HOW MILLENNIALS BECAME THE BURNOUT GENERATION.
One thing that makes that realization sting even more is watching others live their seemingly cool, passionate, worthwhile lives online. We all know what we see on Facebook or Instagram isn't "real," but that doesn't mean we don't judge ourselves against it. I find that millennials are far less jealous of objects or belongings on social media than the holistic experiences represented there, the sort of thing that prompts people to comment, I want your life. That enviable mix of leisure and travel, the accumulation of pets and children, the landscapes inhabited and the food consumed seems not just desirable, but balanced, satisfied, and unafflicted by burnout.
And though work itself is rarely pictured, it's always there. Periodically, it's photographed as a space that's fun or zany, and always rewarding or gratifying. But most of the time, it's the thing you're getting away from: You worked hard enough to enjoy life.
The social media feed--and Instagram in particular--is thus evidence of the fruits of hard, rewarding labor and the labor itself. The photos and videos that induce the most jealousy are those that suggest a perfect equilibrium (work hard, play hard!) has been reached. But of course, for most of us, it hasn't. Posting on social media, after all, is a means of narrativizing our own lives: What we're telling ourselves our lives are like. And when we don't feel the satisfaction that we've been told we should receive from a good job that's "fulfilling," balanced with a personal life that's equally so, the best way to convince yourself you're feeling it is to illustrate it for others.
For many millennials, a social media presence--on LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter--has also become an integral part of obtaining and maintaining a job. The "purest" example is the social media influencer, whose entire income source is performing and mediating the self online. But social media is also the means through which many "knowledge workers"--that is, workers who handle, process, or make meaning of information--market and brand themselves. Journalists use Twitter to learn about other stories, but they also use it to develop a personal brand and following that can be leveraged; people use LinkedIn not just for resumes and networking, but to post articles that attest to their personality (their brand!) as a manager or entrepreneur. Millennials aren't the only ones who do this, but we're the ones who perfected and thus set the standards for those who do.
"Branding" is a fitting word for this work, as it underlines what the millennial self becomes: a product. And as in childhood, the work of optimizing that brand blurs whatever boundaries remained between work and play. There is no "off the clock" when at all hours you could be documenting your on-brand experiences or tweeting your on-brand observations. The rise of smartphones makes these behaviors frictionless and thus more pervasive, more standardized. In the early days of Facebook, you had to take pictures with your digital camera, upload them to your computer, and post them in albums. Now, your phone is a sophisticated camera, always ready to document every component of your life--in easily manipulated photos, in short video bursts, in constant updates to Instagram Stories--and to facilitate the labor of performing the self for public consumption.
But the phone is also, and just as essentially, a tether to the "real" workplace. Email and Slack make it so that employees are always accessible, always able to labor, even after they've left the physical workplace and the traditional 9-to-5 boundaries of paid labor. Attempts to discourage working "off the clock" misfire, as millennials read them not as permission to stop working, but a means to further distinguish themselves by being available anyway.
"We are encouraged to strategize and scheme to find places, times, and roles where we can be effectively put to work," Harris, the Kids These Days author, writes. "Efficiency is our existential purpose, and we are a generation of finely honed tools, crafted from embryos to be lean, mean production machines."
But as sociologist Arne L. Kalleberg points out, that efficiency was supposed to give us more job security, more pay, perhaps even more leisure. In short, better jobs.
Yet the more work we do, the more efficient we've proven ourselves to be, the worse our jobs become: lower pay, worse benefits, less job security. Our efficiency hasn't bucked wage stagnation; our steadfastness hasn't made us more valuable. If anything, our commitment to work, no matter how exploitative, has simply encouraged and facilitated our exploitation. We put up with companies treating us poorly because we don't see another option. We don't quit. We internalize that we're not striving hard enough. And we get a second gig.
All of this optimization--as children, in college, online--culminates in the dominant millennial condition, regardless of class or race or location: burnout. "Burnout" was first recognized as a psychological diagnosis in 1974, applied by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger to cases of "physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress." Burnout is of a substantively different category than "exhaustion," although it's related. Exhaustion means going to the point where you can't go any further; burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years.
What's worse, the feeling of accomplishment that follows an exhausting task--passing the final! Finishing the massive work project!--never comes. "The exhaustion experienced in burnout combines an intense yearning for this state of completion with the tormenting sense that it cannot be attained, that there is always some demand or anxiety or distraction which can't be silenced," Josh Cohen, a psychoanalyst specializing in burnout, writes. "You feel burnout when you've exhausted all your internal resources, yet cannot free yourself of the nervous compulsion to go on regardless."
In his writing about burnout, Cohen is careful to note that it has antecedents; "melancholic world-weariness," as he puts it, is noted in the book of Ecclesiastes, diagnosed by Hippocrates, and endemic to the Renaissance, a symptom of bewilderment with the feeling of "relentless change." In the late 1800s, "neurasthenia," or nervous exhaustion, afflicted patients run down by the "pace and strain of modern industrial life." Burnout differs in its intensity and its prevalence: It isn't an affliction experienced by relatively few that evidences the darker qualities of change but, increasingly, and particularly among millennials, the contemporary condition.
People patching together a retail job with unpredictable scheduling while driving Uber and arranging child care have burnout. Startup workers with fancy catered lunches, free laundry service, and 70-minute commutes have burnout. Academics teaching four adjunct classes and surviving on food stamps while trying to publish research in one last attempt at snagging a tenure-track job have burnout. Freelance graphic artists operating on their own schedule without health care or paid time off have burnout.
One of the ways to think through the mechanics of millennial burnout is by looking closely at the various objects and industries our generation has supposedly "killed."We've "killed" diamonds because we're getting married later (or not at all), and if or when we do, it's rare for one partner to have the financial stability to set aside the traditional two months' salary for a diamond engagement ring. We're killing antiques, opting instead for "fast furniture"--not because we hate our grandparents' old items, but because we're chasing stable employment across the country, and lugging old furniture and fragile china costs money that we don't have. We've exchanged sit-down casual dining (Applebee's, TGI Fridays) for fast casual (Chipotle et al.) because if we're gonna pay for something, it should either be an experience worth waiting in line for (Cronuts! World-famous BBQ! Momofuku!) or efficient as hell.
Even the trends millennials have popularized--like athleisure--speak to our self-optimization. Yoga pants might look sloppy to your mom, but they're efficient: You can transition seamlessly from an exercise class to a Skype meeting to child pickup. We use Fresh Direct and Amazon because the time they save allows us to do more work.
This is why the fundamental criticism of millennials--that we're lazy and entitled--is so frustrating: We hustle so hard that we've figured out how to avoid wasting time eating meals and are called entitled for asking for fair compensation and benefits like working remotely (so we can live in affordable cities), adequate health care, or 401(k)s (so we can theoretically stop working at some point before the day we die). We're called whiny for talking frankly about just how much we do work, or how exhausted we are by it. But because overworking for less money isn't always visible--because job hunting now means trawling LinkedIn, because "overtime" now means replying to emails in bed--the extent of our labor is often ignored, or degraded.
The thing about American labor, after all, is that we're trained to erase it. Anxiety is medicated; burnout is treated with therapy that's slowly become normalized and yet still softly stigmatized. (Time in therapy, after all, is time you could be working.) No one would've told my grandmother that churning butter and doing the wash by hand wasn't work. But planning a week of healthy meals for a family of four, figuring out the grocery list, finding time to get to the grocery store, and then preparing and cleaning up after those meals, while holding down a full-time job? That's just motherhood, not labor.
Millennial burnout often works differently among women, and par ticularly straight women with families. Part of this has to do with what's known as "the second shift"--the idea that women who've moved into the workplace do the labor of a job and then come home and perform the labor of a homemaker. (A recent study found that mothers in the workplace spend just as much time taking care of their children as stay-at-home mothers did in 1975.) One might think that when women work, the domestic labor decreases, or splits between both partners. But sociologist Judy Wajcman found that in heterosexual couples, that simply wasn't the case: Less domestic labor takes place overall, but that labor still largely falls on the woman.
The labor that causes burnout isn't just putting away the dishes or folding the laundry--tasks that can be readily distributed among the rest of the family. It's more to do with what French cartoonist Emma calls "the mental load," or the scenario in which one person in a family--often a woman--takes on a role akin to "household management project leader." The manager doesn't just complete chores; they keep the entire household's schedule in their minds. They remember to get toilet paper because it'll run out in four days. They're ultimately responsible for the health of the family, the upkeep of the home and their own bodies, maintaining a sex life, cultivating an emotional bond with their children, overseeing aging parents' care, making sure bills are paid and neighbors are greeted and someone's home for a service call and holiday cards get in the mail and vacations are planned six months in advance and airline miles aren't expiring and the dog's getting exercised.
Women have told me that reading Emma's cartoon, which has gone viral many times over, brought them to tears: They'd never seen the particular work that they do described, let alone acknowledged. And for millennials, that domestic work is now supposed to check a never-ending number of aspirational boxes: Outings should be "experiences," food should be healthy and homemade and fun, bodies should be sculpted, wrinkles should be minimized, clothes should be cute and fashionable, sleep should be regulated, relationships should be healthy, the news should be read and processed, kids should be given personal attention and thriving. Millennial parenting is, as a recent New York Times article put it, relentless.
The media that surrounds us--both social and mainstream, from Marie Kondo's new Netflix show to the lifestyle influencer economy--tells us that our personal spaces should be optimized just as much as one's self and career. The end result isn't just fatigue, but enveloping burnout that follows us to home and back. The most common prescription is "self-care." Give yourself a face mask! Go to yoga! Use your meditation app! But much of self-care isn't care at all: It's an $11 billion industry whose end goal isn't to alleviate the burnout cycle, but to provide further means of self-optimization. At least in its contemporary, commodified iteration, self-care isn't a solution; it's exhausting.
"The modern Millennial, for the most part, views adulthood as a series of actions, as opposed to a state of being," an article in Elite Daily explains. "Adulting therefore becomes a verb." "To adult" is to complete your to-do list--but everything goes on the list, and the list never ends. "I'm really struggling to find the Christmas magic this year," one woman in a Facebook group focused on self-care recently wrote. "I have two little kids (2 and 6 months) and, while we had fun reading Christmas books, singing songs, walking around the neighborhood to look at lights, I mostly feel like it's just one to-do list superimposed over my already overwhelming to-do list. I feel so burned out. Commiseration or advice?"
That's one of the most ineffable and frustrating expressions of burnout: It takes things that should be enjoyable and flattens them into a list of tasks, intermingled with other obligations that should either be easily or dutifully completed. The end result is that everything, from wedding celebrations to registering to vote, becomes tinged with resentment and anxiety and avoidance. Maybe my inability to get the knives sharpened is less about being lazy and more about being too good, for too long, at being a millennial.
There are a few ways to look at this original problem of errand paralysis. Many of the tasks millennials find paralyzing are ones that are impossible to optimize for efficiency, either because they remain stubbornly analog (the post office) or because companies have optimized themselves, and their labor, so as to make the experience as arduous as possible for the user (anything to do with insurance, or bills, or filing a complaint). Sometimes, the inefficiencies are part of the point: The harder it is to submit a request for a reimbursement, the less likely you are to do it. The same goes for returns.
Other tasks become difficult because of too many options, and what's come to be known as "decision fatigue." I've moved around so much because of my career path, and always loathed the process of finding family practitioners and dentists and dermatologists. Finding a doctor--and not just any doctor, but one who will take your insurance, who is accepting new patients--might seem like an easy task in the age of Zocdoc, but the array of options can be paralyzing without the recommendations of friends and family, which are in short supply when you move to a brand-new town.
Other tasks are, well, boring. I've done them too many times. The payoff from completing them is too small. Boredom with the monotony of labor is usually associated with physical and/or assembly line jobs, but it's widespread among "knowledge workers." As Caroline Beaton, who has written extensively about millennials and labor, points out, the rise of the "knowledge sector" has simply "changed the medium of monotony from heavy machinery to digital technology. . We habituate to the modern workforce's high intensity but predictable tasks. Because the stimuli don't change, we cease to be stimulated. The consequence is two-fold. First, like a kind of Chinese water torture, each identical thing becomes increasingly painful. In defense, we become decreasingly engaged."
My refusal to respond to a kind Facebook DM is thus symptomatic of the sheer number of calls for my attention online: calls to read an article, calls to promote my own work, calls to engage wittily or defend myself from trolls or like a relative's picture of their baby.
To be clear, none of these explanations are, to my mind, exonerating. They don't seem like great or rational reasons to avoid doing things I know, in the abstract, I want or need to do. But dumb, illogical decisions are a symptom of burnout. We engage in self-destructive behaviors or take refuge in avoidance as a way to get off the treadmill of our to-do list. Which helps explain one of the complaints about millennials' work habits: They show up late, they miss shifts, they ghost on jobs. Some people who behave this way may, indeed, just not know how to put their heads down and work. But far more likely is that they're bad at work because ofjust how much work they do--especially when it's performed against a backdrop of financial precariousness.
In recent years, new scientific research has demonstrated the "massive cognitive load" on those who are financially insecure. Living in poverty is akin to losing 13 IQ points. Millions of millennial Americans live in poverty; millions of others straddle the line, getting by but barely so, often working contingent jobs, with nothing left over for the sort of security blanket that could lighten that cognitive load. To be poor is to have very little mental bandwidth to make decisions, "good" or otherwise--as a parent, as a worker, as a partner, as a citizen. The steadier our lives, the more likely we are to make decisions that will make them even steadier.
But steadiness isn't a word we use to describe contemporary American life. And depending on your religion, immigration status, ethnicity, and sexual identity, chances are that the election of Donald Trump has only made one's future, and safety, and employability, less stable. Health care and coverage of preexisting conditions is seemingly always in question and/or in peril, as are women's reproductive rights. War with North Korea looms. We've never recognized social media and smartphones as more toxic and more necessary. Our primary concern with the incredibly volatile stock market is how its temperament affects our day-to-day employment. The planet is dying. Democracy is under serious threat. American adults report being 39% more anxious than a year ago, and what is anxiety if not the condition of trying to live under these conditions?
Pundits spend a lot of time saying "This is not normal," but the only way for us to survive, day to day, is to normalize the events, the threats, the barrage of information, the costs, the expectations of us. Burnout isn't a place to visit and come back from; it's our permanent residence.
In his writing about burnout, the psychoanalyst Cohen describes a client who came to him with extreme burnout: He was the quintessential millennial child, optimized for perfect performance, which paid off when he got his job as a high-powered finance banker. He'd done everything right, and was continuing to do everything right in his job. One morning, he woke up, turned off his alarm, rolled over, and refused to go to work. He never went to work again. He was "intrigued to find the termination of his employment didn't bother him."
In the movie version of this story, this man moves to an island to rediscover the good life, or figures out he loves woodworking and opens a shop. But that's the sort of fantasy solution that makes millennial burnout so pervasive. You don't fix burnout by going on vacation. You don't fix it through "life hacks," like inbox zero, or by using a meditation app for five minutes in the morning, or doing Sunday meal prep for the entire family, or starting a bullet journal. You don't fix it by reading a book on how to "unfu*k yourself." You don't fix it with vacation, or an adult coloring book, or "anxiety baking," or the Pomodoro Technique, or overnight fucking oats.
The problem with holistic, all-consuming burnout is that there's no solution to it. You can't optimize it to make it end faster. You can't see it coming like a cold and start taking the burnout-prevention version of Airborne. The best way to treat it is to first acknowledge it for what it is--not a passing ailment, but a chronic disease--and to understand its roots and its parameters. That's why people I talked to felt such relief reading the "mental load" cartoon, and why reading Harris's book felt so cathartic for me: They don't excuse why we behave and feel the way we do. They just describe those feelings and behaviors--and the larger systems of capitalism and patriarchy that contribute to them--accurately.
To describe millennial burnout accurately is to acknowledge the multiplicity of our lived reality--that we're not just high school graduates, or parents, or knowledge workers, but all of the above--while recognizing our status quo. We're deeply in debt, working more hours and more jobs for less pay and less security, struggling to achieve the same standards of living as our parents, operating in psychological and physical precariousness, all while being told that if we just work harder, meritocracy will prevail, and we'll begin thriving. The carrot dangling in front of us is the dream that the to-do list will end, or at least become far more manageable.
But individual action isn't enough. Personal choices alone won't keep the planet from dying, or get Facebook to quit violating our privacy. To do that, you need paradigm-shifting change. Which helps explain why so many millennials increasingly identify with democratic socialism and are embracing unions: We are beginning to understand what ails us, and it's not something an oxygen facial or a treadmill desk can fix.
Until or in lieu of a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system, how can we hope to lessen or prevent--instead of just temporarily staunch--burnout? Change might come from legislation, or collective action, or continued feminist advocacy, but it's folly to imagine it will come from companies themselves. Our capacity to burn out and keep working is our greatest value.
While writing this piece, I was orchestrating a move, planning travel, picking up prescriptions, walking my dog, trying to exercise, making dinner, attempting to participate in work conversations on Slack, posting photos to social media, and reading the news. I was waking up at 6 a.m. to write, packing boxes over lunch, moving piles of wood at dinner, falling into bed at 9. I was on the treadmill of the to-do list: one damn thing after another. But as I finish this piece, I feel something I haven't felt in a long time: catharsis. I feel great. I feel something--which is not something I've really felt upon the completion of a task in some time.
There are still things to tackle after this. But for the first time, I'm seeing myself, the parameters of my labor, and the causes of my burnout clearly. And it doesn't feel like the abyss. It doesn't feel hopeless. It's not a problem I can solve, but it's a reality I can acknowledge, a paradigm through which I can understand my actions.
In his writing on homelessness, social psychologist Devon Price has said that "laziness," at least in the way most of us generally conceive of it, simply does not exist. "If a person's behavior doesn't make sense to you," they write, "it is because you are missing a part of their context. It's that simple." My behavior didn't make sense to me because I was missing part of my context: burnout. I was too ashamed to admit I was experiencing it. I fancied myself too strong to succumb to it. I had narrowed my definition of burnout to exclude my own behaviors and symptoms. But I was wrong.
I think I have some of the answers to the specific questions that made me start writing this essay. Yours are probably somewhat or substantially different. I don't have a plan of action, other than to be more honest with myself about what I am and am not doing and why, and to try to disentangle myself from the idea that everything good is bad and everything bad is good. This isn't a task to complete or a line on a to-do list, or even a New Year's resolution. It's a way of thinking about life, and what joy and meaning we can derive not just from optimizing it, but living it. Which is another way of saying: It's life's actual work.
Anne Helen Petersen writes for BuzzFeed and other publications.