Why Millennials Are "The Burnout Generation"


Elle Huerta

Are millennials the burnout generation?

If you ask Anne Peterson, the journalist behind one of the most viral stores published last year, the answer is yes.

In her piece on burnout, Anne described the phenomena that initially led her to self-inquiry around her own behavior: “I couldn’t figure out why small, straightforward tasks on my to-do list felt so impossible. The answer is both more complex and far simpler than I expected.”

She cuts through the common blanket explanation that millennials are lazy and entitled and instead digs into the many underlying reasons why millennials are the way they are. And what she discovered about her own “errand paralysis” ended up resonating with 7 million readers around the world.

It's More Complex Than You May Realize

She begins with a look into the parenting style millennials grew up with, the way millennials have since been conditioned to optimize their lives, and the large financial stresses that mark this generation.

Many millennials began their careers around the 2008 financial crisis and have been unable to catch up to previous generations in terms of building wealth. They have struggled to save, pay off student debt and build equity.

In Anne’s words: “The “greatest generation” had the Depression and the GI Bill; boomers had the golden age of capitalism; Gen-X had deregulation and trickle-down economics. And millennials? 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.”

The Pressure Of Social Media

Then, of course, there’s the pressure of “being on” and curating your life on Instagram in both professional and personal spheres:

“ “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.”

Is Burnout A Side-Effect Of Capitalism?

Petersen also explores how burnout differs for women, how the media has influenced millennials, and why millennials are beginning to see the cracks in the capitalist dream. While there’s no rosy answer tied up in a bow at the end, “in lieu of a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system,” she recognizes that simply acknowledging burnout is the first step forward.

To hear more from Anne on burnout, listen to her interview on the Ezra Klein Show, “Work as identity, burnout as lifestyle."

Also, good news for those who are burned out: her piece was so resonant that she followed it up with a book titled “Can’t Even: How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation.” You can order now on Amazon.

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