Some notes on Millennial burnout. This started as a Twitter thread because I needed a frictionless place to write my initial ideas, and apparently I was hoping they would get some attention. (They didn’t, really, and that’s fine now that I’ve slept on it.)
Anne Helen’s excellent piece on Millennial burnout sketches out a framework for us to think about why (white, middle class) Millennials are burned out. She admits that a framework is not a solution, and in her newsletter that acts as a sort of commentary track she talks about both why she didn’t use academic jargon (BLESS HER) and also didn’t offer a solution (which I’m sure is disappointing/frustrating for some people). Tiana Clark offers a valuable critique about the limits of this sort of generational thinking and its failure to capture the experiences of people of color. Helen published additional perspectives on what Millennial burnout looks like for different people: black women, first-generation immigrants, queer people, chronically ill people, people with disabilities, people at the intersections of more than one of these identities, and more.
I’ve collected some less in-depth pieces on the phenomenon in my Pocket, like Kristin Iversen’s Why Millennials Are Always Tired (found via Holisticism‘s newsletter), which approaches Millennial exhaustion more from the perspective of the youngest Millennials, as opposed to Helen’s piece coming from the perspective of older Millennials. (Jesse Singal’s Don’t Call Me a Millennial — I’m an Old Millennial is my favorite piece that makes it clear how old Millennials and young Millennials differ and what the inflection points are for Millennialness.)
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. You don’t fix it by reading a book on how to “unfu*k yourself.” You don’t fix it with vacation, or an adult coloring book, or “anxiety baking,” or the Pomodoro Technique, or overnight fucking oats.
This is basically a caricature of my life. I have been an avid follower of Lifehacker, obsessed with Inbox Zero, installed and uninstalled Headspace and Calm, prepped meals for the week ahead, used a Bullet Journal for approaching five years, read and re-read Unf*ck Your Habitat, have the immense privilege of being able to take a beach vacation annually, have a huge stack of adult coloring books, anxiety baked my way through my Master of Science degree, powered through PhD writing using the Pomodoro Technique, and had overnight oats for breakfast every day for a week. (Other things that won’t fix it: mason jar salads. An Instant Pot. Subscribing to every self-care newsletter and podcast. Witchery.)
And I agree with Helen that
…individual action isn’t enough. Personal choices alone won’t keep the planet from dying, or get Facebook to quit violating our privacy. To do that, you need paradigm-shifting change.
But at the same time, I can’t sit and wait on that paradigm shift. Helen doesn’t have a plan of action, but I need one. So that’s what I nattered about in that Twitter thread. And here it is, summed up:
We have to perceive ourselves, and by extension others, as creatures of inherent worth, not merely parties to transactions, in spite of existing within an economic system that views us exactly as such. Tiana Clark points out that being a literal commodity was an actual, physical reality for black people until 1865. I think our economic system still relies on people seeing themselves as engines or tools.
I think we have to reject that idea with our whole hearts.
When I was a freshman in college, I saw a clinical social worker in my school’s Counseling and Psychological Services department. I saw him once and never again, because he enraged me. But now, almost 20 years later, I’m realizing he was really right in one thing about his assessment of me. He’d asked me to tell him about myself. And after I did, he’d pointed out that everything I’d told him was about my achievements: the grades I’d gotten, the scholarships I’d won. I left angry. Of course those things were how I defined myself. Of course those things were what made me a person of value in the world.
My 18 year-old-self had completely bought into the idea that her value could be measured and had to do with the production of valued things. (In my case, scholarly output. That’s still the valued thing I try to produce.)
Almost-38-year-old me is ready to reject that idea. I have value because I am a person who exists. I don’t need to be productive all the time. I feel a sense of purpose when I work, but that work is not what makes me a person.
The current version of me is ready to move into this way of thinking.
But, as I admitted in my Twitter thread…
I’m not there yet.
For more on “fixing” Millennial burnout, read Jessanne Collins’s Having a Kid Was the Unexpected Cure for my Millennial Burnout. It resonates with my experience as a mother of a young child.
Noah Smith identifies another piece of the burnout puzzle when he says Burned-Out Millennials Need Careers, Not Just Jobs. (Ask any stereotypical Millennial about their #sidehustle.)
Many thanks to Austin Kleon for first running Anne Helen’s piece across my radar.
Featured image is my favorite panel from Joss Whedon’s run on the Astonishing X-Men, Vol 3 #22, drawn by John Cassaday. Colors by Laura Martin. Letters by Chris Eliopoulos.