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Millennial women are facing the first decline in well-being since the Silent Generation, report says

Things are not necessarily better for American women today than they were for their mothers and grandmothers, according to a new report.

In recent years, the most important markers of women’s safety and health have declined, the data showed.

The Population Reference Bureau created an index of women’s well-being, identifying the factors that best indicated the general status of poverty, education, incarceration, political representation, physical and mental health, and participation in the labor force.

The index was created to compare the status of different generations of US women at the same stage of life – around ages 25 to 34.

“While there have been some areas of generation-to-generation improvement, millennials are the first generation of women since the (so-called) Silent Generation who are seeing declines in overall well-being based on our index,” said a lead author of the report, Sara Srygley, a research analyst at Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit organization that collects population data on health and well-being. (The Silent Generation was born between 1928 and 1945, living through the Great Depression and World War II.)

Affordable, quality health care is particularly a problem in rural communities for women such as Tyler Azure, a 28-year-old mother of the Chippewa Nation raising six children — three biological children, a stepchild and her two sisters after the death of their mother — in Havre, Montana.

Often, doctors will come into town to pay off their student debt and then move on to a bigger city, she said. And mental health care is hard to find.

“You can’t really build a relationship with doctors that are continuously cycling out,” Azure said.

As a young, Indigenous women, she feels she is often overlooked and not taken seriously, she said.

Declines in health and safety did not align with where millennial women ranked when it comes to education and employment — many of those numbers went up from previous generations, according to the report.

“This isn’t a question of whether today’s young women are working hard enough or trying to improve their lives,” Srygley said. “They’re obtaining higher education. They’re entering more competitive fields such as STEM fields and business ownership. They’re doing the things that they’ve really been raised to believe will lead to a better life.

“Despite their best efforts, these are very real challenges,” she said.

And the report showed the challenges are even higher for some women.

“What really stood out was that there was even less progress among young people of color,” said Dr. Jamelia Harris, senior director of research at the Justice and Joy National Collaborative, a nonprofit that advocates for young people of color. “This was probably the least surprising aspect of the report.” She was not involved with the report.

Progress on the decline

There was sharp progress in health, safety, education and employment from the Silent Generation to baby boomer women, Srygley said. Progress slowed somewhat for Generation X compared with their mothers, but then things began to stall in 2017, she added.

“In this updated report, we saw that it’s no longer stalled, but it’s now actively in decline” for millennials, Srygley said.

The homicide rate for millennial women increased compared with Generation X, according to the data. Suicide rates have nearly doubled from Gen Xers to millennials, and maternal mortality rates have risen dramatically, the report showed.

The disparities in health and well-being are even greater for women of color, the data indicated.

Black maternal mortality is more than twice the US national average, and Black and Hispanic students were less likely to receive subsidies for college than their White peers of similar economic status, according to the report.

The policies that play a role

While it is difficult to point to one reason why millennial women are experiencing this decline in well-being, it isn’t surprising considering the social and political structures at play, Srygley said.

Progress in closing the gender pay gap has stagnated, she said, and an increase in access to lethal means may have an impact on suicide rates, although those rates don’t tend to change dramatically from one generation to the next, Srygley said.

“We know that some policies may have played a role in things like rolling back of reproductive health care protections, which various studies have found increases risk of maternal mortality and potentially also suicide rates,” Srygley said.

It makes sense then that younger women are also seeing strains on mental health, said Martha Sanchez, director of health policy and advocacy of Young Invincibles, an organization that advocates for the education, health care and employment of young Americans.

“Young women are seeing a tremendous amount of pressure and the barriers — because they are literally legal barriers — really prevent us from just taking care of ourselves,” Sanchez said.

“Everything from the lack of reproductive access and care, the lack of affordable health care and in some states, the outright bans on, for example, abortion or highly restricted abortion — it’s all really affecting our mental health on top of what the nation has experienced in terms of the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic,” she added.

Genisus Holland has a job, is a student and advocates for women of color with Justice for Joy. - Courtesy Genisus Holland
Genisus Holland has a job, is a student and advocates for women of color with Justice for Joy. - Courtesy Genisus Holland

Women need a seat at the table

When it comes to how to turn the trends of well-being around for women — particularly women of color — experts want to see more access and more inclusive decision-making.

“When we talk about health, it’s our ability to access preventive care,” Sanchez said. “It’s our ability to afford preventive care and even routine care for chronic conditions and our ability to afford mental health when it comes to the mental health crisis.”

When it comes to addressing these problems, women should be included in the decision-making, Harris said.

Conferences, protests and voting are effective ways for people to use their voice, but Genisus Holland, 21, of Richmond, Virginia, said it is up to policymakers to do their part as well.

“There’s only so many times that we can say the same thing before it’s not up to us to keep saying it. It’s up to the change makers to start doing it,” she said.

And it may be tempting to scroll past stories about how hard it is for women and people of color, but it is important that you pay attention, she said.

“It is so hard to hear about the same old fight and not see action placed behind it. But I would also say that it’s important that every time that you have the ability, every time that you have the strength … that you do spread on the message,” she said.

“It’s the same old fight, but the fight isn’t over until we win,” Holland added.

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