Generational burnout

February 18th, 2019

A recent BuzzFeed article by Anne Helen Petersen named millennials the “burnout generation” and went viral for weeks, circulating particularly among millennials themselves — people born between 1981 and 1996. The article argues that millennials tend to have similar experiences of anxiety, depression and restlessness, along with a shared frustration over the small tasks of daily life (tasks millennials often call “adulting”). Given the number of times the 20-minute read was shared, it appears many people agree.

The article identifies the root of the problem among millennials as a feeling that they should always be working. In this context, rest comes to feel like “stolen time,” and everyday tasks that aren’t career-oriented become overwhelming. For millennials, this feeling emerges from a mixture of factors. Many millennials were raised with a career and success-driven ethos and graduated into a post-recession economy where good jobs at good wages remain scarce. New technology has amplified these issues, allowing people to work at all hours and giving them access to highlight reels of others’ lives via social media. In some cases, their careers even require a social media presence in order to advance.

These factors work together to create a self-narrative that the good life is a matter of “self-optimization.” To succeed, all of life must be lived in an efficient if not altogether pleasant manner. Petersen argues that when millennials fail to achieve this impossible standard, they’re unlikely to adjust their expectations. Instead, they simply try to work harder and more efficiently.

What is burnout?

Josh Cohen, a psychoanalyst who specializes in burnout, describes the phenomenon this way: “You feel burnout when you’ve exhausted all your internal resources, yet cannot free yourself of the nervous compulsion to go on regardless.” Burnout is different from exhaustion. It’s an anxious and depressive feeling that life has been reduced to an enormous to-do list that never gets any shorter and cannot be put on pause. Hypothetical solutions such as taking a vacation, meditating or spending time with family and friends begin to feel like more items on the never-ending list.

Cohen and Petersen believe the root of burnout is thinking of oneself as little more than a machine —  becoming so focused on the all-encompassing goal of producing results for an employer, or perhaps producing oneself on social media, that every moment of the day seems like a possible opportunity to get ahead. True rest becomes difficult, especially when the possibility of financial hardship constantly looms.

Petersen points out this mindset can be found in people with all sorts of different careers. Teachers take on a “side hustle” (second job) to make ends meet, academics compete for scarce jobs, and highly paid professionals get caught up in a culture of overwork. A January New York Times article titled “Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?” describes an entire culture barreling toward burnout. “Hustle culture” is the fanatical devotion to work and gleeful embrace of 100-hour weeks that are now expected among technology workers and entrepreneurial types: “ambition not as a means to an end, but as a lifestyle.”

Of course, millennials aren’t the first generation to glorify work and achievement to the detriment of other important aspects of life. From the Protestant work ethic of the Puritans to the career ladders of the 20th century, idolizing work is an American tradition. Similarly, people of all ages are affected by the current technological pressures, scarcity of well-paying jobs and expectation that the obvious solution to career disillusionment is to work harder. The question we must ask isn’t “Who’s burning out?” but rather “How can we help them?”

Christians and burnout

The call to rest has always been central to our relationship with God. According to an article on the website of Paul Brians, a professor at Washington State University, Christians and Jews living under Roman rule were considered lazy by outside groups because they rested on the Sabbath. This day of rest didn’t just set them apart ritualistically; it was a weekly reminder that human value doesn’t lie in productivity. Instead, our worth is defined by our creation in the image of God. In the Creation story, God works, but ultimately God rests. The point of God’s work is simply to enjoy being in relationship with creation. Likewise, humanity fulfills our highest purpose when we’re in relationship and at rest.

Perhaps the reason God insists throughout the Bible that God’s people observe the Sabbath is precisely because this truth is so easy to forget. We get caught up in achieving, producing and profiting until we find ourselves unable to relax, enjoy and give thanks. Even when our work is good, fulfilling or enjoyable, failing to take a break leads us to see both ourselves and others as tools for production rather than as inherently valuable.

In response to burnout, individuals may make small changes, like beginning a meditation practice, or big ones, like seeking help with mental health or changing careers. However, the problem of burnout and the resulting objectification of people, our time, and our labor remain a culture-wide problem, not an individual one. Christian communities have the opportunity to tell a different story and to remind both the workplace and the marketplace about what humans were created to be.

As a community, we can remind one another that we gather to worship God together, not to produce programming or committee minutes. We can invite one another to rest and to be open about our restlessness. Together, we can recognize the contributions of people, like the young and the elderly, who may not do traditional “work” but nevertheless minister to others with their presence.

Just as individuals may need to make changes to prioritize rest and recover from burnout, it’s worth examining our habits as a community and asking where we need to make changes. What steps can we take to allow ourselves opportunities to rest, enjoy life more, and flourish in relationship with God and with one another?


Economic stress

Many individuals can make a personal choice to resist a culture of greed, excessive ambition, and overwork. However, some are overworked because they can’t afford to live without juggling multiple jobs. This has always been the case for the working poor and has been exacerbated by a federal minimum wage that has remained the same since 2009. Another cause that cuts across generations is the general stagnation of wages over the last 30 years. Many millennials who were raised in solidly middle-class homes now find themselves struggling to attain the socioeconomic status of their parents.

Professions such as teaching that could support a family in previous generations no longer pay enough to cover the cost of living, especially in cities where rents are skyrocketing. Many of these professions also require higher education, pointing to a second struggle millennials face: high student debt. Since 1988, the average cost of a four-year degree has tripled for public universities and more than doubled for private ones. At most schools, it’s now impossible to cover tuition by working after school and over summers. Many students take on debt under student loan forgiveness programs that promise relief after a certain number of years in a public service profession. However, as the first wave of students to take advantage of these programs begin to apply for loan forgiveness, the vast majority are being denied. 

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