been told they're suffering from depression, compared to 12 percent of boomers and 11 percent of matures.
In fact, it's reasonable to assume that higher levels of stress put the millennials at higher risk for all sorts of destructive downstream consequences of stress. "Stress is a huge factor when we look at medical problems such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes, cardiac disease," says Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC's chief medical editor.
Not surprisingly, work is one of the biggest causes of stress, with 76 percent of millennials reporting it as a significant stressor.
The job numbers are indeed grim. According to Generation Opportunity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, the unemployment rate for millennials rose to 13.1 percent in January, up nearly 2 points from December. Among young African-Americans, it's a whopping 22.1 percent. And if you count those 18- to 29 year-olds who have given up and dropped out of the labor force, the overall youth unemployment rate stands at 16.2 percent.
Those numbers add context to President Obama's push for colleges and universities to increase enrollment and the number of degrees they grant. That's a great goal, but it highlights the fact that, to the extent that we even talk about jobs in our political conversation, we tend to talk about them without mentioning what kind of jobs. Nearly all the conversation on the first Friday of each month when the previous month's jobs numbers come out is about whether the number went up or down. But when there's an uptick nobody talks about the context and conditions that have far more impact on people's actual lives, such as the fact that putting heavily indebted young adults to work at half the salary they had four years ago isn't exactly a way to win the future.
And any of those heavily indebted, heavily stressed-out millennials listening to President Obama's State of the Union address would not have gotten much stress relief. He did acknowledge the increasingly untenable cost of higher education -- "Today, skyrocketing costs price too many young people out of a higher education, or saddle them with unsustainable debt" -- and declared that he would "ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid." That sounds promising. If it ever happens. But it's hard to imagine Washington wielding that stick strongly enough to truly make quality higher education affordable. Even if college tuition stopped increasing right now and just stayed exactly where it is for the next decade -- which we all know is not going to happen -- it's still a huge problem.
A more promising approach would be to take strong action on student debt, which last year hit a record $1 trillion. The disastrous 2005 bankruptcy "reform" bill, which excluded student debt from being discharged in a bankruptcy, has created a new form of indentured servitude, in which tens of thousands of college grads live their entire lives with a crushing debt burden.
As for the perspective from the other side of the aisle? "Today, many graduates face massive student debt," acknowledged Sen. Marco Rubio in his response to the State of the Union. So what's Rubio's solution to this massive student debt? "We must give students more information on the costs and benefits of the student loans they're taking out." Ah, yes, more information! Not exactly problem solved! All the more reason to include student debt in the president's "Things I Will Take Executive Action On" folder.
Amidst all this gloom, there is a sliver of sunshine: a recent Gallup poll that found that, even given the battered economy they're entering, 80 percent of millennials were optimistic about their standard of living getting better.
(Arianna Huffington is president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)