Boomers, Zoomers and Why We're All So Damn Tired All the Time

woman falling asleep at desk
Dasha Burobina/PureWow

We’re kinda obsessed with sleep. In our youth, we tried to outrun it, pushing bedtimes and pulling all-nighters just because. Later, we chased it, running on empty, to no avail. No translation is needed for dark circles after a night of tossing and turning, or the glow of a well-rested face. Sleep, like breath, is universal. It’s consumed the minds of civilizations long before us. Just look at the stories: Joseph interpreted dreams in the Book of Genesis; Hypnos the Greek god of sleep put Zeus to bed; Sleeping Beauty…slept; and even Goldilocks seemed to be a bit of insomniac seeking the perfect night’s rest.

Even though sleep is a constant, the way you might think of bedtime today is probably quite different from how your grandparents thought of it, or even the generation before or after you. In fact, it wasn’t until the last hundred years or so that the eight-hour sleep cycle became the norm. In Roger Ekirch’s At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, the scholar explores the history of nighttime in Western society. We used to be all about biphasic—or two-phase—sleep, where we’d rest for a couple hours at night, wake for a few, then sleep again, but by the 19th century, historic mentions of the practice phased out in the name of efficiency and progress. The Industrial Revolution made us acutely aware of how many productive hours we had in a day. Electricity also meant that we could extend the day well past darkness, creating the cadences of life we know today.

Hitting the Hay, from Boomers to Zoomers

So, do we sleep the same as our parents? What about our grandparents? Yes and no. Like anything else, our outlooks on sleep have been shaped by the historical and cultural context of our time, with each generation responding to the challenges and opportunities of our own era in unique ways. For instance, in the wake of the pandemic, as mental health became more and more a part of the cultural dialogue, it’s no wonder that zoomers are more likely than any other generation to think of sleep as “self-care” and “wellness.” For baby boomers, gen xers and even millennials, productivity has typically been the mindset—sleep can wait. And while no one is immune from the threat of a screen on their REM, zoomers are more likely to use technology to aid their sleep, such as meditation apps or blue-light blocking glasses, while also being more aware of the negative effects of social media on their sleep quality.

A Room of One's Own

Even if our grandparents didn’t have Matthew McConaughey to lull them to sleep via a subscription app on their smartphone, they did basically change where we sleep. Having your own bedroom or even your own bed is something that only really became prevalent in the U.S. in the mid-20th century. Before then, it was quite common for families to not only share sleeping quarters but beds. Maybe that four-grandparent arrangement in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory wasn’t that far off.

The Great Sleep Divorce

In the early 20th century, thanks to a healthy resurgence of Puritan modesty, it was common for married couples in America to sleep in separate beds. But contrary to Lucy and Ricky Ricardo’s sleep arrangements in I Love Lucy, by the 1940s and 1950s, married couples normally shared a bed. Ironically, however, as sleep hygiene and wellness are taking center stage, people’s individual needs for a good night’s sleep are leading them to “sleep divorces,” or abandoning the “sacred marriage bed” for a solo bed or room equipped with one’s own bedding, mattresses and more in the name of not compromising zzz’s.

The State of the (Sleepy) Union

We recently polled 225 people on their sleep habits and, interestingly, found that while the majority of people we surveyed reported being satisfied with their quality of sleep, many of those same people report feeling tired regularly during the day. Specifically, 78 percent of respondents reported being at least halfway satisfied with their quality of sleep (responding five and above on a scale of ten), but 59 percent of respondents reported being tired multiple times a week (including 21.8 percent who say they feel tired every single day). This begs the question: If we’re getting good sleep, why are we still so tired?

1 in 4 people wake up 2 to 4 times per night

What’s Keeping Us Tired?

First, let’s dig into some possible culprits. Twenty-nine percent of respondents told us they struggle to fall asleep multiple times a week, and 11 percent said they struggle to fall asleep daily. This could be due to drinking caffeine too close to bedtime, eating foods that can wreak havoc on sleep or just struggling to turn your brain off after a long day.

Even if you don’t have trouble falling asleep, there’s the issue of nighttime restlessness. Of the 225 people we surveyed, 53 percent said they typically wake up once or twice per night and 28 percent said they wake up two to four times per night. The good news is, of those who wake up at least once a night, a majority (65 percent) just lie in bed in the dark until they fall back asleep versus going on their phones to pass the time. (Studies—like this one from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute—have shown that the blue and white light emitted from screens prevent your brain from releasing melatonin, a hormone that readies your body for sleep.)

It could also be that we’re just burnt out. Between work, family, friends and everything in between, we live in a world that’s go, go, go, leaving little time for self-care (or sleep-care, in this situation). This non-stop, hustle culture way of life could negatively impact sleep in a few ways: First, it’s hard to fall asleep while simultaneously outlining the next day’s schedule. Once you do fall asleep, stress—an extremely common side effect of feeling like you have to be in constant forward motion—is closely linked to middle-of-the-night wake ups. Additionally, when we’re constantly bombarded with the aggressively capitalistic messaging that if we’re not working incessantly to get ahead, we might feel guilty for wanting to sleep a full eight hours.

And while the pursuit of better sleep might feel like an unwinnable game, it’s absolutely worth the effort. You already know that getting enough shut-eye is linked to improved memory and better skin, but it can also have a serious effect on your happiness levels. In fact, according to psychologist Norbert Schwarz, “Making $60,000 more in annual income has less of an effect on your daily happiness than getting one extra hour of sleep a night.” That’s a good enough excuse for us to get our acts together, sleep-wise.

most readers would rate their sleep a 6 out of 10

In Need of Wake-Up Call

So, where do we go from here? Luckily, there are solutions to many of these issues. First, for folks who have a hard time falling asleep in the first place, experts and our survey-takers alike are fans of melatonin. According to Andrew Varga, M.D., a neurologist and sleep medicine specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, a low dose of melatonin—a concentration of 0.5 to 1 milligram (talk to your doctor, of course)—can be taken three to four hours before the intended bedtime. This will help ease you into a peaceful sleep at a much more reasonable hour. Many are already on board with Dr. Varga’s suggestion: Fifty-seven percent of people we surveyed have taken melatonin (supplements, gummies, etc.) as a sleep aid.

Dr. Varga also recommends squeezing some exercise into your morning routine if you’re having trouble falling asleep at night. He tells us that working out in the morning can “promote wakefulness and possibly make it easier to fall asleep later on.” If that’s not doable, Dr. Varga says to make sure any exercise is completed at least three hours before the sleep onset time (i.e., the time you want to fall asleep), since exercise will energize you.

There are also general lifestyle changes you can try in your quest for restfulness. One promising avenue is the concept of slow living—an antidote to the aforementioned hustle culture. The basic concept is this: Rather than succumbing to societal pressure to take part in a fast-paced way of life, you slow down and focus on appreciating the little things in your day you might otherwise overlook. That could mean incorporating mindfulness into your routine, making more time for hobbies you genuinely love doing or getting out into nature and away from your phone. Basically, doing stuff that makes you feel good. Slow living enthusiasts say that the benefits are nearly endless, and include feeling happier, less stressed and more at peace—all of which sound pretty damn lovely to us.

The bottom line is this: We have the resources at our fingertips. But some of us are just too tired to use them.

sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...


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