If you haven’t yet, please do read Anne Helen Peterson’s excellent Buzzfeed essay on millennials and burnout.
My first reaction to the essay was to agree with nearly every word of it and pass it on to others. But after having a day to think on it, I started to have another reaction: I’m not sure that Peterson, for all the excellent work she did describing the experience and explanation for burnout, actually knows who it is she’s writing about.
Put another way: Is the problem of burnout a generational one besetting “millennials” or is the explanation more concrete than that? It’s not as if some switch was flipped between Gen X and millennials, after all, that somehow changed the mental health of an entire generation. What’s more, the early reports suggest that Gen Z may be in even worse shape than the millennials. David Sirota put the problem well:
This was a good story. I only had one problem with it: it’s not just a phenomenon afflicting millennials. It afflicts everyone in an increasingly unstable and freelance-based economy.
No job security + no safety net + no affordability = working oneself into exhaustion/burnout https://t.co/puqVu7y2sa
— David Sirota (@davidsirota) January 7, 2019
Peterson isn’t describing a generational phenomenon; she’s describing a class phenomenon. Specifically she is describing the experience of being a worker in a late capitalist society. By “worker” I mean someone who does not own productive property and is thus forced to enter into some kind of full-time employment or gig economy work—increasingly more the latter than the former—in order to make a living.
Consider: By this point, the American family has been dramatically weakened and is now being defined out of all imaginable concrete meaning. Friendships are harder to maintain due to hyper-mobility and our pace of living. Our neighborhoods are brittle. Wages are poor. And because of both underlying philosophical and economic assumptions about human identity and community, we feel a burden to create a personal brand for ourselves through social media, through philanthropic activities, through our jobs, and so on. All of this is extremely exhausting in all the ways that Peterson describes.
But a great deal of this is attributable not to any sort of generational tic, but to class. After all, what few materially secure millennials I know do not have the experiences that Peterson describes, as best I can tell.
Why is this possibly quibbling point worth making? Well, the political import seems apparent enough to me: A great deal of the stress contributing to burnout comes from financial stress due to the combination of student loan debt, professional uncertainty, and stagnating wages. And if you have any kind of chronic health problems or want to have a family, then the stress compounds due to the strain of medical bills, childcare costs, and all the other increased costs related to family life.
So one takeaway, it seems to me, is to advocate for political reforms that would address some of these issues. We could push for higher minimum wage laws, healthcare reform targeted at costs and not just accessibility, a family-friendly tax code, and some sort of educational and economic reform that loosens the stranglehold that four-year university education has on American culture.
To put it another way: If the problem of burnout is generational, it’s very hard to discern what can be done to address it. But if many of the problems are economic and political, then we can make economic and political choices to combat these issues. The difficulty is both that we choose not to make those choices and that the people empowered to actually make choices that would move the needle here are generally indifferent to the plight of the poor.