Burnout or Burning Brighter?


Everyone has the movie they can’t get out of their head, an ending to a book they keep revisiting, or a meal that they love describing to others. I shared my most memorable meal with Max at Frenchie the last time we were in Paris. Each course felt like a new adventure we were traveling through together. For film, it’s recently The Favourite; my love for Olivia Coleman reached new heights in her sick and manipulative portrayal of Queen Anne.  Whether good or bad, these experiences create the purest memories because they are internalized and become a part of our character.

Max at Frenchie, watching our final course burn to perfection.

It’s rare, however, that I find myself thinking and rethinking an article. The news is so constant that as soon as I’m done with one story, I am on to the next, trying to digest it all at once. I typically bookmark my long reads for the weekend. But I accept that many of the digital dog-ears are likely to get buried in the ever-growing news pile. Best case scenario: I enjoy the article briefly, scan for key thoughts, and move on.

The article, How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen, has had a different effect. At the onset, I wasn’t interested in reading yet another analysis of millennials. Anything that feels overtly “buzzy” annoys me. It’s the same way I feel when people commiserate over “Mansplaining” or a working woman proudly boasts she’s a “#girlboss”. We get it. It’s been dissected and understood. It’s been given a catchphrase. Can we move on to the next thing?

That said, Max and I were facing one of our countless Sunday rides home from our family lake house and had time on our hands. Max was feeling particularly overwhelmed by the week ahead and I pulled this article out of my digital pile, thinking it could help him approach some situations with a new perspective. So I read aloud while he drove. We were hooked early on. In the first few paragraphs, Petersen wasn’t following the same diatribe of critiquing the twenty or thirty-something for wanting to wear jeans to work. Right away the article touched on a feeling Max and I face constantly:

I was deep in a cycle of a tendency, developed over the last five years, that I’ve come to call “errand paralysis.” I’d put something on my weekly to-do list, and it’d roll over, one week to the next, haunting me for months. None of these tasks were that hard: getting knives sharpened, taking boots to the cobbler, registering my dog for a new license, sending someone a signed copy of my book, scheduling an appointment with the dermatologist, donating books to the library, vacuuming my car.

 Not only did it resonate, but she was listing things that were on my actual errand list. “Cobbler” has been written in my agenda book for at least six months. The shop is all of a five-minute walk from my home. Yet my damaged shoes sit in the corner of my closet, waiting to be mended. I continue to write it down as a “to-do” in vain, my list becoming a tyrannical overlord that will never be appeased.

Petersen then does a deep dive on the systemic struggle of managing the relentlessness of the modern workplace – untethered to time or space – all while being bombarded by photo evidence of the seemingly better lives your friends, family, and influencers are leading on Instagram. Who has time to make a Goodwill drop-off when you have deadlines to meet and envy-worthy vacations to plan?

Now, I’m oversimplifying the arguments that Petersen expertly crafts – the article truly deserves a full read. And yet, I am still grappling with some of the concepts. Is my generation defined by being burnt out? Or are we simply experiencing it through an honest, smarter, and newer lens?

The rat race described in the article isn’t new, just different. Petersen cites examples where millennials have been trained to optimize their workday in order to be competitive, but that the efficiency results in exploitation – lower-paying work, longer hours, the threat of being expendable. This isn’t unique to millennials. Optimization resulting in exploitation is the backbone of Henry Ford’s assembly line. It’s every cartoon of a lowly office worker literally chained to their desk. 

In many ways, millennials have it better than their workplace predecessors. They can at least enjoy their exploitation from the comfort of their own home while having Great British Bakeoff streaming on mute and their puppy snoring next to them on the couch. Joking aside, one of the regular trends on my social media feeds is mental health and coping with anxiety. Whether it’s a meme about spending a night in or a thoughtful post on how someone dealt with a mental health issue, it’s being talked about more than ever. The stress people are experiencing from work is not suddenly new, but I’d argue the coping mechanisms are arguably better – mental health is far from the taboo topic it was for generation’s past. In other words, it’s completely normal for my over-stressed husband to listen to me read an article about burnout. I can’t say the same experience would have been shared by my G.I. generation grandparents.

While I read the article to calm Max’s workweek woes, the tables turned when Petersen went on to describe the working family woman’s “second shift” when they come home from the office: 

They’re ultimately responsible for the health of the family, the upkeep of the home and their own bodies, maintaining a sex life, cultivating an emotional bond with their children, overseeing aging parents’ care, making sure bills are paid and neighbors are greeted and someone’s home for a service call and holiday cards get in the mail and vacations are planned six months in advance and airline miles aren’t expiring and the dog’s getting exercised.

I read that sentence to Max without pausing to take a breath. I looked at him, eyebrow raised. He smirked, knowing full well what I was thinking.

Save for the part about caring for children and aging parents, Petersen articulated my life exactly. The acute guilt I feel when Sally the Golden Retriever’s morning walk is not long enough weighs on me at the office in a way I know Max doesn’t experience. Throwing future kids into that mix sometimes feels immobilizing. Yet, again, is this unique to millennials? The article says millennial women are facing heightened aspirational check-boxes generated by Instagram feeds. I grew up around far too many Jazzercise moms and lived through the sexist marketing of the nineties to believe women are facing new societal pressures. The medium is just different.

My mother had four kids and still works the physically demanding job as an international flight attendant. When I was a preteen, she went back to school to pursue her dream of a bachelors degree in Art History, for no other reason than it was an aspiration. And those are just the first of many checkboxes I would list for my mom. There is a reason why so many people, notably millennials, pick their mother as their hero. Generations of women, especially working women, have been not slowed in their pursuit of bettering themselves and their families.

I am thankful to be a working woman today than any other generation prior. I have the fortune to piggy-back off so many trailblazers that did a lot of heavy lifting for me. Google, PepsiCo, Lockheed Martin, General Motors (to name a few) all have dynamic, interesting women in their C-Suite. While there is still a ways to go until business leaders are equally men and women, the path is laid for millennial women to become those major players. And while the constant image scroll on Instagram might feel annoyingly perfect., I’ve experienced just as many real stories of women eking by for the day. Chrissy Teigen has 22.5 million followers and has made her less-than-glamorous moments as a part of her personal brand. Her now meme-famous ugly cry face from the 2015 Golden Globes served as a catalyst for what so many women look to her for – a model superstar that can revel in the normalcy and imperfection of life.

Burnout Generation makes many thought-provoking points but the burnout itself is not defining my generation.  It’s millennials’ reaction to the burnout that is defining. It’s easy to acknowledge the pitfalls of modern day – the dangerous shockwaves that technology sends through a generation of people – but those pitfalls are counterbalanced by innovation. While the burnout is not going away, there are now worldwide communities that showcase both the perfection and imperfection of life. Like the memorable book recommended to them by Reese Witherspoon on Instagram, the wonderful dining experience they researched extensively through yelp, or the interesting article the bookmarked to their Evernote list, millennials are internalizing the world in a new, and sometimes better way.