Reach Millennials
By Marketing to Their Aspirations

A marketing analysis of anxiety from the 2020 Guide to Marketing Addiction Treatment to Millennials


Millennials (born 1981 – 1996) are disillusioned in ways that previous generations did not experience. The Harvard Business Review suggests that today’s youth are suffering more than previous generations.1 They were taught from a young age that “hard work pays off” and that if they went to a good college, a great job would be guaranteed to them when they graduated.

So they studied hard in high school, got good grades, went to the best school that accepted them, took out student loans to pay for it, and graduated. It was time for all the hard work to pay off with that good paying job and the American Dream to begin.

Millennials’ Dreams Denied

Millennials entered the workforce just as the recession of 2008 hit, which, according to the Deloitte Millennial Survey, had a significant impact on their economic security as well as their mental health.2

Everything they had been promised and had been working toward didn’t happen. And instead of a comfortable, well-paying job after graduation, they received hefty student loan payments and a dismal job market.2

This led to an entire generation of frustrated and disillusioned young adults who were searching for ways to deal with the rug being pulled out from under them. Many turned to destructive behaviors that led to addiction.2

For addiction treatment centers to effectively market to millennials, they should address the underlying issues of unmet life goals and aspirations.

Millennials Are Starting At A Deficit

According to an American Psychological Association 2015 Report on Stress in America,

“Millennials are more likely than other generations to say that stress has a very strong or strong impact on their physical (30 percent vs. 27 percent of Gen Xers, 25 percent of Boomers and 12 percent of Matures) and mental health (37 percent vs. 33 percent of Gen Xers, 23 percent of Boomers and 11 percent of Matures).”3

Where does all of this stress come from? The center of it is missing economic opportunities.

“Millennials also happen to be the most educated generation in history where 34% of 25 to 29-year-olds hold a bachelor’s, master’s, professional or doctoral diploma and yet, they are severely underpaid.”4

Millennials were coached by parents to keep their focus and do well in school to get a well-paying job. Instead, they were faced with looming student loan payments and a decrease in earning potential relative to their parents.

Coming of Age in the Great Recession

“Millennials coming of age during the Great Recession faced a rude awakening when the high cost of an education didn’t lead to higher earnings[.]” Underemployment and living costs coupled with student loan payments have made it difficult for millennials to get ahead.”4

According to information published by Business Insider, the average Millennial makes $35,592 a year. Even adjusted for inflation, that’s 20% less income than for a Baby Boomer at the same age.5 And to make it more difficult, rising housing costs and college tuition far outpaced any rise in income. College tuition has increased by 260%, and housing costs have increased by 107% since the 1980s.6, 7

Student-loan debt has reached record levels because the cost of college has more than doubled since the 1980s.6 As of 2019, student-loan debt reached a national total of $1.5 trillion.7 Millennials in the graduating class of 2018 have an average student-loan debt of $29,800.7

Addiction Tendency in Millennials

If you understand the body’s dopamine response, you know how this is rather like starting the game with a stacked deck. According to Psychology Today, “regular” behaviors like eating a delicious dinner, laughing with friends, or physical exercise should raise dopamine levels to a “happy” state.8

However, if the person in question is starting with a bigger deficit, as are millennials, more dopamine is required to reach a “happy state.”8 People with lower dopamine levels are more prone to addictive behaviors. To get more dopamine, they turn to dangerous activities that often lead to substance abuse.

Medical News Today published findings that stated,

“Millennials coming of age during the Great Recession faced a rude awakening when the high cost of an education didn’t lead to higher earnings[.]” Underemployment and living costs coupled with student loan payments have made it difficult for millennials to get ahead.”4

If you want to reach millennials who need addiction treatment, you need to speak to the things that are causing them to partake in destructive behaviors. It may be in large part because of the rampant disillusionment in their generation.

Misunderstood Millennials: Actually Ambitious

While it seems somewhat counterintuitive to their reputation as the slacker generation, millennials are very ambitious. They want to get recognized and promoted at work, and they aren’t afraid to leave when this isn’t happening.

According to a Gallup poll, 21% of millennials have changed jobs within the last year, which is more than three times the number of job hoppers in other generations.10 Also, 60% of millennials are open or actively searching for other job opportunities.10

Some may point to this and say that millennials are quitters, or unable to keep a job when the reality is more likely that they are working to overcome the deficit that works against them.

Millennials and Their Careers reported that “Millennials report that being successful in a high-paying career or profession is either one of the most important things in their lives or very important.”11 Career is ahead of being a good parent and having a good marriage, which were identified as life goals by 52% and 30% in a different survey by Pew Research.12

Money Buys Security found that the reason they want to earn money, however, is to provide long-term financial security for their families.12 Millennials — particularly those who graduated from college during the economic crisis of 2008 — also learned early on in their careers that a solid education and strong work ethic doesn’t necessarily translate into a secure job.11 This creates the over-ambition of the millennial generation; they want to be economically safe and to create a cushion for their children before starting a family.

How Ambition Affects Treatment

Millennials have potential and were raised to expect that if you followed the rules and worked hard, you would be successful. The result of playing by the rules only to find the system was rigged led many within this generation to feel they have failed. Even if the circumstances were beyond their control, disillusionment and self-loathing could rapidly start a downward spiral.

Not only are their failed aspirations impacting their lives, but they aspire to do more and be greater than they are – especially when they feel they have let themselves or others down.11

A clinician that we interviewed as part of our 2020 Millennial Insights Research Report said that,

“There’s definitely a lot of low self-esteem that I see quite a bit. They just don’t feel good about themselves … I have, you know, clients that come in that just feel a remorse for how they’ve hurt their family.”

To Reach Millennials, Use Their Ambition 

To market to the millennial demographic, savvy addiction treatment centers will address the common issues that their generation faces. High stress levels, disillusionment, and, most importantly – their aspirations are the key influences that make them act.1 Marketers who are trying to reach this demographic should strongly consider identifying with millennial aspirations to increase admissions.

Treatment centers wanting to reach this demographic should identify and illustrate ways that an addiction treatment center can help to elevate their lives to a level that matches their aspirations. The centers should stress how recovery increases the millennial’s financial security and self-esteem. The centers should also show the millennial how sobriety stabilizes their future.

Millennial Motivation

In The War of Art, author Steven Pressfield states,

“At some point, the pain of not doing it becomes greater than the pain of doing it.”

Meaning motivation begins in discomfort with a current situation.

Question-Behavior Effect

A study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that the question-behavior effect is key to behavior change.1 This psychological maneuver involves asking a question that implies a negative future.

For example, if you think your child should start preparing for college by taking college placement exams, you might be tempted to say something like “It’s important to take the ACT.” But that statement isn’t going to cause change.

Researchers found changed behavior is more likely when you ask a question like, “Are you going to sign up to take the ACT?” Since discomfort motivates people to change, saying “No” would create slight discomfort, as they know they need to register for the test.

Highlight Unhealthy Choices

 The researchers involved in the study found that asking a question that reminded an individual of their unhealthy choices was most effective in motivating them to do something different.13

So, effective marketing to millennials will ask questions like:

Do you want to be financially secure? 

Do you want a better job?

Do you want to start a family?

Clinical Observations

During interviews with clinicians who worked with millennials during addiction treatment, we gathered these observations:

“With one of my clients, they are hoping for better communication, better relationships, healthy relationships.”

“There are some people that come in here that are just, they’re done and just want something different.”

“A lot of times when they’re actively using, they can’t hold employment. So, to re-establish employment, to obtain and maintain employment. A lot of them have these incredible goals to go back to school. So, we try to support them with that. So, essentially, they kind of fall off track before going to treatment. And so, their goal is to, like, get back on that track.”

Key Takeaway

Many millennials aren’t happy with their current lives. They also have big, ambitious goals they want to fulfill. Connecting your addiction center’s treatment program to their life goals will gain their attention and make them see you as a solution. By positioning your addiction treatment center as the answer to the millennials’ disillusionment and discontent with their lives, your practice will increase admissions and boost revenue.

Active Marketing: Proven Game Changers

Active Marketing has transformed addiction treatment businesses with our strategic horsepower. We have proven experience developing and executing marketing strategies that get your brand’s best messaging in front of the right people at the right time and place. Our impact on our clients’ bottom lines changes the way they do business. We’d love to talk to you more about your potential. Give us a call today: (877) 8145716