Burnout and the behaviors and weight that accompany it aren’t, in fact, something we can cure by going on vacation. It’s not limited to workers in acutely high-stress environments. And it’s not a temporary affliction: It’s the millennial condition. It’s our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives.
Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done? Because I’m burned out. Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it — explicitly and implicitly — since I was young. Life has always been hard, but many millennials are unequipped to deal with the particular ways in which it’s become hard for us.
We’ve got venture capital, but we’ve also got the 2008 financial crisis, the decline of the middle class and the rise of the 1%, and the steady decay of unions and stable, full-time employment.
That model began to shift in 1980s, particularly at public universities forced to compensate for state budget cuts. Teaching assistant labor was far cheaper than paying for a tenured professor, so the universities didn’t just keep PhD programs, but expanded them, even with dwindling funds to adequately pay those students. Still, thousands of PhD students clung to the idea of a tenure-track professorship. And the tighter the academic market became, the harder we worked. We didn’t try to break the system, since that’s not how we’d been raised. We tried to win it.
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.
My new watchword was “Everything that’s good is bad, everything that’s bad is good”: Things that should’ve felt good (leisure, not working) felt bad because I felt guilty for not working; things that should’ve felt “bad” (working all the time) felt good because I was doing what I thought I should and needed to be doing in order to succeed.
One thing that makes that realization sting even more is watching others live their seemingly cool, passionate, worthwhile lives online.
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.
Posting on social media, after all, is a means of narrativizing our own lives: What we’re telling ourselves our lives are like.
The “purest” example is the social media influencer, whose entire income source is performing and mediating the self online.
“Branding” is a fitting word for this work, as it underlines what the millennial self becomes: a product.
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.
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.
Millennial burnout often works differently among women, and particularly straight women with families.
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 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.
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.
But dumb, illogical decisions are a symptom of burnout.
Living in poverty is akin to losing 13 IQ points. Millions of millennial Americans live in poverty
To be poor is to have very little mental bandwidth to make decisions
Burnout isn’t a place to visit and come back from; it’s our permanent residence.
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.