The younger generation: more stressed, less healthy?

They’re in the prime of life, yet younger workers often report feeling more stressed and less healthy than their older counterparts.

And we’re busy worrying about ailing baby boomers swamping the health care system as they age?

This rather interesting finding appears in the recently issued Aflac WorkForces Report, an annual study by the benefits company on trends and attitudes in workplace benefit programs.

It seems to fly in the face of the common belief that younger workers are healthier and more apt to engage in healthy behavior than those who are older. (In the interests of full disclosure, I’m a boomer who’s becoming a teensy bit weary of the generation wars and the inference that my entitled, me-first generation is going to bankrupt the health care system. Says who?)

The survey, conducted earlier this year among more than 6,100 American employees, found that across the board, young workers in their 20s, 30s and early 40s seemed to struggle the most with healthy habits, while those who were older fared the best.

For instance, of all the age groups that participated in the survey, Generation Y employees (ages 18-24) reported exercising the least. About one in three workers over age 65 said they didn’t eat as well as they should. For boomers (ages 45-64), it was 41 percent. But for Gen Y and Generation X (ages 25-44), nearly half confessed to less-than-ideal eating habits.

Here’s another finding: 11 percent of Gen Y’ers and 15 percent of Gen X’ers said they didn’t currently feel healthy, compared to 8 percent of boomers and 9 percent of the oldest workers who said they felt this way.

As for stress, Generations X and Y reported the most, at 16 percent each. Eleven percent of boomers and 6 percent of workers over age 65 said they were stressed.

So what does it all mean? Because the survey relied on the participants’ own assessment of their health rather than objective measures of their actual health habits, it might not be entirely accurate. Nor do we know whether the results would be any different if the same survey had been administered a generation or two ago.

Yet this isn’t the first time a piece of research has belied the cultural American myths about youth and aging. A survey by the American Heart Association last year found that although many young adults consider themselves healthy, they’re also more apt than middle-aged and older folks to consume fast food and skimp on fresh fruits and vegetables, which could raise their risk for heart disease later in life.

A large study released last year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that consumption of sugared soft drinks was most prevalent among younger age groups.

Meanwhile, older adults aren’t necessarily as decrepit and unhappy as they’re often assumed to be. In 2010, a Gallup Poll was released of more than 340,000 people, ages 18 to 85, asking them about their health, finances and state of well-being. In a finding that surprised many people (but perhaps shouldn’t have), people reported becoming happier as they grew older, especially at 50 and beyond.

Maybe the real issue here isn’t about which generation is healthier but that we ought not to make assumptions or develop health policies on the basis of age alone.

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