Opinion From the Window Seat Targeting millennial woe, an opportunity emerges By Arnie Weissmann / December 18, 2017 Share 1 -- Three years ago, Patrick Marsden read a white paper by two Cornell psychologists who concluded that spending money on experiences provides more lasting pleasure than purchasing material goods.A bit later, he came across an article that detailed research by a team of undercover neuroscientists who embedded themselves in a group of 35 travelers in the Moroccan desert. They observed the impact of smartphone technology and what happens when it's withdrawn.Meanwhile, he was gathering data on millennials' alarmingly high rates of depression and anxiety.In the midst of consuming all this research, he had an epiphany in which he believes he identified a significant "responsibility and opportunity" for the travel industry.Marsden is director of travel for MaCher, a designer and manufacturer of, among other things, customized logo products for travel suppliers. He has now made it his mission to share his insights with the travel industry at large.Marsden -- at age 33, a millennial himself -- was acutely aware of his peers' high levels of depression and anxiety. "I'm English, and we don't talk about anything personal, ever, but we're all talking about mental health with each other," he said. "There's a huge appetite for anything that will alleviate the sense of affliction this puts on a person."His research into the millennial state of mind provided substantial data backing his anecdotal observations. His is a generation in crisis, 25% more likely to experience depression than baby boomers. One in four millennials had been diagnosed with a mental illness that required treatment in the previous 12 months. About 36% had been so depressed at some point in the previous year that they were unable to function.Marsden rattles off, rapid fire, the reasons why: "educational pressure, achievement pressure, poor economy, student loan debt, outrageous housing market and the realization that we may never achieve the same quality of life as our parents."He discovered only one constant across all millennial demographics: the impact of digital connectivity. "Cell phones may be the cigarettes of our generation," he said. "We spend more time on screens than we do sleeping. We spend an average of two hours a day on social media. Half of us are addicted to our phones, checking them 150 to 250 times a day. Our concentration spans have been ruined. For 80% of us, the first thing we do in the morning is check our phones. And collectively, these behaviors are five times more likely to make us depressed."The undercover neuroscientists in Morocco he read about were in the employ of a company called Kovert Design. They had observed a group of invited travelers who were first connected to their devices in a hotel setting, then taken into a desert without them. The group dynamic changed dramatically once they were disconnected from the internet. Posture improved. There was more eye contact. People engaged in conversations at much greater rates.Google searches, it turns out, are a conversation killer, because having all the facts stifles debates that provide the types of personal interactions that form bonds between people.After four days, some of the participants characterized the experience as life-changing; they had made decisions that they believed would dramatically impact their lives for the better.Marsden said he believes that millennial depression and anxiety, left unaddressed, will lead to a mental health crisis that will affect the workplace, interpersonal relationships and, ultimately, the economy.Seeing the potential impact of the negative millennial behavioral trends, he has launched what he hopes will be a movement within the industry called "Switch Off Take Off."MaCher CEO Derek Hydon is a strong supporter of Marsden's efforts, and the company has set up the URL SwitchOffTakeOff.com. MaCher is incubating the project with the hope of recruiting a "thought leadership group" to "educate the travel industry about the profound benefits of travel on the mental health of our guests."The website's sparse copy asserts: "Constant digital connectivity is contributing to the biggest mental health crisis of our generation. Travel has the power to change that."The site also features a video of Marsden explaining his findings at the recent USTOA annual conference.Marsden hopes that, first, the industry embraces an understanding that its products are good for mental health, and then establishes guidelines that can help companies package and market experiences that are beneficial to society.While Marsden believes there is already solid research showing the dangers of connectivity and the benefits of travel, he said further research is needed to gauge the market's appetite for digital detox products and how they should be priced. Additionally, he pointed out, it has not yet been determined how long one must disconnect from phones to see a lasting benefit.As to which consumers will be early adopters, his instinct is, "It's going to start with the wealthy. Initially, disconnecting is going to be a luxury of the rich."But once there is greater supply of these experiences and the general population realizes both how insidious connectivity can be and how beneficial a retreat from it is, the trend "will spread out like ... kale and yoga," he said with a laugh.For the moment, his job description includes recruiting interested parties for what he sees as an easy sell: a pleasurable alternative to a devastating problem.