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Published: September 4, 2013, 3:00 pm

When Alexandra Knoll landed a job that was actually related to her university education, she cried for an entire day. After spending months sending out resumes, working 50 to 60 hours a week at restaurant gigs, and struggling with anxiety on a near daily basis, she felt like she could finally exhale.

“My generation was told we could shoot for the stars and do whatever we wanted,” said Knoll, a 23-year-old from Toronto. “That was both a blessing and a curse.”

Alexandra Knoll

Alexandra Knoll

In the conclusion of our three-part series on Millennials, Postmedia checks in on the 7.2 million Canadians born between 1979 and 1993 (about 21 per cent of the population) and asks about the health and well-being issues they face, as well as the likely implications.

Knoll’s battle with anxiety and stress is a hallmark of people in their 20s and early 30s, who according to theAmerican Psychological Association have, more than any other age group, been told by a healthcare provider that they have depression or an anxiety disorder.

Though many factors contribute to this, the lingering effects of the recession and subsequent employment impasse are chief among the stressors.

“As soon as I graduated, it felt like I was back at Square 1 – if not even further behind than people who hadn’t gone to school and already had work experience,” said Knoll, who only recently landed a job that’s loosely connected to her psychology degree. “I loved my education. But I feel like it didn’t get me anywhere.”


Gordon Flett, a professor in York University’s faculty of health, cited the high cost of housing, student debt, and the burden of perfectionism as additional challenges to well-being, with the latter being particularly sinister.

“It’s far too easy for young people to get the idea that, ‘In order to be successful and loved, I have to achieve according to certain expectations,’ ” said Flett, who recently cringed at a school-board sign declaring, “Every Child Will Be Successful.”

“What comes with that message is a sense of pressure . . . I like to tell younger people about the importance of hope and optimism, but you also have to deal with the reality of the situation in terms of the amount of opportunity out there.”

Rumeet Billan

Rumeet Billan

Rumeet Billan, a 30-year-old entrepreneur and PhD candidate who’s twice been named one of Canada’s most powerful women, said her schedule is so full that just putting dinner on the table is often a trial.

“I haven’t mastered any type of balance whatsoever. But there are times where I just need to stop, and I’m getting better at that now,” said Billan, the CEO of Jobs in Education. “Learning to say no is one of the most difficult challenges.”

Billan’s firsthand experiences with the work-life juggling act, along with her work in suicide intervention, have left her with serious doubts about how well Millennials’ upbringing prepared them for the real world.

“We’re told we can change the world, but what’s out there to help us?” said Billan. “Where are the tools we need, even to change a piece of our own world?”


Millennials are also saddled with a buffet of physical health concerns. According to Statistics Canada, the national proportion of overweight or obese men and women aged 20 to 34 climbed from 39.3 per cent to 41.1 per cent in just three years (2008 to 2012), representing the largest increase during that period of any age group.

Chris Ardern, associate professor of kinesiology and health at York University, said rises in screen time, exposure to more processed foods, and sedentary work and school environments are among the likely villains.

“Activity is being engineered out of their daily lives,” said Ardern, noting that it’s become too easy for young people to make poor choices. “You have to be more innovative to become active, to eat healthy, and to meet recommendations around a healthy lifestyle.”

Earlier this year, a long-term scientific study of more than 6,000 people found that in terms of health, the younger generation resembled people 15 years their senior as a result of increased risk of obesity and hypertension. And according to Ardern, things will only get worse if changes aren’t made.

“This is really the tip of the iceberg for what we can expect to see in terms of the accumulation of risk factors and in terms of the overt disease we’re going to have to treat down the line,” said Ardern.

Dramatic changes in health during young adulthood, of course, are hardly unique to Millennials. Dr. Arya Sharma, a professor of medicine at the University of Alberta, said weight fluctuation is often the result of leaving home, joining the workforce and assuming responsibility for personal well-being.

“I hear this regularly from my patients: ‘I never had a problem when I was in school. I lived at home, I was always an active kid, I took part in competitive sports, I was a varsity athlete.’ And they’re sitting in my office now at 250 pounds,” said Sharma.

And though he recognizes the ill effects of digital culture, Sharma also believes Millennials have a leg up, in some ways, on their generational predecessors at the same age.

“In the old days, we didn’t have gyms on every corner or the same access to information on healthy eating,” said Sharma, the U of A’s chair in obesity. “And if you look at the food supply, the offerings at restaurants now — including fast food — have changed for the better.”


Notably, research by Sun Life Financial suggests Millennials are more likely than previous generations to seek out health and wellness information. The underbelly, however, is that many of the best resources are limited to full-time workers with benefit plans.

“I think one of the reasons we’re seeing excessive stress within this under-employed younger group is that they don’t have access to all the programs and interaction that come with gainful full-time employment,” said Lori Casselman, assistant vice-president of health and wellness at Sun Life. “It’s really a call to action.”

To wit, an online survey for the firm in 2012 found 90 per cent of younger Millennials — those aged 18 to 24 — were excessively stressed. Among the older Millennial cohort, aged 25 to 34, it was 80 per cent, while the 55 to 64 demographic was a comparatively low 67 per cent.

York University’s Flett said the implications are at once clear and a cause for concern.

“The consistent link between stress and health problems means that if somebody doesn’t learn to deal with these things, they’re likely going to be prone to some very serious health issues down the road,” said Flett. “If we don’t find ways at the provincial and federal levels to make society less stressed and more resilient, we’ll end up paying for it later.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated Lori Casselman’s title.



Good Decisions Require Good Data.