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Why is the next generation so anxious? Here's how young founders can avoid burn-out

There may be good reason to be concerned about our young entrepreneurs. Millennials and Generation Z have been labelled generation burn-out, generation snowflake and described as narcissistic, entitled, tech-dependent and fragile. They’re also oversaturated with headlines about the raft of issues like climate change they have to tackle, plus concerns about the impact of technology and social media on their mental health. Jennifer Young explores possible reasons why the younger generation is so anxious, as well as what young founders can do to avoid burn-out.

 Before discussing generational differences, keep in mind Pew Research Center president Michael Dimock’s words: “Generations are a lens through which to understand societal change, rather than a label with which to oversimplify differences between age groups”. As someone who sometimes felt like a guinea pig in my first graduate job I can attest to this importance.

Millennials are typically painted as those finishing university or being early-in-career. The reality is different. The youngest millennials are now 23, with the eldest millennials being 38. Generation Z (born 1995 to 2013) are true digital natives having used the internet since a young age, with 90 percent having a digital footprint. As millennials, we can remember a time without the internet, without social media and mobile phones. We’re typically characterised as curious, collaborative, concerned about social good, technologically innovative and requiring regular feedback.

Generation Z? A Northeastern University survey revealed that they’re highly self-directed, frugal, value experiences and have an increased likelihood of becoming entrepreneurs. I’ve seen all these characteristics in 18 to 25 year olds taking part in initiatives like Inspiring Stories, Festival For the Future, Creative HQ’s VentureUp and the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards programme.

The question on many lips is, why do millennials and generation Z seem to be one of the most anxious and depressed generations to date? One possibility is that we’re more open to talking about our challenges and seeking the help we need than previous generations. We’re encouraged to be vulnerable (thankyou, Brene Brown!) as the culture shifts in the positive direction of recognising that wellbeing encompasses more than just physical abilities. That, and anxiety wasn’t officially recognised as a condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1980, so prior record-keeping on mental health was patchy.

A more nuanced answer is that these two generations are by-products of our capitalist economy and on-demand society. We are bombarded with more than 5000 marketing messages a day and as a result, can’t hold attention for more than eight seconds. That’s less than the attention span of a goldfish. In essence: on-demand services and technology have made us more impatient, and thus more anxious. The likes of Google, Amazon, Netflix, Tinder and Uber Eats mean that answers, goods, entertainment, transport, dating and food are just a few taps, clicks or swipes away.

We’re the most switched-on generation as we’re highly educated, yet we’re also constantly ‘on’ due to being hyper-connected and overloaded with stimulants – like information ­– as excessive screen use boosts the release of stress hormones and increases central nervous system arousal.

And then there’s the uncomfortably close relationship of entrepreneurship and mental illness. So are our young entrepreneurs struggling more?

When asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, 80 percent of Gen Z indicated to Gallup that they wanted to be entrepreneurs. Thanks to social media, younger generations have become truly global citizens and the internet has provided a store front for them to sell their ideas to people around the world without ever leaving their house. If anything, young people without families or mortgages are aware they have an opportunity to take the risk into entrepreneurship, so they take the plunge.

However, the 'hero entrepreneur’ narrative that is sold is dangerous and misleading. Founders like Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and Elon Musk are held up on pedestals as success stories, while it’s quietly whispered that 90 percent of start-ups fail within the first year. There is plenty of research today that, despite its glamorisation, entrepreneurship is negatively correlated with mental health.

Here’s a few reasons why:

  • From a distance, being your own boss looks amazing – like the freedom of remote working. The reality is that these lifestyles can be lonely and cause stress from lack of direction for many solo entrepreneurs starting up. Welcome, friends to impressions management 101 (‘fake it till you make it’). Toby Thomas, CEO of Inc. 500 company EnSite Solutions, explains this phenomenon with his favourite analogy: a man riding a lion. "People look at him and think, This guy's really got it together! He's brave!" says Thomas. "And the man riding the lion is thinking, How the hell did I get on a lion, and how do I keep from getting eaten?""
  • Stress – and lack of self-care to manage said stress – can lead to a "never-not-working" mentality and deprioritising of opportunities for fun and connection. In my mindfulness classes I love saying to people, “When you’re in the shower notice if you’re actually in the shower... or if you’re having your 9am meeting in there.”
  • According to the article, Are Millennial Entrepreneurs Slowly Killing Themselves? Many entrepreneurs are the face of their company, so to encourage support, they act strong and don’t acknowledge their own stress, caused by numerous factors from straining personal relationships, too long work hours and problems with the business itself."

So how can we look after ourselves and our founder communities, and avoid burn-out? When it comes to wellbeing, an individualistic and holistic approach is valuable – we’re all genetically and circumstantially different. So, like Bruce Lee says: “adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own”.

We are bombarded with more than 5000 marketing messages a day and as a result, can’t hold attention for more than eight seconds. That’s less than the attention span of a goldfish. In essence: on-demand services and technology have made us more impatient, and thus more anxious. The likes of Google, Amazon, Netflix, Tinder and Uber Eats mean that answers, goods, entertainment, transport, dating and food are just a few taps, clicks or swipes away.

Below are a few of my top guidelines and suggestions:

  • Give yourself permission to put yourself higher up your to-do list. Make self care (and vacation) a non-negotiable. Sustainable entrepreneurship should ideally be a marathon – not a sprint. If we choose to sprint, we risk burning out, producing poor-quality work, and resenting the very thing we once felt passionate about.
  • Prioritise connection. Mitigate loneliness by considering joining a co-working space like the BizDojo. Having an inspiring community working around you enables your own productivity as well as providing collaborative opportunities. Plus, human connection = increased happiness. Depression negatively affects motivation, productivity, memory and concentration.
  • Say no. Ask for help. Oftentimes we think of self care as doing more, when what we really need is to do less. Tim Ferriss recommends start a “stop-doing list”.
  • Micropauses. Not making time to do the things we love (e.g. an hour of exercise, meditating, talking with friends) in a day can lead to low levels of stress. Can you turn something you love into multiple 1, 5 or 10 minute breaks throughout the day? For example, going for multiple walks around the block, taking a one minute mindfulness pause while in the bathroom or calling a friend in a lunch break.
  • Set boundaries in your relationship with technology. This especially means your digital distraction devices. Ariana Huffington says, “Our technology...it’s consuming our attention and crippling our ability to focus, think, be present, and, most important, to truly connect, both with others and with ourselves.” Be intentional about notifications, especially during meetings. Ask yourself: what notifications are important enough to interrupt my finite attention? A Virginia Tech study looked at conversations among 100 pairs of people, some with phones on the table. It found that the mere presence of an untouched phone degraded the quality of the conversation and lowered the levels of empathy the participants felt toward each other.

Creating something that has not previously existed is not an easy task, and takes a lot of courage and commitment. Being sold a hero entrepreneur narrative and being hyper-connected are two reasons among many for why many young entrepreneurs are experiencing higher rates of anxiety and depression than previous generations – but, it doesn’t mean that they’re broken or alone in their experiences – they’re just more open to sharing their experiences. If you or someone you know is struggling, applying some of the strategies in this article and reaching out to loved ones and support networks can be a great place to start. Below are a few websites/numbers to call.

Where to go for help.
• Need to talk? (Free call or text 1737)
• Lifeline (0800 543 354)
• Youthline (0800 376 633, free text 234)
• www.thelowdown.co.nz (for young people, free text 5626)
• www.depression.org.nz (for adults, free text 4202)

If you're an entrepreneur, creative or care about one: how can you put yourself higher up your to-do list?

Jennifer Young is the founder of Intentional Generations (previously 'Jen Y Insights'). Jen is a lawyer-turned-mindfulness-educator, NeuroLeadership Institute trained coach, facilitator, accredited mental health first aider, youth leadership development advisor and writer. People work with her to make change and impact without burning out and elevate them to their definitions of deeply fulfilling and deeply impactful lives. Get in touch at www.jenyinsights.com.

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