Millennials Are Turning 40, But How Healthy are They, Really?
As the eldest members of the generation accused of never wanting to grow up enter their fifth decade, one older millennial writer consults the experts to give her peers a general check up – and asks how they might fare in middle age and beyond.
Allow me to introduce myself: My name is Anna, I was raised on Friends and I used to call myself a digital nomad (cringe).
I’m also bisexual, earn my crust as a self-employed writer-slash-podcaster and I’ve just managed to buy a small flat in Margate, which I share with my best friend – a gay man.
No, I haven’t copy-and-pasted my Instagram bio – although admittedly there is some crossover. I’m telling you this by way of letting you know that I’m a millennial. And if you happen to have been born sometime between 1981 and 1996, I suspect aspects of your life look a lot like mine.
We have two men called Neil Howe and William Strauss to thank for the term, millennial. And in the years since they coined it in 1991, ‘millennial’ has gone from being a descriptor to an insult.
25% of the world’s population are millennials, totalling 1.8 billion people worldwide.
To baby boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 – we’re spoiled, insecure commitment-phobes who care more about Instagram likes than a mortgage.
To Gen Z (born 1997 to 2015) we’re ‘cheugy’ – a term doing the rounds on TikTok (where else?) that loosely translates as a blend of basic and past it. And don’t get them started on our side partings.
But perhaps the most cutting among the insults levelled at my generation is that we’re the ones who refused to grow up. It’s ironic, then, that the oldest of our cohort turn 40 this year.
Meghan Markle celebrated her fortieth on 4 August followed by Fearne Cotton, Rebel Wilson and Beyoncé in September.
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While my own Big Birthday is still three years away, seeing my peers on the cusp of midlife has left me feeling reflective.
That millennials are entering positions of financial, political and social power during the biggest humanitarian crisis since the second world war is more than a little daunting.
But quite besides the fact that we’ve thoroughly outgrown the labels of ‘kidults’ and ‘snowflakes’ – to tell the truth, they never really fitted in the first place – I want to know how our health is faring as we reach this milestone.
Plus, what the choices we’ve made so far will mean for our wellbeing – now, and in the decades to come.
How Healthy are Millennials, Really?
That ‘millennial’ is almost synonymous with ‘wellness’, I hope, bodes well. While the origins of wellness as a movement can be traced back to the 1950s, it was between 1980 and 2000 – while millennials were all being born – that it began to gain momentum, coming of age around the same time we did.
The Global Wellness Institute put the movement’s ‘tipping point’ at 2010, after which fitness, diet, healthy living and wellbeing offerings proliferated.
While mine certainly isn’t the first generation to take an active interest in our health, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we were fundamental in making wellness a credible, 360-degree health concept that means far more than simply not being ill.
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Nor does doctor, private health coach and fellow millennial Dr. Christie Lewis. ‘I’d certainly agree that millennials are more aware of the benefits of good nutrition, exercise and low stress levels than any generation before us,’ she tells me, from her consulting room.
20% of millennials have changed their diet to reduce their impact on the planet
Take our health and fitness spending – there are countless studies that show millennial continuously spend an impressive amount on health and fitness.
Meanwhile, the number of vegans has risen 350% over the past 10 years, with millennials making up one third, according to The Vegan Society.
What Drives Millennials’ Health Consciousness?
‘There are a number of factors, from the acceleration of research into preventative medicine to how pivotal a role social media plays in our lives,’ adds Dr. Lewis. Something that speaks to both, she explains, is the rise of doctors-slash-influencers.
‘The fact that social media users have been able to access scientific research, explained in an accessible way and by aspirational figures, has gone a long way to increasing engagement with health topics – particularly the kind that were previously considered taboo, like mental illness and menopause.’
As to whether taking an active interest in our health will translate into a healthier midlife and beyond, Dr. Lewis is optimistic. ‘If you form healthy habits earlier on in life, you’re more likely to continue them through to your middle years,’ she explains.
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This is significant, since one of the best predictors of living well when you’re older is developing healthy habits by the time you reach middle age.
“Form healthy habits earlier in life and you’re more likely to continue them into middle age”
Take a 2020 study published in The BMJ; having four out of five low-risk lifestyle habits by the age of 50 (never smoking, eating a good diet, maintaining a healthy weight, doing 30 minutes of daily exercise and drinking a moderate amount of alcohol) meant female participants were likely to live chronic disease-free for 10 more years than those who hadn’t established those healthy habits in their forties.
There are several lifestyle factors that can help reduce your risk of developing conditions such as cardiovascular disease, like following a balanced, predominantly plant-based diet and keeping your body moving,’ adds Dr. Lewis.
‘Weight bearing exercises in particular can help to lessen the risk of osteoporosis, seen disproportionately in women due to hormonal changes,’ she continues.
The latter is just one of many conditions that she anticipates being less of a burden on our generation, thanks to the rise in supplementation of one vitamin in particular.
‘Vitamin D deficiency can lead to a number of health conditions, so the fact that our generation has increased knowledge about supplementing it – as more research about its benefits has been published – makes me hopeful,’ Lewis explains.
Are Mental Health issues Common for Millennials?
But while Dr. Lewis paints a positive image of our physical health in midlife, I suspect the outlook is rather less favourable when it comes to our minds.
I’ve had several spells of depression, which I needed to take antidepressants to relieve. Most of the creative, high-achieving men and women in my friendship group have had a similar experience with mental health, which is representative of millennials more generally.
We’re more likely to be depressed than any other generation – lonely, too – with fingers pointing at everything from entering the job market in the wake of the 2008 financial crash to the housing crisis and the un-put-downable nature of our smartphones.
50% of millennials spend more than three hours a day on their phones
So I can’t help but feel nervous as we enter our fifth decade – one in which we’re statistically more likely to become a carer to an elderly relative, experience myriad physical and mental symptoms as we go through the (peri)menopause and face mounting professional and financial responsibilities.
Dr. Emma Svanberg has a front row seat when it comes to the emotional baggage many women in their forties wrestle with.
A clinical psychologist who often supports mothers, she’s keenly aware of the pile-on of pressures, though she remains optimistic that millennials will rise to the challenge.
‘Particularly since the #metoo movement, millennials have highlighted many questions about gender equality and the harmful experiences that were too often accepted by previous generations,’ she says, referring to the ways in which we’ve railed against prescriptive social norms.
When I think of all the terms we’ve normalised along the way, there are too many to count. From polyamory to being child-free and happily single, we’ve created a language and a blueprint for a model of happiness beyond the traditional (read: marriage and kids) kind.
57% of millennials have never married, and one in four won’t have married by their fifties
‘Millennials have been instrumental in the increased diversity of the concept of family, and for changing expectations of gender roles in parenting,’ Dr. Svanberg explains. On the whole, she believes this will serve us well: family units and partnerships will be shaped more by individuals’ wants, as opposed to society’s say-so.
But there’s a ‘but’. ‘This can also make parenting more challenging, since we’re trying to do something that’s already immensely difficult while writing our own stories.’
Millennials at Work: How a Generation Impacted Workplace Mental Health
Nowhere is millennial-made progress within mental health more profound than at work.
‘The movement for mental health to be taken more seriously in the workplace has absolutely been from the ground up, with millennials driving the change,’ says James Routledge, 30-year-old founder of workplace mental health coaching service Sanctus and author of Mental Health At Work.
‘If companies want to attract and maintain millennial talent, they need to demonstrate that they have a good mental health culture and that they support flexible working,’ he adds.
Routledge is confident that as this emotionally-aware generation moves into positions of power and responsibility, it’ll take action to give mental health parity with the physical kind.
‘We’re already seeing this with paid leave for pregnancy loss, and hopefully as millennials move into middle age, we’ll see greater support for workers caring for elderly parents, too.’
That’s not to say that all facets of physical health are taken seriously – not least when they’re ones that exclusively impact female bodies.
Journalist and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour Emma Barnett – who shares details of her struggle with endometriosis and adenomyosis in her book Period: It’s About Bloody Time – is one notable millennial who’s used her platform to make female health conditions newsworthy.
That one of the most fearsome political interviewers speaks openly about her crippling period pain is powerful – and indicative, I’m learning, of a unique millennial strength: the ability to show both power and vulnerability at once.
‘To show pain, to show suffering, can be viewed as weak; we’re educated to believe that’s weak,’ says Barnett. ‘But actually, even to put one foot in front of the other with conditions like endometriosis and adenomyosis, you’re the toughest woman I know.’
I put it to Barnett that the way in which millennials, like her, have been open when it comes to talking about periods stands us in good stead for what happens when they stop.
But when it comes to the (peri)menopause, Barnett believes we won’t be the change-makers. ‘Women in the generation above us are talking about it now, and we’re going to be the inheritors of that,’ she says. ‘I feel grateful to the women who have come before me on that.’
What Wellness Lessons can Millennials learn from Gen Z?
While props are due to the generation above us, we have a lot to learn from the one below, too. ‘Members of Gen Z are so much more aware of the systemic issues causing mental health issues than we were,’ adds Dr Svanberg.
‘This means they may be better adapted to abandon the perfectionism and chronic dissatisfaction that many older millennials struggle with after being brought up in the 1980s and 1990s,’ she continues – ‘when success and outcomes were prioritised over growth and development.’
She argues that while it’s true that millennials started talking about mental health openly, they often do so in an intellectualised way.
‘We’re still not truly able to contain and validate people’s distress because we can still feel uncomfortable with genuine vulnerability,’ she shares. This resonates, hard.
This article was originally published in the September issue of Women’s Health UK.