“Millennial reputation: We’re spoiled, entitled, lazy, and failures at what’s come to be known as ‘adulting,’ a word invented by millennials as a catchall for the tasks of self-sufficient existence.”
In a recent Buzzfeed article, Anne Helen Peterson describes how millennials are quickly becoming the burnout generation. Have you ever experienced burnout?
As a recovering millennial burnout myself, a lot of her points resonated. As I progress along my own journey of re-examining “work” and purpose, I thought examining her article would be a good launching point along with sharing some lessons learned.
Petersen explains how millennials view adulthood as a never-ending series of actions, and adulting as an action, rather than a stage of life. As we predicate adulthood upon a never-ending series of menial actions, it’s unsurprising that we often find ourselves failing to make progress.
What comes from the frequent failure to progress along simple tasks?
We compare ourselves to our parents that came before us and managed to make it. Why can’t we? Sometimes that to-do list can be our worst enemy when it captures our daily failures rather than progress. The other point she highlights is that most of those tasks only minimally improve our own lives.
A snowballing list of failures. A mounting pile of shame.
Burnout was officially recognized as a psychological diagnosis in 1974 and applied to “cases of physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.” Burnout is a significant step beyond exhaustion. Exhaustion is historically described as early as the ancient Greeks and defined as “the point where you can’t go any further.” Burnout means “reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years.”
A different source described burnout as having three major characteristics:
- Emotional and physical exhaustion;
- A cynical attitude towards people and relationships at work;
- A feeling that you are no longer accomplishing anything worthwhile.
Through my personal experiences, whether it was being deployed to Afghanistan or an average work day heading to school, my waking mantra was often just to “get upright and vertical.” Just survive.
As the article described and my own experiences reinforced, progress and completing major tasks did not help. They did not bring a sense of accomplishment, only dread for what might be next.
Burnout can cause some interesting, illogical, and costly results. Business costs due to mental health days continue to increase. People show up late, miss shifts, or “ghost” their jobs. Laziness is an easy excuse; however, Psychologist Devon Price has talked about laziness in regards to homelessness and it likely applies here as well.
“If a person’s behavior doesn’t make sense to you, it is because you are missing a part of their context. It’s that simple.”
To emphasize this is more than a millennial problem, here is a related statistic cited by Shawn Achor in The Happiness Advantage . “Fifty years ago, the average onset age of depression was 29.5 years. Today, it is almost exactly half that: 14.5 years.” Ouch.
“In a few hundred years, when the history of our time will be written from a long-term perspective, it is likely that the most important event historians will see is not technology, not the Internet, not e-commerce. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time—literally—substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it.”
– Peter Drucker
Next, this article will analyze some of the causes of burnout that Petersen discussed:
- born to be productive
- a reality that doesn’t measure up
- unfulfilling work
- the 24/7 cycle
- negative feedback loops
Born to be Productive
Malcolm Harris, author of Kids These Days, writes “Efficiency is our existential purpose, and we are a generation of finely honed tools, crafted from embryos to be lean, mean production machines.” I’m definitely guilty of that one — I spend a lot of time figuring how I can be more efficient to do more stuff rather than necessarily the right stuff.
Petersen explains how we have even exchanged casual-dining for “fast casual” (like Chipotle) because “if we’re going to pay for something, it should either be an experience worth waiting in line for or efficient as hell.” The need to be efficient explains athleisure (and yoga pants) and the rise of Amazon, which occasionally means getting my groceries and dog treats delivered to my door.
As Harris referenced, this culture often begins with parents. Parents are increasingly optimizing their children’s experience with the expectation they will find jobs that reflect well on their parents, impress their peers, and exemplify their passions. Unstructured time is on the way out; scheduled play dates and rigorous extracurriculars are in.
A Reality That Doesn’t Measure Up
Another part of Petersen’s premise is that the American Dream, that future generations will be better off than those before them, is in jeopardy. Raised with the expectation of working their dream jobs, achievable solely through hard work and then buckling down to work even harder, has resulted a lot of disappointment.
Unlike previous generations, millennials cannot just show up to work with a high school diploma and an expectation of retiring at 55. College is treated as a pre-requisite. After college, millennials frequently find themselves living back with their parents as they experience career and financial struggles.
To highlight the significance of those financial issues, research has demonstrated the “massive cognitive load” on those who are financially insecure. Living in poverty is equivalent to losing 13 IQ points.
Personally, I take issue with the financial irresponsibility with which many millenials have approached college debt and could debate the question of which generation is better off. However, I do agree that millennials are often unprepared with the realistic decision-making skills or resiliency that encourage conquest over struggle. And, then they launch into their careers.
Surprisingly, Petersen did not talk much about the work experience; however, I feel that is a considerable piece of the burnout puzzle.
Joshua Fields Millburn, author of Everything That Remains: A Memoir by the Minimalists, states that “Careers are dangerous because people invest so much of themselves into their careers that they establish an identity and a social status based upon where they work and what they do for a living.” We often spend most of our lives working towards these careers with the end goal of doing work that we’re passionate about.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has defined a concept called flow referencing the optimal work experience. Flow is the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.
How often have you experienced that in the work place?
This is the area where I most agree with Petersen. While technology has improved our standard of living, it is not without its own burdens. Social media, rather than being used as a tool for good, often provides a false narrative of reality, creating fantasies that only exist within smiling photos detached from the realities around them.
Ironically, when discussing work on social media, it is usually in the context of the escape that you worked hard to achieve rather than the work itself. Smartphones and universal access to the internet have created the always connected environment which serves as a “tether to the ‘real’ workplace.” As a society, we have largely failed, often even to attempt, to maintain individual boundaries with the false collective mindset that those boundaries are selfish.
Negative Feedback Loops
Building on the lack of individual boundaries and adulting failures are the negative feedback loops that we have placed ourselves in. Petersen quoted herself as often saying that “everything that’s good is bad, everything that’s bad is good.” When discussing the good, that might be indulging in leisure and the associated guilt because the time was not spent productively. The bad are those tough undesirable choices that we believe move us closer to perfection.
While not using those specific terms, I frequently find myself condemning myself for another failure to stick with a specific diet plan (as I down another soda. At 8am). Or another missed workout. Rather than addressing underlying causes, society usually resorts to the easier route, treating the symptoms. We medicate anxiety. Or surround ourselves with pleasing material goods.
Throughout, our guilt and shame continue to build as we continuously set unrealistic expectations, which we fail to meet. every. damn. time.
Addressing the Problem
“The Mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
– John Milton in Paradise Lost
We need to start internally — how can I improve my situation?
Here are some suggestions to get started. I’d suggest picking one or two ideas and seeing how you might be able to incorporate them into your life.
Practicing gratitude is probably the simplest and quickest solution to increase happiness.
One study found that participants who wrote down three good things each day for a week were happier and less depressed at the one-month, three-month, and six-month follow-ups. I have been doing this for several months and these months been among the happiest and most satisfying of my life, despite the fact there is plenty of room for improvement. I use a 5 Minute Journal and record three gratitudes each morning. Inspired by an idea in The Happiness Advantage where a couple opted to say three gratitudes at dinner with their children each night, my girlfriend and I exchange three gratitudes which has had the added effect of strengthening our relationship and influencing external changes.
Another study by Robert Emmons and Anjali Mishra conducted over a 2 month period compared people that had gratitude journals against those people that didn’t along with a list of goals they hoped to reach over the period. Not surprisingly, those people with the journals achieved significantly more with the findings that “gratitude enhances effortful goal striving.”
The Happiness Advantage
Shawn Achor wrote The Happiness Advantage, the idea that happiness comes before success. We can retrain our brains, and happy brains have a biological advantage over brains that are negative or just neutral. Positive emotions provide our brains with elevated levels of dopamine and serotonin that contribute to positive feelings and increase our ability to learn and think. Here is a brief explanation of the principles Achor suggests to leverage happiness:
- The Fulcrum and the Lever
- Definition: Our mindset affects how we control the world.
- Takeaway: We have the power to create our own happiness rather than pursue it. Develop an internal locus on control; the belief that your actions determine your outcomes.
- The Tetris Effect
- Definition: When our brains get stuck in a pattern of focusing on stress, negativity, and failure, we set ourselves up to fail.
- Takeaway: When stressed, look for the opportunities that you’re missing. Don’t stack more bad on bad.
- Falling Up
- Definition: Finding paths and lessons from failure and suffering.
- Takeaway: Reflect on your victories and, especially, your losses.
- The Zorro Circle
- Definition: Start small, build confidence, and expand tasks.
- Takeaway: What is the easiest, most achievable goal I can start with?
- The 20-Second Rule
- Definition: If we make small adjustments, we can replace bad habits through the path of least resistance.
- Takeaway: Put the Kindle next to the couch and the remote in a different room with no batteries.
- Social Investment
- Definition: Successful people invest in their social networks.
- Takeaway: Build relationships with others; be a motivator to others and find a mentor.
According to minimalist Joshua Fields Millburn, Happiness + Growth + Contribution [to others/society] = Success.
In his memoir, Joshua talks about his journey to find contentment. One of his biggest challenges was the quest to find balance. His epiphany was that we’re not asking the right question. The concept of balance creates separation between work and life, but those two are not mutually exclusive. Instead, we should be focusing on bigger questions such as am I happy, healthy, and is what I’m doing meaningful to me?
When he found work he was passionate about and made it part of his life’s mission, he found that he no longer needed a work-life balance. He questions everything that he does as to whether it is adding value to the world, whether it is a tweet, writing, or any other action. Before spending money, he raises one question, “Is this worth my freedom?” understanding the opportunity cost of a two-dollar coffee or thirty-thousand dollar car. Asking that question, he spends and needs less money to live a fulfilling life. When’s the last time you seriously considered the cost of your daily brew?
On the more extreme side, he also eliminated goals from his life and simply focuses on what’s important, finding it to be personally more productive and less stressful. I’m not ready to follow that far.
Seek a Higher Power
A little disclosure, I am a Christian and developing my faith over the last few years has had a tremendously positive impact on my life. I personally believe we need to have a belief in something bigger and beyond ourselves to reach our highest levels of self-actualization. A friend recommended that I watch a talk by Dr. Mark Hyman discussing finding our purpose. During the talk, he was interviewing Reverend Michael Beckwith.
They discussed different stages of spiritual growth starting with the victim stage, asking what is being done to us and evolving to the question of what is being done through us.
As we progress through the stages, we need to surrender and allow what is in us to emerge similar to an acorn becoming an oak tree. The end result of is often bigger than we can imagine.
Both Dr. Hyman and the Reverend make mindfulness a normal practice, whether through practicing gratitude or meditation. The Reverend absorbs bad news like a prayer request – what is the world missing and how can I provide that?
How differently would your problems look if you reframed them like that?
Burnout in America is on the rise, for a multitude of reasons. Unfortunately, I only see the issue worsening, pending a total societal re-evaluation of our norms and “work.” If you’re struggling, I hope that I’ve provided some helpful tools or insights.
Do you struggle with burnout, or just exhaustion, in your daily life? What areas are you struggling with? Did I miss any major areas?
If everything is going great, would you mind taking a few moments to reflect and share what you believe are the biggest pieces to your success?
Do you use any of the tools that I shared above? If so, what make the most difference for you? If not, what is ONE thing (we’ll start like Zorro), that you could improve today to live a better life?