Earlier this year, before any of us could have imagined living in lockdown, I found myself taking my seat at the BACP/Welldoing.org’s Working with Millennials CPD day, full of hope and expectation. At age 33, I still consider myself a ‘newbie’ counsellor, having completed my integrative counselling diploma in 2019 and having been in private practice for less than a year. I gave up my role as head of student support at a higher education college to pursue counselling, which seemed like a good fit for this time in my life. It combined my skills and professional experience in pastoral care with my need for work that was flexible enough to fit around a young family (I had my second child halfway through my counselling training). In many ways, it was the ‘second career’ come early.
I was one of the earliest to arrive at the CPD day and was thirsty – thirsty to learn and thirsty to connect. My decision to attend was driven by two factors. First, my client caseload in south London is almost exclusively Millennial – those born between 1981 and 1996, making them aged between 23 and 39. I hoped to gain tools and insight to support my work with my caseload. Second, I was keen to meet other therapists of my own age. I had assumed that this conference would attract younger therapists and would provide the chance to network with peers at a similar life stage. So, it took me by surprise to find that, as the conference hall filled up, the vast majority of the therapists in the room seemed to be at least 20 years older than me. Throughout the day, I counted possibly three others who would fall into the Millennial age bracket. I was conscious of my age difference throughout the day, which led me to reflect on my age and age in general within the profession.
A middle-aged profession?
The data suggest that the typical counsellor is middle-aged or older. According to the 2019 BACP members’ survey, less than 20% of the BACP membership are aged under 45, around 30% are aged 45 to 54, 33.5% are 55 to 64 and nearly 15% are aged over 65. Yet more and more younger people are coming to therapy. There has been a well-documented rise in mental health problems such as anxiety and depression in children, teenagers and young adults. The increasingly anticipated quarter-life crisis1 is just one reason why seeing a therapist is more common in Millennial clients than in any previous generation. They are even sometimes called ‘Generation Therapy’ in the media.
Compared with research on other demographic variables, such as ethnicity and gender, the psychotherapy literature on the influence of client-therapist age-match is fairly underdeveloped. However, some evidence suggests that many young people prefer to see a therapist who is close to their own age and can identify with their life experience. One study found that younger clients experienced extra-positive relationship growth when working with a therapist close to their own age – a phenomenon labelled the ‘youth effect’ by the study authors.2 Children and teenagers also respond well to younger counsellors,3 suggesting that expanding the age profile of counsellors from what the current statistics reflect is in the best interest of our clients.
Research from the Pew Research Centre shows that Millennials have a far more negative view of their own generation than do Generation Xers, Baby Boomers and other age groups, with more than half agreeing that their generation is self-absorbed, wasteful and greedy.4 I wondered whether, as a generation, we have subconsciously identified with the disparaging ‘snowflake’ image of us portrayed in the media? Is this why Millennials tend to look out rather than up to find answers to the questions and problems of life they engage with? It is very possible that some younger clients hesitate to engage with an older therapist, out of fear that their assumed ‘Millennial weaknesses’ will be exposed or further reinforced.
It is a theme that has come through in those clients who have specifically sought a younger therapist and chose me because of my age. A client who arranged to meet with me because I ‘looked younger’ in my online directory profile told me in his initial consultation that he felt I might identify more with his life stage and would be less likely to judge him than an older therapist, perhaps reflecting his own family’s perspectives on his life choices.
Charlotte Braithwaite, a 30-year-old psychotherapist working in private practice, has also seen this fear of judgment in younger clients. ‘Millennials are very aware that they are Millennials, and that the quarter-life crisis carries a certain amount of shame that might prevent them from wishing to engage with a therapist older than them – certainly someone who represents the mother or father figure,’ she says. ‘I have understood that some clients feel they would prefer to meet with a younger therapist, where some of their presenting problems that involve “not having life figured out” mean they might not be taken as seriously by someone older than them. There is a feeling that, because I am a similar age, the client-therapist power imbalance is less prominent.’
Us and them?
I found myself in an interesting dilemma at the Working with Millennials day, identifying as both ‘us’ and ‘them’: a counsellor and a Millennial. It was uncomfortable at times hearing my generation spoken about as ‘flouncy’ and ‘self-absorbed’ as though we had shifted away from the ‘right normal’. In hindsight, I wonder whether even the title of the conference, Working with Millennials, was an issue, as it inferred the very idea of being a Millennial as the presenting problem in the therapy room. Millennials are often seen as the ‘entitled generation who want to change the world… with an overinflated sense of their ability and a lack of emotional intelligence’.5
I felt uncomfortable throughout the day, my awareness of my sense of difference reinforcing my internalised idea that I was not entitled to be there. Of course, I know this to be untrue, and I reminded myself of Mark Twain’s words: ‘Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.’ But there is still a general feeling, shared by those who I interviewed for this piece, that perceived competence is based on age grouping.
Arguably, it adds an extra barrier to those who also face a barrier in terms of race. Charlene Douglas, a counsellor specialising in sex and relationships, quickly found career success after qualifying as a counsellor, landing herself a therapist-in-resident post on E4’s Sex Clinic. Her motivation to specialise in this area was partly driven by the lack of a visible black, Asian and minority ethnic presence. As well as challenging the racial stereotype in the field, she says she is aware of ‘needing to work harder in order to prove myself to older counterparts, in order to justify my place’.
When I was training, the class was very culturally diverse, which, in hindsight, probably distracted me from noticing the lack of age diversity. I was the youngest in my cohort but my age didn’t seem significant – tutors and fellow trainees alike were very supportive. This feeling was echoed by those I interviewed for this article. But age does seem to be an issue for younger trainees on placements. Gemma Saggers, who started a counselling placement at age 26, says that she felt ‘dismissed as being young. While my colleagues did warm to me gradually, I was aware that these prejudices created defences in me.’
Rosie Freeman, a counsellor working in private practice, even regards her younger age to have been a ‘curse’ in her training. She says that, despite an undergraduate degree in psychology and seven years of working in psychological services, on starting her counselling placement aged 28, she received ‘various comments’ from colleagues and clients about her age. ‘The inference was that I wouldn’t know [how to work with the client] as I was young and assumptions were made about my experience,’ she says.
This is a feeling that I also identify with. In an introductory phone call with my first-ever client, they commented quickly and cautiously, ‘You sound very young, can I ask how old you are?’ Taken aback, I mumbled something about being in my 30s, not sharing that I had only turned 30 a few weeks beforehand. This is an uncomfortable starting point, where perceived or known assumptions can create the feeling of needing to work harder to prove personal ability. It makes me wonder how many younger therapy students drop out before qualifying or qualify and never practise. As Liz Edge, a trainee counsellor aged 29, says: ‘I frequently find myself needing to justify my position in my training programme.’
The age advantage
For some clients, it does seem as though age is an important factor in choosing a therapist and could be a barrier before the work even begins. But once that barrier is overcome, younger therapists are reporting that the age gap either becomes irrelevant or proves to be an asset. Mike Wilkins entered the profession 10 years ago at age 27 and reflects on his work with a client who was 20 years older: ‘I was conscious of our age difference in the therapeutic space. But for her, having had a very difficult relationship history, meeting with a male therapist who was considerably younger than her was reparative, as our work together modelled the possibility of a healthy relationship, where I would show up, engage and listen.’
Jamie Dawson, aged 28 and currently studying counselling psychology at City University, comments that ‘one of the main drivers for me entering this profession was that I heard time and again that many young men don’t want to talk to “Aunty Anne-type figures” about their sexual proclivities, or drug and alcohol (mis)use and general existential angst’. With older clients, ‘I believe I will work with an even greater level of curiosity because of my lack of identification with their life experience. For me, there can also be a strength in difference.’
Barriers to entry
Misconceptions and prejudice aside, there are practical barriers to younger people training as therapists. It is well known that counselling training is expensive. As well as course fees, there is the cost of personal counselling and often supervision to cover. And, as there are limited opportunities to study counselling at BA level, most counselling students can’t apply for a student loan. Accessing postgraduate funding for master’s-level study can also be hard.
The lack of university training or a clear path of progression means counselling isn’t a popular career choice for school leavers and undergraduates. This is in stark contrast to psychology, perhaps the most closely related profession to counselling. According to British Psychological Society research, more than 95% of undergraduate psychology students are under the age of 40, and more than 80% go on to work or study further in a psychology-related field.6
Once qualified, there are limited opportunities for paid employment as a counsellor. More and more counselling services are staffed by volunteers or trainees on placements. According to a 2014 BACP members employment research report, 72% of BACP members said it was difficult to find employment – a situation that will no doubt be made worse by the impending post-pandemic economic downturn that has been widely predicted. This survey also found that 25% of practising BACP members worked unpaid in their main role, and 52% earned less than £10,000 a year. They were also more likely to be earning their living by other means or doing several jobs to make ends meet. For 48% of these members, counselling was not their main source of income: 41% had another occupation, and 48% held two or more roles.
While the Millennial generation has embraced portfolio working, they are also at a life stage when mortgage and childcare costs can be at their highest, and a waged job with holiday and sick pay offers more security. Counselling psychologists, by contrast, can go into an NHS entry-level job with a salary of between £26,302 and £36,225 on qualifying, and then have a clear career progression.
There is an assumption that age is a measure of life experience and that older people will have more experience of life, be better informed and so be more suited to therapeutic work. But the irony is that, as a profession, we do not explicitly share the wisdom of our experience with our clients; most modalities train us not to give advice or self-disclose. We are, however, encouraged to listen to our clients’ stories with a ‘beginner’s mind’, and to guard against assuming that, even if we have had a similar experience to a client, we know how it felt for them. Most practitioners, especially those trained in humanistic approaches, actively discourage the client from seeing them as an expert. Only the client can be the ‘expert’ in what they are experiencing. If it is our role to facilitate the client’s thinking processes to enable them to make their own sense of an experience or emotion, then surely effectiveness as a therapist depends on skill or personal presence, rather than age?
I am writing this with an acute awareness of my audience, some of whom may have been counsellors for longer than I have been alive. But my hope is that raising the issue of age diversity in counselling and psychotherapy will stimulate thought and provoke discussion in a way that doesn’t arrogantly dismiss the rich wisdom and experience of colleagues but looks productively to the future of the profession.
I believe our profession needs more younger counsellors, both to reflect the diversity of clients who require therapeutic work and to safeguard our future. If, in the future, the increasing numbers of younger people seeking therapeutic support can’t find a counsellor that they can relate to, will they simply turn to the thousands of counselling psychologists who qualify in their early 20s? If we don’t make it easier for younger people to enter and stay in our profession, we risk becoming obsolete.
Changing the demographic of our profession is like turning a moving container ship – it’s not going to happen fast, but when there’s a persistent force towards steering another course, movement eventually has to happen. My feeling is that the first step is coming together and creating a louder voice. To that end, I would like to start a networking, support and strategy group for therapists under 40. I urge you to get in touch if you would like to join or share your views.
Members and subscribers can listen to a panel discussion about age diversity in counselling on the Therapy Today podcast
Next in this issue
For an exploration of age at the other end of the spectrum, see this month’s Turning point column
1. Hill A. The quarterlife crisis: young, insecure and depressed. [Online.] The Guardian 2011; 4 May. www.theguardian.com/society/2011/may/05/quarterlife-crisis-young-insecure-depressed (accessed 2 June 2020).
2. Young E. Does it matter whether your therapist is similar to you? [Online.] BPS Research Digest 2018; 18 April. https://digest.bps.org.uk/2018/04/18/does-it-matter-whether-your-therapist-is-similar-to-you (accessed 2 June 2020).
3. Cormack J. Counselling marginalised young people: a qualitative analysis of homeless young people’s views of counselling. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research 2009; 9(2): 71-77.
4. American Trends Panel Wave 10. Most Millennials resist the ‘Millennial’ label. Washington: Pew Research Center; 2015.
5. Lutrell R, McGrath K. The millennial mindset: unravelling fact from fiction. London: Rowman and Littlefield Publishing, 2015.
6. British Psychological Society. BPS careers destinations (phase 3) survey: 2016 report. Leicester: BPS; 2016. www.bps.org.uk/sites/www.bps.org.uk/files/News/News%20-%20Files/Careers%20destination%20survey.pdf (accessed 7th May 2020).