When I started writing about burnout as the millennial condition, I was trying to find a vocabulary to describe what had become the base temperature of my life — and the lives of so many other people I knew. Why couldn’t I complete seemingly simple errands? Because I was burned out. Why was I burned out? Because I was working all the time. Why was I working all the time? Because everything in my life, from a young age, had told me that I should be.
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. My own experience (as a white, upper-middle-class, college-educated woman) provided the backbone of this particular essay, but it was just the beginning of a conversation — not the end. Since I published this piece, so many people have begun to share their own, different, and equally important experiences; I wanted to bring together some of those perspectives (lightly edited for length and clarity) to keep the conversation going. —Anne Helen Petersen
I grew up in a conservative religious home in rural Pennsylvania, part of a radically right-wing splinter group. I tell people I was home-schooled. Really, I wasn’t schooled at all — I taught myself and my little brothers out of books from the library. There are parts of it I can make a joke of, when I tell other people about it: We weren’t allowed to wear pants, cut our hair, or listen to pop music. There are parts I can’t make a joke of: Women were considered stupid, gay people were considered sick, and the Last Judgment was considered imminent.
Needless to say, our views of the world were wildly distorted. But I wanted a better life. I made it to college (with no transcripts or records), got a PhD in psychology, became a learning scientist, and studied achievement and motivation and statistics. I’m a social scientist in tech now, living in California.
Because of all that, burnout and anxiety around production and achievement are a mixed bag for me. Sometimes, I think it’s cyclical; like anyone who’s survived a lot, and grown up poor in this country, it is more normal than a surprise to think I can’t afford a home. Growing up in a neglectful and poor home nearly entirely cut off from the world meant that as a teenager, I didn’t grow up with the ambition or mental image of a “perfect job.” I worked nearly every waking minute, both minimum wage jobs and then doing things like trying to teach myself from books at the library. I also feel often like I had to work three lifetimes, just to get to the start of the race. I suppose that’s the biggest quality of difference: this question of working all the time with no finish line, it’s not a surprise to me.
But then the burnout fades. Once I finally got out and into the broader world, honestly, I fell in love with everything. I still feel that love, and the boundless energy that being given opportunity gives you. In a funny way, I've already had to deal with so much unpredictability, that I'm not now dealing with feeling let down by the world. My world is still so, so much better than it was. That’s a security I never felt as a kid, and it still shields me from burnout and helped me recover from it.
Despite the turmoil of the larger economy, the social improvement and safety that we’ve seen in this generation is life-changing. Being out as a queer woman and safe with my partner is something I genuinely never thought would happen. Dealing with the pressures of a working environment has never been as difficult as dealing with a community that was actively abusive.
Another difference might be this: In a bizarre way I feel I was more prepared for grad school and then the hustle of this economy than most of my peers — I’d always worked alone, by myself, without much idea of what the future would hold. I already had to unlearn and undo an entire community’s beliefs about me, so I was undaunted by the commodification of labor and time. Trying to understand the mechanisms of it all, as a social scientist, has been really rewarding, most of all when I’ve been able to help students with difficult backgrounds get into colleges.
As a black woman I feel as if I was were born tired. Every woman in my family has always worked since adolescence almost until the day they died. That’s one thing I think is always missing from conversations about women in the workplace. To middle-class white women, work still seems like somewhat of a novelty. I’m an elementary school teacher. My mother was a social worker. My grandmother was a teacher and her mother was a slave. I was born burned out.
My experience is...odd (or perhaps not that odd but just feels unusual and lonely because people don’t talk about it? which is part of my point?). I was raised by an unemployed, alcoholic, failed academic (my dad) and a stay-at-home mom who had trained as a librarian.
The cognitive load I want to tell you about is the amount of work it takes pretending to be middle class when you’re not. It’s not just a “keeping up with the Joneses” kind of thing. Hiding poverty is like hiding abuse at home — it’s the reason you can’t have friends over to your house, it’s the reason you can’t go to other kids’ birthday and sleepover parties, it’s the reason you can’t go on the class trip, or summer camp, or vacations. But having to beg off, duck out, or provide a suitable explanation that good middle-class kids, parents, and teachers could even hear, that’s hard. That’s a lot of work for a kid.
It is also why you can’t do the school assignment when the assignment is predicated on the middle-class experience in any way: Sure, I could “rent a movie” (i.e., check one out at the library), but my family didn’t have a VCR, so how was I going to watch the movie and write an essay about it? In grade school and middle school, I made myself smaller, so I wouldn’t have to say anything about why I didn’t fit in with everything the other kids (seemingly effortlessly) wore, did, even just knew about. Things I had no access to. I couldn’t fake it, so I just clammed up and shrank. Hiding yourself, your family, and your real life takes up a lot of bandwidth.
Don’t get me wrong: I had full damn access to the library and to my formal education, and to a great deal of informal training in critical and lateral thinking at home, and to the kinds of cultural references that mark a person as generally educated in the liberal arts. I was primed for academic success, but only as long as it didn’t cost any money — money we didn’t have.
It’s harder in the working world. They don’t have to hire you, or keep you. Heck, they won’t hire you unless you kind of match the look and demeanor of the ideal employee they imagine, which includes middle-class face (jesus, makeup and skin care are expensive), middle-class teeth (which look like wealthy, periodontist-having, value-added teeth to me), and most importantly, not rocking the boat by talking about things that make it obvious you don’t fit in. Not fitting in is risky, and it's really better not to risk your regular paycheck if you don't have to. Inequality is a real downer; better not represent. At work I wear a fake face and I don’t smile with my teeth and I don’t talk about student loans.
Hiding your poverty, performing middle-class-ness, and just plain not talking about class is something American culture seemingly requires of us as a baseline behavior, as a condition of survival, let alone advancement. It’s what we poverty people do to get along, to keep real middle-class people from feeling uncomfortable or guilty. We devote so much energy and so much cognitive bandwidth to erasing whole swaths of the real conditions we live in so that we don’t take up their bandwidth with uncomfortable feels or having to revise their assumptions or having to think about accommodating exceptions.
Even though I believe that identity is an ever-evolving thing that is constantly being negotiated, I generally identify as a 1.5 generation Chinese Canadian immigrant, a genderqueer woman, and a millennial (I’m 28).
Errand paralysis happens to me, but it also impacts the errands I have to do for my mom as part of my filial duty (which I embrace) since she left her family, work, and friends in China to raise me as a divorced single mother. I feel some guilt around not getting to errands for myself, but I feel that guilt 1,000x more for things I have to do for my mom (e.g., banking, looking things up on websites, English-related things like editing her résumé and cover letter when she applies for jobs). I am not sure if millennials who are not from a culture where duty to parents is as strong would feel nearly as much guilt as I do.
My parents were both born in the mid-’60s in Communist China. They were born right after the Great Famine (1959–1961) and grew up during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) — two very tough periods for China and its billion citizens. They did not have the resources that many of my white friends’ parents had growing up and maturing into working adults. I have many friends who are immigrants or children of immigrants from countries such as Pakistan, India, Korea, and Vietnam whose parents also had very different lives than their white peers in Canada and the US.
Mental health was not something we talked about in my household growing up. Depression and anxiety were not words I ever heard until my Psychology 100 class in my first year of undergrad. Instead, I heard the terms 吃苦 “eating bitterness” and 性情 “heart feeling” as both my parents felt the depression that is common for newcomers to Canada, struggling to find stable work in a society that places white folks above all others. Accepting the fact that I, too, can be burned out, depressed, and anxious while still being a Chinese person has been a tough process.
I was raised in the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) church from birth. I left the church between the ages of 19 to 22. My parents have worked for the church since before I was born and still work there today. I’ve been working through the trauma and burnout that religion caused me on and off in therapy for five years. Growing up religious, you’re taught a lot about the world that may or may not fit in with your worldview moving forward. Because of Jesus, I was taught that suffering is good. The ability to suffer — whether through a trying situation, an abusive partner, or a job that was taking advantage of you — was good. Jesus suffered for us and to be able to suffer like Jesus was ideal.
Earth is just the test, heaven is the reward. You can do anything and everything you’ve ever wanted to do forever. So if you’re miserable, exhausted, and in poverty on Earth, that’s just a test. Being able to power through burnout, depression, or exhaustion is what is expected of you. There’s no time off. As a Christian, taking time off from witnessing could be someone’s soul. Their soul is worth more than your sleep. Salvation is a full-time forever job with no vacation days.
You end up missing life-defining experiences for work. The examples are endless. Spend your spring break in Mexico, but you’re building a church for 18 hours a day. Head overseas for a year in college, but you’re actually teaching English in Thailand and living in poverty. Work for $200/week all summer at a summer camp, but you have to witness to kids all day long and you’ll never sleep. Work 60 hours a week to plant a church for free. Burnout is built into religion, but it’s a feature, not a bug.
Millennials may feel burnout is their particular cross to bear, but I think it is more pervasive. I’m 74, a Midwestern farm girl by birth with a strong work ethic, college educated and reared to believe that I could do it all and it was a weakness to seek or expect help. I’ve been diagnosed in the last five years with, first, fibromyalgia and finally with chronic fatigue syndrome. I am not alone. A number of women friends of retirement age seem to be similarly plagued. I think it is simple burnout.
As a group, we all worked from the time we entered college until retirement, earned about 70 cents on the dollar compared to our male counterparts, perhaps got married and divorced, figured we were well-educated and smart enough to manage without alimony or other financial assistance from our ex-spouses, often chose professions that gave us freedom but not the benefits of a pension, left or lost jobs in pre-#MeToo skirmishes, struggled to keep our skills abreast of technology, did not save enough, lost much of that in the dot-com debacle, could no longer find work in our chosen fields, patchworked income from more than one job to see ourselves through to retirement and now find ourselves subsisting on Social Security, living in subsidized senior housing, taking care of aging parents and seeing ailing siblings and friends through their final illnesses, death, and the aftermath.
Aging we may be, but we, too, are bombarded daily through whatever media we have conquered with depressing news domestically and globally.
As an endocrinologist commented after asking me gently what was going on in my life, “No wonder you have chronic fatigue!” I am almost relieved to consider that the recent procrastination and necessity to flog myself into action daily may not be the result of aging, but of burnout shared with those much younger.
I think this specific kind of burnout is a class thing in India. “Follow your dreams” and “you just have to work hard to achieve what you want” is quite definitively middle class. You’re just rich enough to be able to afford good facilities and education, but you need to prove that you’ve put them to good use; that the investment made was worth it. In India there’s a running joke that middle-class people squeeze everything for what it’s worth. But it’s not easy.
In the 1990s, when India started the process of liberalization, the generation before ours (our parents) were bombarded with opportunities. There was money to be made — money that they earned for their children so they could be whatever they wanted to be and in a way fulfill the dreams of their parents. However, there has been a trickle-down effect of the economic slowdown in India as a result of the globalization. The markets are saturated already but we have one of the largest and youngest populations in the world. There just isn’t enough to go around.
In a way, it’s not a lot different from what is happening in America: the intensive parenting (because there’s just too much competition and everyone wants their kid to be the best), the social media effect, the desire to have a job that fulfills all parameters of being well-paid but something that inspires. Whenever I talk to someone of the older generation, trying to get advice on how to get the job you want, it doesn’t help. All the people I talk to just happened into the work they do now. That doesn’t happen anymore. Everything has been systemized and digitized. You send emails and people rarely get back to you. You wait for job openings but it’s usually in vain. Website and career pages aren’t even updated. But you can’t just walk in, either. You have to have an appointment. No one has any time and everyone is always running.
As a first-gen immigrant, the burnout is hell sometimes. On top of everything else, you have this constant guilt of never being enough for this country. So you have to excel. You have to constantly prove yourself as a worthy person to be here and occupy space. And I think that’s why I’ve never had a chance to relax, workwise. I don’t have anything crazy like working multiple jobs, because I’m lucky. My family does well for the most part. But I feel like I never had the opportunity to just...chill or not be working.
God forbid I become an unemployed immigrant. That’s just not an option. And no matter how well I do, how long I’ve been here in the US, there will always be one person who will remind you of your otherness: “Oh, you barely have an accent,” “Oh, your English is so good,” “You should be proud of what you’ve done.” Burnout is always trying to fit in a society that reminds you all the time you’re not from here. And I consider myself lucky, ’cause I live in California and I’m white passing. I’m always in awe of the relentlessness of my immigrant community.
I am an African American woman currently working as an attorney. I was raised by a single mother and I am the first person in my family to attend college or law school. I’m 33 and have been experiencing a strong feeling of burnout over the past two years. I think it stems from two sources. First, because I grew up poor, I internalized very early on that I needed to be a high achiever in order to escape my circumstances (i.e., growing up in rural North Carolina). It led to a feeling of always needing to be achieving in order to survive.
What I’ve realized as an adult is that I can never take a break from that. I have student loan debt from law school and my mother cannot provide a financial safety net (in fact, I send her money), so I feel like the only way to keep my tenuous grip on my middle-class existence in NYC is to keep working. The second is that I’ve only recently realized how little I can do to overcome generational poverty. Even just having enough to save for my own retirement (let alone save for a house) feels impossible.
Burnout, for me as a chronically ill and autistic person, is both where I live and what I spend most of my energy fighting via doctors and self-care. I am not able to work; my “job” is healthwork. I spend hours each day resting, taking care of my body and mind, and just trying to stay alive. It is never enough, because due to my conditions I am always in pain, always tired, always with less energy than I need to get through the tasks of the day.
Autistic burnout, specifically, happens when I spend too much time ignoring my access needs and pretending I am neurotypical. With autistic burnout, I lose touch with myself. In the past, I have lost the ability to read books, I have lost words. This is why I have to work so hard to pace myself, so that does not happen again.
As a gay Asian male from first-gen parents, a majority of my struggle and burnout has come from me trying to understand my place in a society that largely doesn’t want to hear/see me. My choices are typically motivated by fear of not fitting in and then regret because they don’t truly represent me, railing against and conforming to others’ opinions of the person I should be, and the knowledge that at any moment politics/racism/homophobia could threaten my social position, with a limited cushion to fall back on. This struggle to me transcends generational bounds; keeping up with Slack and DMs is effortless [in comparison] because they’re just at a higher level of Maslow’s pyramid for me. I’m still trying to survive.
— Derek, 24
I’m 17, a senior in high school, which technically makes me part of Gen-Z.
Last year, I took two AP classes and three honors. I eventually found myself barely doing homework and wondering why I never had the time to do anything. I look back on that year now and wonder how I went from being a straight-A student in the beginning of the school year, who procrastinated on her work but still got it done, to a senior who is too overwhelmed with daily life and college applications to even consider opening a textbook.
I found out about burnout from Tumblr, ironically, one day when I was scrolling instead of doing my work. It described all of the problems I was having — the constant mental fatigue, the chronic procrastination, the anxiety of wanting good grades and yet not being able to do anything about it. But all the solutions seemed to be self-care related: Take a break, go for a walk, have a snack, get better at time management. All that really does is take up more time and leave me more anxious about wasting the time I could be using to study (even though I knew that if I wasn’t doing it before, I wasn’t about to start doing it).
I don’t know a single person who isn’t dangerously stressed out in my school. Everyone procrastinates, nobody commits to after-school clubs or honor society because they’re too busy freaking out about everything else in their lives. None of our parents seem to get it; they just think we have it easy and are just lazy, or distracted with “those darn phones.” Our student assistance counselors are always, always overbooked from students having panic attacks or mental breakdowns in the middle of the day. And to most of us, it’s just a new normal we’ve accepted.
As a Latina who grew up with a pastor father, I got exhausted trying to keep up with it all. I had young adult events on weekends, and one or two Fridays a month I was helping with a homeless ministry, not to mention church on Sundays. Add to that the pressure of being the first in my family to go to college (not to mention one of the few women at my conservative church who went to school to be something other than a teacher) and I realized I was only going to church for appearance’s sake.
So many times my pastor has had sermons on how “you can’t be a lazy Christian!” and how “the church was made to be a community, read the Book of Acts!” and the subtext of “you must do all this for others,” which often means you must absolutely devote your emotional self to others in the church.
In practice, this often means services praying for folks who are sick, recently bereaved, etc., leading to another obligation. You gotta call, email, send some food to them, help them through this. It’s another form of those packages you don’t send; one of my longtime friends from the church got married this past year and I’ve been meaning to send a gift to her, even though we don’t talk so much anymore — she’s still from “my community.”
I’ve taken a step back from religion while evaluating my motives for my faith and my priorities long term in life, now that I’ve moved away from home and I’m under less scrutiny from church members. Dealing with the stress of school and living within my Puerto Rican family (who often have much different ideas of success for women than me and my peers) is more than enough.
—Cristina Maria, 22
I personally don’t feel burned out, but burned to a crisp. I have to work really hard to not degrade what my healthier friends go through. It’s hard, though, when I can see them do simple things so easily and I can’t. When I see that they have less debt and better job options. I just want to pull my hair out all the time. Though that’s one of the healthy things about me! I am on the lighter end of the spectrum. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people with more severe disabilities.
Making appointments is so much different when you are sick. I personally have a whole entourage of doctors. I have to make all the appointments, make sure they coordinate with one another, make sure they are constantly communicating, that they know what medications I take and what they are prescribing me. Sometimes I will have three to five appointments in a week.
Not to mention the psychological damage I have to put up with from doctors. It’s so hard to find one that believes you. It can be hard to get the energy to do it all when you know you won’t really get help and spend a fortune trying.
Insurance is such a pain. My Twitter feed is full of GoFundMes asking for help to get essential medications. Trying to talk to debt collectors is just as difficult. No one ever takes into account that I’m sick, which is why I needed the doctor or hospital visit. Because I’m sick, I’m probably not working or working a lot. Because of that, I have no money.
I try to do all the work that regular millennials do. I’m also a writer, so I try to publish stories, pitch articles, do some free editing work for lit mags, pay bills, and have two or three jobs at a time. But it’s so much harder for me to sustain than healthier people. It also is much harder to find a job that will accommodate me and pay me well enough to actually attempt to pay off my debt.
Imagine having the idea that you have to work all the time and your body fights you the whole time. The harder you try, the more pain you put yourself through. That’s my life and it’s a hell of a cycle.
So it’s hard when you talk about how the things that may not directly benefit us fall by the wayside. For people with disabilities, it’s not because we don’t want to do it. It’s because we physically can’t.
As a millennial American Muslim woman of color, we have to deal with additional issues like stereotypes, xenophobia, and discrimination in a post-9/11 world. Also, many of us are children of immigrants who came to this country with the expectation that their children were going excel professionally and academically, while following cultural traditions in a country that vilifies them. It adds to the pressure millennials already feel about doing well in a competitive and fast-paced society.
I think there’s a unique type of burnout in being a woman in a stereotypical “helping” (thus, more feminine) profession. I’m a clinical psychology researcher, so I’m right at the nexus of mental health practice and academia, but being associated with the helping field (particularly when I’m in my therapist role) can be exhausting. People assume the work you do is not worth the money they are paying for it (because women are supposed to do this work, naturally) and that anyone can do your job (therapy is just giving advice, right?).
People will ask you to do free labor for them (I’ve met multiple people who tell me a traumatic experience of theirs during our first conversation). Further, taking time off feels bad, because the time off you take means that you’re not able to help the person you’re actually supposed to help, and typically these jobs require flexible hours where you’re never really off the clock. Plus, with being a woman, I am almost always taking care of or taking on the emotional labor in my personal life — helping my spouse, friends, and family members with their own shit.
Outside of the actual burnout that is associated with being in the mental health field, there’s the bonus of being a woman in a field where most people are women, thus sometimes feeling left out of the overall feminist conversation related to excelling in a “man’s” world (despite the fact that women in helping professions still make less money than men in those professions). I’ve heard similar experiences from other female friends who work in helping fields (social workers, early childhood educators, teachers, human resources, nurses).
Add to the fact that I’m Asian American, with all of the stereotypes related to submissive women, and the burnout just increases. Within my professional world, therapists or researchers who are people of color are still rare, so I also have to deal with being in a very white world. I once had a psychiatrist tell me that I should be the therapist to see a client who was male, queer, and black simply because I was the only therapist of color on the team (with no LGBTQ practitioners) and that we probably “have a lot in common.” I had a professor in graduate school try to inspire me to continue on the path toward a faculty position because “Isn’t it important for you to be a role model and trailblazer for other women of color?” (It is, but I don’t need a white professor trying to guilt me into staying in academia by bringing up the trailblazer card.)