Graphic by Michelle Thompson. 

How Startups Are Selling Anxious Millennials on the Promise of Sleep

Startup brands are trying to convince a generation of tired, anxious, financially unstable young people that they can buy a good night's sleep.

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Jan 31 2019, 4:33pm

Graphic by Michelle Thompson. 

As we brace for 2019 and stack up our resolutions, Broadly is focusing on finding motivation for the hard tasks that await us—like getting out of bed. So, throughout January, we're rolling out Getting Out of Bed, a series of stories about all things related to rest and resilience. Read more here .

On Saturday, the New York Times published a story about what tech writer Erin Griffith calls “hustle culture,” a late-capitalist environment where employees work 80-hour weeks, fuse their identities with their jobs, and pretend they love it. “It is obsessed with striving, relentlessly positive, devoid of humor, and—once you notice it—impossible to escape,” Griffith explains. Under these conditions, one works for the sake of working: Jobs are no longer simply a “means to an end, but [...] a lifestyle.” Recently, Griffith noted, someone had neatly etched a related axiom into cucumbers suspended in a water jug at a WeWork location: “Don’t stop when you’re tired,” the cucumbers reminded members of the co-working space. “Stop when you’re done.”

But running alongside hustle culture and its pressures to be tireless is another cultural mandate, one that appears to be perfectly contradictory: Rest. We are living in the “golden age of mattresses,” New York Magazine announced in 2017, referring to online mattress retailers like Casper, Leesa, and Lull; two years later, we’re also living in the age of sleep trackers, meditation apps, weighted blankets, and storefronts selling $25 naps. At the same time hustle culture is telling us to speed up, a ubiquitous culture of self-care is telling us to slow down. Clear your head. Close your eyes. Get a good night’s sleep.

To some, these directives aren’t mutually exclusive. Instead, they’re symbiotic, both fueling a society of hyper-efficient workers.

“Part of the ethic of successful behavior that’s being promoted is this kind of harsh corporate world where sleeping is for losers,” Jonathan Crary, the author of 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, told Broadly earlier this month.

“But then the marketing of sleep technologies is the flip side of that: Buy our products and you’ll get a better, more restful sleep, and that will help you handle the challenges of the workplace and speed your rise to the top,” he continued. “Those things are in place simultaneously. It’s a double bind.”

In his 2013 book, Crary calls sleep “an uncompromising interruption of the theft of time from us by capitalism,” the last site of resistance in a 24/7 world that attempts to siphon value from every part of our day. The years since the book’s publication have presented a challenge to Crary’s thesis: In 2014, a group of four men including now-CEO Philip Krim launched Casper, the company best known for “disrupting” the mattress industry with a retail strategy that involves shipping a tightly folded mattress to customers’ doorsteps. When Casper made about $1.8 million in sales in just over a year, other startup brands wanted in on the business model: Now, there’s the Layla, Saatva, Keetsa, Helix, Bear, Avocado, and Nolah, in addition to potentially as many as a few hundred other mattress-in-a-box brands that make up a $15 billion industry.

The first of these brands came on the scene when the tail end of the millennial generation was graduating from college, moving into apartments, and entering the workforce. Casper and its ilk appear to target this group of young people directly, plastering New York City subways—as well as social media platforms—with quirky ads in soothing pastels recalling millennial pink and promising the kind of convenience that made traditional mattress stores seem cumbersome and outdated.

Millennials may be particularly primed for this marketing to work on them.

Casper promises to provide “the perfect mattress for everyone,” the key, it argues, to achieving “better sleep for all." As the company continues to expand its offerings, selling nap pillows, sheets, dog beds, and, as of Tuesday, night lights, its executives are talking about evolving into a "lifestyle brand," an endeavor that requires its followers to believe "that whatever question you have about sleep, Casper will have an answer," Casper co-founder Luke Sherwin told Fast Company in 2017. (Casper did not return Broadly’s requests for comment about the company's mission and marketing strategies.)

Mark Wynohradnyk, the senior brand manager at Gravity, a weighted blanket retailer, says millennials make up the company's "core base," since they're the generation most actively seeking solutions to the stresses and anxieties posed by "the 2008 recession, mounting levels of college debt, and older generations blaming us for everything." Gravity promises to help relieve those anxieties and get you to rest. "After a long stressful day at work you can throw it on and get that deep, restorative sleep," Wynohradnyk said.

It seems that companies like Casper and Gravity Blankets, as well as their competitors, haven't just succeeded at selling millennials on the ease of shipping sleep products straight to your door; they have also sold customers on a much larger idea: you can buy a good night’s sleep.

Millennials may be particularly primed for this marketing to work on them.

The experience of being a member of this generation has been shaped by economic precarity and financial insecurity, with millennials earning roughly 20 percent less than Baby Boomers did at the same stage of life, and buckling under an average of $42,000 in student debt. In March, the American Psychiatric Association found that millennials are the most anxious generation, a phenomenon APA President Anita Everett attributed to young people’s increasing worries over “health, safety, and finances.”

“Millennials entered the workforce during an economic downshift, and I don’t think people appreciate enough how hard it’s been on them,” Sara Nowakowski, a clinical psychologist who specializes in sleep research, told Broadly. “Anxiety is much higher for them, and anxiety and stress aren’t friends with sleep.”

Though there aren’t many studies that single out millennial sleep habits, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found in 2016 that one in three adults aren’t getting enough sleep, a slight downturn from previous decades, when adults were more likely to get the recommended seven hours each night.

While millennials may be the generation of exhaustion, they’ve also become known as the generation to fuel the rise of self-care...

Alex Dimitriu, a psychiatrist and sleep medicine expert, said that in addition to stress and anxiety, the growing obsolescence of the 9-to-5 workday has had a deleterious effect on his patients’ sleep patterns. The workday hews closer to 8 to 5 (or 9 to 6) for many employees now, and a larger share of Americans are working from home—not to mention that email and team messaging apps like Slack have made it easier than ever to never stop working.

“I call it home office syndrome: You’re never relaxing and you’re always worried you should be doing something else,” Dimitriu explained. “If boundaries are blurred between work and play, why would people think there would be a clear boundary between sleep and not sleep?”

While millennials may be the generation of exhaustion, they’ve also become known as the generation to fuel the rise of self-care, a “trendy, Instagrammable solution” that’s risen from “the ashes of … increasing mental health burdens,” as Shayla Love, a writer for VICE's Tonic website, wrote in December. Yet, as Love points out, the basic idea of taking care of yourself, which feminist scholar Audre Lorde theorized as a radical "act of political warfare," turned into something monetizable, and soon became equated with purchasing things—face masks, manicures, massages, and anything that promised the potential of making us feel better, if only fleetingly. It’s paying off for businesses: In August, MarketWatch reported that the average American spends 22 percent of their monthly disposable income on self-care; Americans under 25 spend 33 percent. Sixty-two percent of the survey’s participants also disclosed that they would actually like to “treat themselves” even more than they currently do, presenting a ripe opportunity to companies to continue expanding the market.

It’s against this thrumming backdrop of self-care that products promising healthier sleeping habits have found a foothold.

Though Tom Meyvis, a professor of marketing at New York University, said he wouldn’t necessarily lump sleep-related products in with self-care, the growing consumer interest in them tracks with a broader trend of Americans being more willing to spend on items to improve their everyday lives. Whereas Americans were once prone to putting disposable income toward “exceptional” or “extravagant” purchases—like special vacations or luxury cars, for example—now, they’re more likely to spend on what Meyvis terms “everyday luxuries,” like a $5 latte on your way to work or a fancy kitchen appliance you’ll use on a regular basis.

“Sleep is nothing exceptional —we all do it and do it all the time—but anything that improves sleep can definitely have a massive impact on our lives,” Meyvis said in an email. “In the past, this may have been a harder sell (as it's such a boring, mundane, non-special category), but the current focus on improving/luxurizing everyday life probably makes people more receptive to this.”

Neither Demetriu nor Nowakowski, the two sleep doctors Broadly spoke to, had particularly strong feelings about the sleep products available right now—mattresses, blankets, apps. Demetriu said that for some of his patients he recommends the meditation apps as well as audio books, because they’re a good compromise for his patients who find themselves glued to their phones at the end of the day. But only some of his patients use them, and mostly he’s relying on a mix of psychiatry and sleep science to treat their sleep troubles.

Nowakowski said she sees the sleep products and technologies as a more or less harmless option for her patients, though she does caution them that their effectiveness isn’t guaranteed by science and research. She also had some misgivings about the price point of some of these items—weighted blankets generally range in price from about $100 to $200, while Casper mattresses start around $350 and can go up in price to more than $2,200. And even apps like Headspace, which uses guided meditation to help its users "focus more and sleep better," can cost about $12.99 a month. If you're saddled with debt, living paycheck to paycheck, and spending almost half of your income on rent, costs like these may not be feasible.

“But not everyone has the money to be replacing their mattress."

“The mattress, the weighted blanket, those things can be helpful,” Nowakowski said, adding that she often first recommends that her patients address any “environmental” factors that could be affecting their sleep habits. “But not everyone has the money to be replacing their mattress.

“Some people don’t even have time to worry about their sleep, or to come see me and get this advice,” she continued. "In a certain sense," Nowakowski said, thinking about your sleep habits as well as paying money to fix them "might be a luxury."

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Still, even those who can afford to “buy” sleep may find that it has been transformed into something else—not a break from the everyday, but an extension of it, where production and productivity are never-ending. Aren’t we, in the end, sleeping to improve ourselves in our waking lives?

“Sleep was once thought of as a withdrawal into the realm of psychic experience—something private, involving dream, reverie,” Crary said. “Now we position our sleeping completely in relationship to the world of work.”

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