Lost in Transition

As baby boomers begin to retire, an infusion of new workers is vital. However, abuse of illicit drugs and alcohol is a concern.

In October 2007, Kathleen Casey-Kirschling, the nation's first baby boomer, filed for Social Security retirements benefits. Born one second after midnight on Jan. 1, 1946, she became eligible for benefits in January 2008.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2016, there will be more than 164.2 million civilians working or looking for work. Approximately 27 million of them will be near or at retirement age (55 to 64), while 10 million more will be at full retirement age (65 and older). Suffice it to say, there will be many personnel vacancies to fill. Yet, as employers look to the next generation to fill these vacancies, an emerging trend in that population is seen as having a large effect on the workforce. It will force many employers to look beyond the familiar five pillars of a drug-free workplace testing environment and seek new ways to extend the reach and effectiveness of their alcohol and illicit drug use prevention programs.

The Impact of 'Emerging Adulthood'
In 2000, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Ph.D., a research professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., coined the term "Emerging Adulthood" in an article for American Psychologist. He argues that, during the past 50 years, people have started to be married later in life (at a median age of 27), have their first child later, and stay in school longer. Many reasons are cited for this change, the most frequent being that social and economical changes have necessitated further education to acquire the skills necessary in today's highly skilled job market. "It takes a lot longer to develop the skills that are valued in the workplace," Arnett says. "The manufacturing jobs have largely disappeared and are being replaced by information and technology jobs that take education and training."

Women's expanded role in the workforce is also cited as a factor. Whatever the reasons, the resulting delay in starting a family--the impetus into adult responsibilities, Arnett says--has created a new phase of life composed of 18-to-25-year-olds who report feeling "in between," which is to say they are past adolescence but don't quite feel like adults. As a group, these individuals are still exploring their identity as adults. This makes them very self-focused and extremely optimistic about their future when they finally enter what they consider full adulthood.

"When people were getting married at 20, 21, or 22, they settled into the smug responsibilities of adult life," Arnett says. "Their focus was on raising a family, their marriage, and starting to build an adult life. Well, now that's not true; the twenties is very much a leisure-oriented period. They work very hard, don't get me wrong, but they're not really responsible to anyone. They're not really responsible to their parents, and they haven't started a new family."

How does this affect their employers? As Arnett explains, this lack of responsibility means "their leisure is really their own, and one of the things they choose to do with that leisure is drink alcohol, and for some of them, a fairly small minority, use substances. It's a minority of them, but it's higher than at any other age group."

According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA's) 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 13.1 million (75.3 percent) of the 17.4 million current illicit drug users age 18 or older in 2007 were employed either full- or part-time. And among emerging adults, drug and alcohol use is especially prevalent, showing alarming spikes.

For example, binge drinking (defined as five or more drinks on the same occasion on at least one day in the past 30 days) jumped in the report from 9.7 percent for youths age 12-17 to 41.8 percent for emerging adults. Heavy drinking (five or more drinks on the same occasion on each of five or more days in the past 30 days) jumped from 2.3 for youths age 12-17 to 14.7 percent for emerging adults. When compared to alcohol abuse, illicit drug use was minimal, as Arnett suggested, but it, too, showed a spike: Among youths ages 12-17, 9.7 percent were illicit drug users versus 19.7 percent of emerging adults.

In order to comprehend the reasons for these increases, it's important to understand the makeup of the emerging adult. Peter Mott, MA, associate director, Workplace and Wellness Resources, for The Council on Alcohol and Drugs Houston, says because emerging adults are actively seeking to form an adult identity and are so self-focused, they seek out ways to fit in when they enter the workforce environment. "Some of their peers may be using, and this is a new life for them, so they're trying to fit in, trying to be accepted," he says.

This age group's optimism is another important factor in their decision to participate in drug and alcohol use. Although the high level of optimism among emerging adults works as a great tool for helping them through this early and often difficult phase of getting their start in the workforce--usually in jobs that don't pay well--it also works as a "Catch 22" blinding them from any thought of the negative consequences associated with alcohol and drug use and making it easier for them to decide to participate, Arnett says.

"I think you can connect that to substance abuse," he says. "They don't think anything bad is going to happen as a consequence because they see the future as filled with good things." Although members of this group feel sure of their bright future, they still lack concrete goals, which can frustrate employers. "I think they are trying to build a career, but they're doing it in a rather unsystematic way. Their goals are often rather vague," he says. "They're not sure exactly what they want to do, especially in their early twenties, and most of them are not really planning it in any systematic way. They're just sort of hoping something good will happen."

This plays into another characteristic of emerging adults: instability. This age group is marked by frequent address and job changes, which can cause employers to question whether it's worth the effort to help a workforce group with a high turnover rate.

Breaking Through: Three Elements to Use
How can employers address emerging adult substance abuse issues while also improving the chances of employee retention? Many who have researched emerging adulthood recommend different approaches on how best to tackle this question. All of them focus in one way or another on addressing the emerging adult characteristics identified by Arnett.

One of those individuals is Dr. Joel B. Bennett, president of Fort Worth, Texas-based Organizational Wellness and Learning Systems (OWLS), a science-based consulting and training service whose stated purpose is to help businesses understand, improve, and maintain the positive feedback system between worker health and total organizational health. In order to have success informing emerging adults about the effects of illicit drug and alcohol use, his organization breaks down its message into three essential elements:

The first element is to target the message to emerging adults. "What we have found in our research is that the young emerging adult is somebody who really is only interested in one topic that you need to address to get his or her attention: themself," says Bennett, who is co-editor of the book "Preventing Workplace Substance Abuse: Beyond Drug Testing to Wellness."

"You have to take the time to make the message relevant to them," says Bennett, explaining that if you want to get across a message about substance abuse risk, your message can't be about that. Instead, you must focus your discussion to make it about who they are, their growth potential, and other items that are relevant to them. Within this message, you can then embed messages about health risk in general--and within those messages, you further embed messages about alcohol and illicit drug use.

The second element to consider, Bennett says, is resilience. "They're not necessarily interested in wellness and health as much as they are interested in resilience: the ability to bounce back, the ability to weather the trials and tribulations of transitioning from teenage years to adulthood, the ability to handle the uncertainty of feeling in between," he says. Bennett adds that, to reach them, the message must frame things in terms of giving them the tools, or life skills, necessary to help them become resilient.

This ties in with the third element, which is to make the workplace a relevant learning ground. "You need to tell them, let them know, or somehow lead them to understand that the workplace is a great place for them to learn these life skills," Bennett says. When this entire message is understood and the tools are received, he says, emerging adult employees are better able to transition into their adult identities, which in turn will help lead them past substance abuse risks.

As an example, Bennett says one of the tools his company supplies to clients includes role-playing or interactive games tailored toward teaching teamwork, team building, stress management, and work/life balance. "What we're trying to do here is say, 'Give them the skills to teach each other,' " he says. "You don't want the expert model. You want them as young adults to look to each other for their own internal mentoring."

You're Not Hiring Workers, You're Hiring Ambassadors

Delivering this message right the first time not only helps to steer emerging adult employees away from drugs and alcohol, but also helps to promote greater loyalty to the employer. As a result, the employee who is retained in a short time can become the catalyst to train future hires. These mentor figures can make the message even more effective within a company, Bennett explains, because they are slightly more mature individuals who've learned the resilience lessons, learned to be a little less self focused, and really understand how great the job site can be for learning.

"That person becomes the one that they all like, that they all look up to," he says. "Sometimes it's not about training the whole group; it's just about getting an internal coach or an internal ambassador who is somebody that makes it work. It's all about relationships at that age."

Survey Spotlights Binge Drinking, Prescription Abuse
SAMHSA's 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health interviewed approximately 67,500 people in the civilian, non-institutionalized population of the United States, ages 12 or older, on their use of illicit drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. Here are a few highlights of the findings:

  • In 2007, an estimated 19.9 million Americans aged 12 or older were past-month illicit drug users, representing 8.0 percent of that population.
  • Marijuana was the most commonly used illicit drug (14.4 million past-month users).
  • The rate of past-year use decreased for Ecstasy (from 3.8 to 3.5 percent) and decreased for inhalants (1.8 to 1.6 percent).
  • Slightly more than half of Americans aged 12 or older reported being current drinkers of alcohol in the 2007 survey (51.1 percent), translating to an estimated 126.8 million people.
  • The specific illicit drugs that had the highest levels of past year dependence or abuse in 2007 were marijuana (3.9 million), followed by pain relievers (1.7 million), and cocaine (1.6 million).
  • In 2007, an estimated 70.9 million Americans aged 12 or older were past-month users of a tobacco product, representing 28.6 percent of that population.

This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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