Against the ‘Burnout Generation’

Popular articles examining the hopeless prospects of the young need to offer more than identification and shareable content.

Recent weeks have seen another popular article about youth culture sweep the online world. This one, entitled How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, was written by Anne Helen Petersen, a senior writer for Buzzfeed. The piece has already been followed up by Here’s What “Millennial Burnout” is like for 16 Different People and a How Burned Out Are You quiz.  

It’s easy to pinpoint problems with this kind of article: the conceptual stretch, the poor attempts to universalise from narrow experiences, the confession without analysis. This reaction tends to follow in the hours after an article’s publication, with countless Twitter accounts basking in the satisfaction of their own critiques. But in this case, the criticism has a little more to it.

Peterson describes a generation beset by a generalised anxiety so stark that it makes the most basic tasks impossible. Derided by their elders, millennials are not lazy, they’re burnt out. This comes, she argues, from a pressure to work to constant timelines, which in turn stems from the pressure to be constantly working that millennials picked up at school.

This is followed by some of the article’s most peculiar claims: that there is something historically unique about the ways in which contemporary schools act as training for work,  that there is nothing individuals can do on their own to reduce their feelings of exhaustion, and that going to graduate school is a standard opt out for alienated youth. 

In the first instance, schools have always acted as ways of sorting people into certain kinds of jobs, and justifying this sorting after the fact. They impart not only technical knowledge about the kind of work students are likely to be involved in, but a broader set of ideological practices–thoughts and habits–that allow for the reproduction of the status quo. None of this is unique to the millennial generation. In fact, the classroom of today is essentially a hangover from the industrial era, made to model a production line.

On the question of individual responses, Petersen is right to broadly dismiss this way of managing collective, systematic problems. If there is a generalised inability to function, stemming from productivist fervour, this cannot be solved by individual responses. You can’t face-mask your way out of capitalism, and a bullet journal isn’t a union. The anxiety that ‘millennial burnout’ describes is caused by the specific, historical form of capitalism in which we find ourselves. The skills most of today’s jobs require — flexibility, reflexivity, availability, in short, the ability to move between tasks rapidly — are often not conducive, and sometimes harmful, to the care and development of the self. 

This does not mean, however, that there are no individual responses which could produce resistance, or thwart the worst excesses of this anxiety. That is a far more dangerous message. While individual change is never sufficient, there’s a subtle disempowerment that comes in the assumption that there is nothing you can do that would make the slightest improvement to your wellbeing. Developing skills to manage your time and working out what distracts you won’t save you, but it might make things more bearable. 

Petersen’s graduate school point is especially unusual as a descriptor of a generation. The majority of millennials haven’t studied for a first degree, let alone considered going to graduate school because they couldn’t find a job cool enough for their peers but serious enough for their parents. The promise of a high salary that a primary degree once held is collapsing, so it’s true that graduate degrees are more common. But they remain largely the preserve of the studious children of the wealthy. You rarely hear of people outside the Jobcentre signing up for PhD programmes because they can’t think of anything better to do. 

This insight is important, because it makes clear how much the analysis found in Petersen’s article applies exclusively to a subset of millennials — that is to say, the wealthy, educated, and city-dwelling. A narrow experience masquerades as a universal one. In her follow-up piece Here’s What “Millennial Burnout” is like for 16 Different People, Petersen tries to absorb these criticisms by eschewing the generational quality of her piece:

I do believe that burnout is a shared, defining generational experience, but that doesn’t mean it works or feels the same way for all millennials — or that it’s limited to people our age. 

The sixteen excerpts which follow — from, amongst others, migrants, a woman in her 70s, someone too young to be a millennial — point to the limitations of her concept: burnout is not specific to the young, and how it manifests is substantially stratified by other considerations such as class, race, and gender.

What’s remarkable about the article is that it elicits the experience of discussion, the feeling of theory, but without any of the lights actually switched on. Instead, what is demanded is that we identify with it. Millennial Burnout is not an invitation to think. It is an invitation to write ‘same’ when you share the piece. In this cycle, we feel connected to something meaningful, Buzzfeed gets advertising revenue, and nothing much changes.

Of course, there is a reason this modus operandi is so successful. Many feelings the article wants us to identify with are real. Feeling is clearly not irrelevant to politics: consider Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person– last year’s runaway same story — which invited a serious, thoughtful public conversation about female sexuality and male coercion. Feelings can start something. The feeling of indignation a parent gets when they realise their children’s lives will almost certainly be less secure than their own, the feeling of revulsion at second, third, or even fifth homes laying empty while people sleep in the streets, these could be a spur to thought or action. But this is not what we get with Millennial Burnout. 

There are, of course, serious individual and collective psychological consequences that come from contemporary patterns of production and consumption. Work is characterised by precarity. The worker is expected to be pliant, flexible, and ready. The smartphone means the feeling—if not the reality—of always being on call. The psychological toll of this can be immense—for anyone, not merely for millennials. 

Imagine what this kind of work environment—with an expectation of additional hours of hidden work, of constant self-improvement and self-reflection, of getting better every day — is like for those unable to meet its impossible demands because of, for example, caring responsibilities. Work is simultaneously at risk of collapse, and spilling over into all of human social life. This is not fundamentally a millennial thing, it’s a snapshot of contemporary capitalism.

The exhilaration of a hand across time, or space, of someone understanding us, is important; a generalised precarity makes people lonely, and, yes, alienated. But the aim of such writing has to be more than making us see ourselves in a description of social reality. It shouldn’t want to merely make us declare same and share approvingly. It should aspire to be transformative. These are desperate times that require thought and action: we need much, much more than the feeling of identification.