Millennials and Anxiety: Toward a More Nuanced Understanding of Their Mindset

July 13, 2017 Diane Rubino


A friend with limited exposure to Millennials recently made a flip comment about young people and entitlement. Though typically thoughtful, he did what comes naturally, falling back robotically on a facile trope.

But I think it’s necessary to expand the contours of our beliefs, toward a more nuanced, humane understanding of Millennials. A topic I believe warrants additional attention is the greater amount of anxiety I see in my student’s struggles compared to my own when I was in college.

During the first session of my graduate school course in communications ethics and law, for example, my class and I discussed the Manchester attacks. I gave my students, who dream of working in entertainment or fashion public relations, an exercise based on headlines that appeared hours before the session, crafting possible responses from Ariana Grande.

I simultaneously wondered if I was being callous for tying horrific events to career skills.

I avoid asking how they feel about this tragedy and am unaware if it leaves them either unhinged or unfazed. On the surface, this is a topic for the university’s health services. Yet classroom experience has helped me see that students who appear at ease seem more present and more willing to engage by sharing insights and questions. Fear takes one out of the moment—and thus out of the classroom—and while the fact that this phenomenon impacts learning negatively may seem obvious, it took me a few years and some lessons from champions of the contemplative classroom before I internalized this concept.

There’s a lot of dust-up about Millennials in education, about their social media use, and their sense of entitlement. Less discussed is the impact on students of global challenges like climate change and the violence all around them: the Paris attacks, ISIS, cyber-, and, in my city, machine-gun-toting militia in plain view, as well as other issues that are foreign to me and my colleagues. I see the need for a space to discuss how these issues play out in the class, without getting into a competition about which generation had it worse.

Anxiety: Then and Now

In one sense, I know all about fear and learning. It’s a byproduct of new places and educational challenges. I still recall the anxiety I felt back in my college days. But things were different then. My students are embroiled in a life experience scarier than my own.

When I started college, concerns about terrorism were so low that Gallup didn’t see fit to give it a separate polling category. Now it fluctuates according to the latest disaster.

Recently the morning’s email included an alert about a near-to-campus shooting from one school where I teach and a car theft heads-up from the other college. What’s new is the onslaught of awareness delivered electronically into one’s consciousness. When I went to the same university as the students in my communications ethics and law course, I barely knew what existed outside my dormitory. But this class was clued into the shootings that happened in the days before the session and instantly filled in the details when I mentioned one of the incidents.

The distance between my family’s home and my dorm was exponentially different as well. At the time, going to school in a neighboring state felt serious. I can only recall one international student in my residence hall. Now, many of my students are from the other side of the planet. The idea of being so far from all that is known is unfathomable to me.

Further, a college degree used to project certainty. My stable financial future seemed an obvious return on my family’s investment. Now, crushing student debt and the volatility of what the Brooking Institute calls the “significant and growing fast” gig economy ratchets up the stakes for the next generation.

I’d also incorrectly assumed my graduate students made a decision to pursue a degree after having work experience. I’d returned for my master’s degree while a full-time professional, after a long spell in the work world. I was confident in my skills. I knew why I was there and what I needed to do. Most graduate students in my classes are now straight out of college, and their classroom footing isn’t as solid.

These factors coalesce into a potent brew of anxiety. So, while it’s a cinch to focus on easy labels, there’s little value in internalizing shallow stereotypes. With a more nuanced perspective, we are in a better position to brainstorm, ask questions, and more generally craft a new line of thinking to serve both ourselves and our students better.

What has your experience been with the Millennial mindset? Share your perspective in the comments below.

Image Credit: Frank Huang/Getty Images

About the Author

Adjunct Instructor, New York University & Fulbright Specialist //

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