College-age ‘Millennials’ Are Overscheduled—and Dealing With It

May 2, 2004 | By Melissa Dribben

The ostensibly merry month of May is not so very for most college students.

This is crunch time. While the daffodils are blooming, finals are looming. Crowded dorms are testing the limits of patience and public health. Everyone’s fed up with roommate social-life drama, grotesque bathroom habits, and pyramids of empty Red Bull cans on the windowsill. Only a few weeks are left to get everything done. And “everything” has come to mean a great deal more than it used to.

The normal stresses of a full course load and campus life in general have always been enough to give the typical 18- to 22-year-old twitchy eyelids and dark circles. But record numbers of university students are also working their tails off carrying one, two, even three part-time jobs on and off campus. Because of rising tuition and the wobbly economy, on some campuses more than half the students are employed. That’s in addition to their commitments to athletics, clubs and community service.

So while they feverishly prepare chemistry labs, 10-page papers comparing B.F. Skinner and Noam Chomsky’s views on language acquisition in children, and oral presentations on the changing role of women in Islamic cultures, they somehow have to find the time for their $6- to $10-an-hour shifts answering phones in the dean’s office, repairing computers, waiting tables, or phoning alumni to ask for donations.

“A lot of us are trying to be two places at one time, keeping up with course material and exams,” says Kanene Harris, a sophomore at Widener University. Harris, who is studying to be a nurse, works about nine hours a week on campus as a clerical assistant in academic support services. She also has rehearsals for gospel choir, serves on the student advisory board and the student nurses association, and is secretary of a community organization called Rotaract. Her days begin at 6:30 a.m. and normally don’t end until 2:30 a.m.

Is she stressed?

“Not really,” she says.

Which makes Harris at once remarkable—and typical.

She is a member of the generation that has come to be known as “the Millennials”—baby boomers’ progeny, born between 1981 and 1999, who are turning out to be an unusually busy, productive and optimistic lot. The carefully tended children who traveled in cars with “baby on board” stickers in the window and were overscheduled into play dates and soccer teams and book clubs before they lost their first teeth, are now—on their own—overscheduling themselves and feeling pretty good about it.

Charles Smallwood, 22, is a junior at Temple. He works at TLA Video between seven and 14 hours a week, and 20 hours a week as a sales and service representative for Citizens Bank. A full-time student, too, he’s taking classes in anthropology; race and class in society; Shakespeare; Africa in the 20th Century; and film. How does he do it?

“I don’t know,” he shrugs. “I’ve been working since I was a freshman in high school.” His mother is a paralegal. His father works for the fire department in Montclair, N.J. Smallwood gets loans and grants to pay for school, and his parents help him as much as they can with food and the occasional movie ticket. But rent and living expenses come from his own pocket.

“I’m dealing with it. I don’t feel overly stressed.”

This poise under hyperbaric conditions seems to be the Millennials’ blessing.

“They are under a lot of pressure, but they’re handling it well,” says Neil Howe, a historian and economist who, along with William Strauss, the founder of the comedy troupe the Capitol Steps, has become an expert at generalizing about generations. The two have co-authored the books “Millennials Rising” and “Millennials Go to College.”

The current crop of college kids is radically different from Generation X, Howe says. “The most accepted motivator for Gen X was negative. It was reflected in the advertising. ‘This is your brain, this is your brain on drugs.’ Life is horrible. That’s really changed.”

Millennials tend to be motivated more by positively framed questions such as: “What happens if you do things right?”

“As a group, they have a better sense of where they’re going,” Howe says. Getting there, however, requires a lot of energy. And the competition to achieve is intense.

One of the problems for Millennials, say Howe and others who have worked with this generation of college students, is that they must stop long enough to catch their breath. Especially at this point in the semester, the lack of time for reflection can make it hard to keep priorities in order and maintain a healthy perspective.

“I have so much on my plate,” says Vince Campellone, a 19-year-old sophomore at Arcadia University. Campellone, who commutes from his parents’ home in Doylestown, is a computer science major. Neither of his parents have jobs with benefits, so he works 20 to 25 hours a week as a cashier at Acme to get health insurance. He also has a work-study job on campus helping students with computer problems; he’s starting a Web development company with a friend; and on weekends, he periodically works for a catering company.

“I’m trying to get enough money to get a car so I can drive here,” Campellone says. “My dad is between jobs, doing temp work. He gives me a ride in. It’s hard to get down here for my 8:30 classes. And one class doesn’t end until 10 p.m., so I literally have to run a mile to catch the train back home.”

He’s tired, he says, but not unhappy. “My parents get so mad at me for staying up late, and then I can’t get up in the morning.” His skills with computers are good enough right now to get him a real job. “But I know that little piece of paper that says you have a degree is worth more than any knowledge I can get on my own.”

While Campellone is talking, he stops a friend passing by and bums a cigarette. Campellone used to be a cross-country runner, he says, but between a knee injury and his busy schedule, he doesn’t get much exercise anymore. “That used to be my release,” he says.

It’s not unusual, college counselors say, for students charging toward their goals, to compromise their health in ways that will slowly take a toll. And having too wide an array of responsibilities and activities obviously can overload a student’s circuits. But one of the reasons that Millennials may be so resilient is that multitasking gives the ego the flexibility to deal with failure.

“There’s an advantage to having things more scheduled,” says Mark Freeman, president-elect of the American College Counseling Association. If your only identity is as a student who goes out drinking with friends on the weekend and you have trouble with a few classes and do poorly academically, all you have left is the drinking with friends, he explains. But if you perceive yourself as a student, a friend, an athlete, a community service worker and an employee, and you stumble in one or even several of those areas, you still can feel good about yourself in the others.

There is a limit, of course. At either end of the spectrum—students who aren’t skilled at managing their time and the Type A’s who set impossibly high standards and drive themselves relentlessly—too much multitasking can be disastrous.

Joe Tolliver, dean of students at Haverford College, says that of the school’s 1,100 students, there will be only about 20 each year who have taken on more than they can handle and need to cut back.

“But we haven’t had anyone in the E.R. from stress because they were working” at a work-study job or off campus, Tolliver says. The problem is more one of perfectionism. “They get depressed because they’re afraid of not getting a 4.0…There are always kids at every institution who have had this difficulty.”

“That’s my life,” says Dinka Majanovic, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania who ended up in the emergency room last fall. “I put myself in stress.”

Majanovic, 20, is from Bosnia. She originally planned to major in economics so she could return and help her country regain stability and grow. She muscled through her first year, but by October of her second year—under the strain of her courses, heavy with math requirements, and her work-study job calling alumni for donations—she buckled.

“I guess I was depressed for a while without realizing it. I didn’t want to hang out with friends. It was hard to concentrate. All I could think of was questioning, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ I couldn’t really sleep. I felt like my heart was racing all the time.”

Finally, she took herself to the student health clinic. “They took my blood pressure and said I was having a panic attack.” Majanovic was given oxygen and anti-anxiety medicine and kept in the emergency room for a few hours. She had worried she might be having a heart attack. “I was so scared. I don’t think I’ve ever been so afraid of anything in my life.”

Afterward, Majanovic realized she had to change. “I had too many ambitions and too many things to do.” She talked to her adviser and changed her major to communications. She spoke to a therapist who helped her develop a more reasonable set of goals and spend more time enjoying her friends and getting involved in social activities.

This semester, she’s taking four courses; she’s joined a few organizations, including the united minority council; and she’s switched her job to something that pays less but is less stressful. Working is not only a requirement for students receiving financial aid, it’s crucial, she realized, if you want to have a social life.

“A lot of people like to go downtown to parties, to Penn’s Landing, or to restaurants. It’s really hard if you don’t have the means to do that. You feel excluded. People don’t really notice it, or they perceive you as antisocial, and that’s very painful. One of the reasons I like having my job is I can afford more things.…I found my life is much better since I started working.”

Majanovic’s experience is becoming more common—or at least more recognized. Increasingly, students are breaking down under self-imposed pressure. They end up in counseling centers suffering from depression, eating disorders or substance abuse.

“They use alcohol and drugs to cope, but it only creates more problems,” says Beth Howlett, director of counseling at Widener University.

Over the last decade, a study of college counseling centers by Robert Gallagher of the University of Pittsburgh has found a steady increase in the number of visits for severe psychological issues. That, Gallagher says, is due in part to the complex nature of college life these days. It is also a result of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which opened the doors of higher education to a broader range of students, including those with existing mental and emotional difficulties.

Even with the increase, Gallagher says, college students with serious problems remain a minority. “There’s a bell curve,” he says. Most students are somewhere in the middle, doing just fine, or getting help before their problems reach the crisis point.

“They’re juggling a lot,” says Howlett. “This time of year particularly, coming down the homestretch, there’s an increase in the number of visits to the counseling center. It builds throughout the school year, and right now we’re swamped. We’re at full capacity.”

As the workload and time commitments mount, students may suffer minor symptoms such as stomach distress or headaches, go to the health center complaining that they don’t feel well, and then get referred for counseling, Howlett says. Some who were already in counseling have called or e-mailed to say they are so stressed out, they can’t even find the time to come in for an appointment.

The National Mental Health Association recently reported that 30 percent of college freshmen feel overwhelmed, and more than 35 percent of all students feel they need help dealing with anxiety, panic, assertiveness, weight problems, romantic relationships and fear of failure.

These numbers, say Freeman, seem to be less an indication of a decline in mental health than of an increase in willingness to seek help with the normal worries you have during the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Yes, significantly more students are seeking help, but 60 percent of them, he says, simply need someone to help them think about “who am I, where am I going and who should accompany me?”

“There is an absence of stigma,” Freeman says. “The Millennials see therapy as one of the nice things parents and schools offer to help you feel happier and well-adjusted.”

Connections