A few weeks ago, Buzzfeed seemed to have its finger on the pulse when it published an article called “How Millennials became the Burnout Generation”, by Anne Helen Petersen. The article began to appear on my timelines, shared by a wide range of activists, students, and young professionals in my network. The theme of millennial burnout has caught on in a number of publications, and appears to be highly relatable to most of us who feel stuck in a loop of optimisation, over-optimisation, and the inevitable crash that follows.
What makes this unique to younger generations? My parents and grandparents describe stress in their early life, mainly to do with money, and a lack of opportunity in Ireland. They don’t reflect deeply on the struggle they may have had day-to-day to keep going. Then again, they don’t reflect on many mental health issues with the same fluidity and openness that our generation does. It’s important to recognise that older generations quite simply don’t have the terminology, and didn’t have the terminology, to articulate the varied forms of mental challenges people of any age face in their life. There is huge power in having the vocabulary to name, and perhaps then better understand, what you or others are experiencing.
“We know we are burning ourselves out, but are going to keep on doing it.”
“Burnout” is a new term for what has undoubtedly existed for generations. With that said, what is particular about millennial burnout is precisely that – it has a shareable, trending, hashtag quality that allow us to find it “relatable” and identify it in ourselves and others. What’s concerning is that we keep on sharing such anecdotes and making the word and concept real in the world, but this doesn’t appear to be leading to any great change. In other words, we know we are burning ourselves out, but are going to keep on doing it. In fact, it is part and parcel of what makes us feel like we are “doing life” and succeeding. This is because it is what we are told success looks like, and the only way to function in the graduate world of precarious employment and uncertain outcomes is to try as best you can to be the most high achieving, but also the most fun, the most marketable graduate you can be, to be the best at networking, the best team player, and the best leader.
Burnout shouldn’t be taken lightly. It isn’t simply stress or worry – it’s an overwhelming, incapacitating lack of mental and physical energy which can’t be gotten over in a few days. It lasts for weeks, and can’t be cured with rest, therapy, or face masks. Self-care is only a useful term if you think about what it actually involves – not fixing or work – but an actual effort to keep ongoing tabs on your health, rather than just paper over deep fissures.
Burnout has happened to me on two occasions in my college career. The first time I burned out, I felt I could no longer “do life”. Too much upkeep was required that I had no energy to give. I was 19 years old, and I am not the only person with plenty of privilege and opportunities who has felt and feels that way. The second time I burned out I knew I was going to and I kept going, feeling as though I was hurtling towards an inevitable corollary of getting good grades, doing life well. It is something we are used to seeing other people do, and can warn them half-heartedly about, but not really offer any solutions. If you want to be successful, then that’s what it must look like.
“Academic learning can lose its joy when its value in and of itself is lost in the rat race to “succeed.”
Burnout isn’t necessarily a result of achieving or completing tasks or study. It is mostly the opposite; burnout results in “errand paralysis”, an inability to complete tasks like buying groceries, returning parcels, or replying to emails. The Messenger app icon and its interface provoke a visceral anxious response in many students. The email notification sparks dread. Most students are accustomed to not receiving replies or giving replies, even to social inquiries, for a few days due to the sheer mental effort of it, despite assertions that we are more connected than ever.
Burnout is a result of the structural – read neoliberal – pressures we are under; living in a time where we will have much more debt and less security than previous generations. This combines with more existential, personal fears we have about not being the best we can be, not being “efficient” or sustainable enough, and needing to Marie Kondo our personal spaces. Even when performing self-care we feel the need to be “efficient”. Joy becomes kind of a null concept. Much of the meme content I have seen shared around the Marie Kondo trend has revolved around how nothing really sparks joy for a depressed millennial.
“All young people want is to be told that they are ‘doing life’ the best, perfectly, and righteously. And that is impossible.”
In college, trying to do well at your course, be on society committees, climb the greasy pole throughout your years, as well as work part-time, becomes a more than a full-time job. It is a full working week of hours that extend long into the night, and it is entrapping. What is hard for people, I think, is that there is no longer the sense of a concrete reward for all this labour. A job you like, security in that job, and a house to live in long-term seem a bit of a dream of old. You can’t really be exceptional and be rewarded exceptionally when everyone is trying to be, it has become a baseline standard for what we expect of ourselves and others. The stress that many students have articulated experiencing under TEP, and in general in college, including experiencing burnout after last term, is evidence of the ways in which academic learning can lose its joy when its value in and of itself is lost in the rat race to “succeed” in a system which requires consistent “optimal” performance.
It isn’t fair to say that younger generations aren’t capable of spontaneity or of “letting go” of set paths in their minds. Most people I speak to know there is no set path they can rely on, no clear cut vision of success they can cling on to. They are prepared to try lots of different jobs that aren’t what they want and jump from country to country. They largely have to. All they want is to be told that they are “doing life” the best, perfectly, and righteously. And that is impossible.
To tackle the phenomenon it is best to be conscious of the ways in which the system we are working within relies upon our over maximisation for little reward. It is not enough to be mindful of your own health and the health of others but to reflect on who benefits from you burning out, and it isn’t you. Ultimately it isn’t young people’s fault that they are encouraged to think of themselves as resources from an early age. If we can stop naturalising the experience for ourselves and see our own individual struggles as part of a larger problem there is actual potential for change.