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The Burnout Generation

News & Features | February 11, 2019

What does it mean to be exceptional? For many millennials born roughly between 1981 and 1996, as well as the generation that follows them, being exceptional is not just an aspiration. It’s a way of surviving under the increasingly volatile political and economic conditions that define our reality today. In Buzzfeed News’ “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” senior culture writer Anne Petersen writes, “I never thought the system was equitable. I knew it was winnable for only a small few. I just believed I could continue to optimize myself to become one of them.”

Now, as internship application fever sweeps the Tufts campus, a similar culture of anxiety descends upon us. To be anxious about employment is not necessarily unfounded, considering many of us have grown up under unprecedented capitalist acceleration and a definitive takedown of the public safety net. However, as the standards for reaching the traditional markers of adulthood grow increasingly higher, the behavior we associate with “adulthood” becomes more performative. Rather than being stigmatized as a sign of weakness, our anxiety has become something we acknowledge publicly to prove how hard we work.

Additionally, in the age of social media, millennials have become hyper-aware of their own status relative to others, which further fosters a culture in which they must be constantly affirming their existences online. According to a 2017 study by British psychologists Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill, millennials display higher rates of perfectionism than previous generations. Social media influencers, especially, have expertly refined and monetized this performance.

While millennials are not the only ones who use social media to cultivate and sell a brand, their work ultimately emphasizes the fact that the millennial self has become a product. There is no “clocking out” of social media documentation. Everything from emails to Slack messages, Instagram stories to Facebook live, and countless other means of online interaction facilitate what Petersen calls “the labor of performing the self for public consumption.”  

While many lament social media as the source of this anxiety and perfectionism, it is important to recognize the unique political and economic climate that provides the context for our shifting cultural values. In their study, Curran and Hill argue that the neoliberalism of the 80s and 90s prioritized competitive individualism over national collectivism. An entire generation of people internalized the message that self-optimization is the only way to succeed, no matter the cost. This also leads to convoluted narratives surrounding wealth acquisition, as popular culture uplifts the narratives of “self-made” billionaires like Kylie Jenner.

Tufts Professor of Mathematics and wealth inequality expert Bruce Boghosian explained this belief. “[It] buys into the standard free-market mythology that financial success is due entirely to individual hard work and strong character. The corollary to this myth, of course, is that lack of financial success is due to a lack of hard work, or weak character,” he said.

“These ideas have become so ingrained in our national psyche that, in today’s US, wealth is regarded as a virtue, and poverty is regarded as a vice,” Boghosian continued. “The trouble with these notions is that they are nothing more than an economic ideology that empowers a certain class, and so they are jealously guarded even when they are demonstrably wrong.”

Boghosian also pointed out that the dramatic increase in wealth inequality in the US over the past few decades has led to the creation of upward immobility, or the idea that the average time it will take a millenial to climb the ladder of financial success is not only far greater than that of their parents, but is also slowly becoming longer than a human lifetime, rendering upward mobility effectively impossible.

The cost of this mindset is woefully underrepresented in national discussions of labor, mental health, and inequality. The common prescription of “self-care” is, in reality, just another means of self-optimization sold to us by an $11 billion self-care industry where self-optimization is presented in the form of an expensive skin care regime or a lengthy juice cleanse under the guise of leisure and wellness. While other means of combating burnout, such as medication and therapy, are more normalized today than in the past, they are still quietly stigmatized, particularly by older generations who are inclined to dismiss seeking professional help as a sign of weakness.

Furthermore, recent research on the cognitive burden of financial insecurity in the United States points out that for the millions of millennials living in poverty and millions more on the verge, poverty hugely impacts one’s ability to make decisions ranging from what to eat for dinner to which insurance plan to choose, and making the wrong decision often inadvertently furthers the cycle of poverty. With these stressors in mind, those living in poverty have very little mental bandwidth left over to engage in “self-care culture,” regardless of whether or not it could actually alleviate one’s cognitive burden.

That’s not to say that there are no strategies for combating burnout. Oftentimes, relief can come from simply listening to your body. Junior Han Lee says that when faced with burnout, she tries to “devote at least an hour of my day entirely to myself, especially if I feel like I might not make it to the weekend. This means setting aside my phone and my computer and taking a walk or reading something non-academic, as long as it gives me the space I need to clear my head.”

In today’s world, the act of stepping back and logging off can be incredibly difficult, but also incredibly necessary for maintaining one’s mental health. Particularly on a college campus, Lee explained, “there’s an expectation of joining all the extracurriculars you never got a chance to participate in high school, on top of voicing activist movements you’re passionate about, in addition to the five rigorous courses you’re taking.” We often forget that our bodies are not machines, and we trade taking care of our own mental health for submitting those two extra applications, signing up for one more club e-list, or even just agreeing to one more social obligation that we realistically cannot fit into our schedules.

Ultimately, as Petersen explains in her Buzzfeed News article, “The problem with holistic, all-consuming burnout is that there’s no solution to it… The best way to treat it is to first acknowledge it for what it is… and to understand its roots and its parameters.” Furthermore, Petersen argues that no individual action can truly combat burnout. Instead, she calls for paradigm-shifting change in the way we think about work and success. While a face mask and ten minutes of meditation in the morning will not fix large-scale socioeconomic changes, taking an actual break from the demands of school, work, or social media is a small but significant  act that contributes to the breakdown of our “always-on” mindset.

It is important to point out that Petersen’s personal experience of burnout as a White, upper-middle class, college-educated woman is not universal, and the burnout phenomenon is further amplified for those who do not share her privileges. For those facing different structural disadvantages and discrimination based on ethnicity, sexuality, and religion, burnout often means feeling like you have to work three lifetimes just to get to the start of the race.

Millennials who are not from a culture where duty to one’s parents or grandparents is very strong may not feel the particular kind of burnout that accompanies taking on the role of caretaker for one’s family members. Millennials who fit Eurocentric beauty standards will not experience the type of burnout that comes from cultivating a “socially acceptable” appearance for many workplaces. As Jia Tolentino writes in The New Yorker, “Hiding poverty and difference, performing Whiteness and middle-class-ness, and simply not talking about class or race is seemingly a requirement of American culture, a baseline behavior that acts as a condition of survival, let alone advancement.”  

Which takes us back to Tufts and the feeling of trepidation that naturally accompanies the question “What are you doing this summer?” for many college students. In a world where work is increasingly unstable, our political system is in flux, and basic expenses like health care continue to grow more expensive every year, it is understandable that the quest for secure summer employment weighs heavily on the minds of Tufts students. However, it is also important to consider the ways in which we are complicit in the commodification of ourselves, our work, and each other.

As Sophie Gilbert writes in The Atlantic, “Millennials have had to become less inhibited about the pursuit of self-gain… amplified by social media, such perfectionism urges the posting of absurdly idealized images, which, transmitted, reinforce the cycle of unrealistic ideals and a sense of alienation.” Instead of perpetuating this cycle through our Instagram feeds and LinkedIn profiles, let us instead ask ourselves why we feel the urge to market an idealized version of our lives for consumption, and instead start frankly discussing the root cause of the millennial burnout ideology.