Burnout. It’s that feeling beyond exhaustion where you keep pushing yourself, past the point where you even know why you’re pushing at all. A recent viral article in BuzzFeed claimed that for the millennial generation, burnout isn’t a "temporary affliction … it’s the millennial condition. It’s our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives." It struck a deep chord – with millennials who said, "Thank goodness, someone is finally talking about this," and also with readers hailing from every generation who said, "Hey, if burnout is systemic — a chronic state of American capitalism — you don’t get to own it for yourselves. We feel it too."
The question is: What to do about it?
Anne Helen Petersen, the author of "How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation," and Tiana Clark, whose response, "This Is What Black Burnout Feels Like," BuzzFeed also published, joined On Point Monday to discuss.
On what inspired her to write about millenials as "the burnout generation"
Anne Helen Petersen: "I think I didn't understand what was going on in my own life. I talk about in the piece that I had what I call 'errand paralysis,' which is a ridiculous name to describe the fact that I couldn't take the knives to get sharpened. I couldn't take my shoes to the cobbler. I couldn't do basic, simple things. And I didn't understand why. I am a very type-A, rational person who usually — I make a list and I do it. And I was just trying to understand that. And the more I read about it, what is it that makes you bad at completing to-do lists, the more I realized, 'Oh, I think that I am just burnt out.'
"The problem is, I thought burnout was something that after you work really hard for a long time, then you like collapse. Then you fix it by going on a beach vacation. Then you come back and you're fine, or at least better. What I wasn't recognizing is that burnout is the condition of continuously working past the point of burnout. I was existing on a plane of burnout. And so once I recognized it as that, it was an incredible paradigm shift for me. It was incredibly liberating."
"We have flattened our lives into to-do lists."Anne Helen Petersen
On the stereotypical criticism of millennials (such as that they are lazy or view life as too hard)
Petersen: "I think that the most facile critique is that life has always been hard. Like, your grandparents did World War II, like, buck up. And I say in the piece that life has always been hard. But at the same time, the way that life is hard for millennials is that it's not neccesarily more or less hard, it's hard in a different way. It's hard in a way that there's this expectation that we should be thrilled with how life is right now. So why is there a disconnect with how we are experiencing the world, and how we are expected to experience the world?
"The other thing is that, yes, of course, a lot of these things that involve living and capitalism and America spread to people that are older and younger. My argument is that we, as a generation, all of these forces consolidate on us. So we experience them in a particularly acute way."
On the idea of the "the core millennial condition"
Petersen: "It's something we have normalized. It's just — we should work all the time. We should do it in conditions that are not optimal, that are not steady, where we are constantly in a precarity, whether that's economic or psychological. We have flattened our lives into to-do lists, so that goes for whether you are at work or at home or trying to play with your kids. It flattens things that should be joyful into this incredible to-do list that feels the opposite of joyful.
"We have incredible student loan debt. Most of us have not had steady jobs that we can depend on, that we know will be there in the next year, or that have benefits that include health insurance or steady work hours. A lot of us cull together several jobs at the same time.
"This idea there's a destination — that once you reach that destination with a career and family, then happiness will be there. But it's not a pathway, a final place where you end. It's a treadmill that is always going. And it's hard for many millennials to even conceive of being salient or having $3,000 in their bank account to cover an emergency, let alone having enough for a down payment or achieving the things that our parents' generation thought of as life goals, the things that would signal happiness in adulthood."
On whether Peterson's article reflects the experience for all millennials
Tiana Clark: "As I was reading the article, I did not see myself reflected, and that's why I kind of shared a Twitter thread about black burnout, about this feeling that I don't feel like I'm allowed to be tired. I also feel like for black people, you can call it inherited trauma, inherited burnout, this cross-generational idea that comes from a long line of tired black women. Not only are we fighting the endless emails and Slack notifications, but we're also trying to prove our humanity inside and outside of the workplace.
"So often the millennial conversation is centered on whiteness when 43 percent of millennials are non-white. So I think it's important to kind of broaden the conversation."
"You can call it inherited trauma, inherited burnout, this cross-generational idea that comes from a long line of tired black women. Not only are we fighting the endless emails and Slack notifications, but we're also trying to prove our humanity inside and outside of the workplace."Tiana Clark
On how overworking has been part of her experience as a black woman
Clark: "When I called my mom to tell her I was writing this article, she was just like, 'Well, I've been tired my whole entire life.' Or, I'm thinking about Fannie Lou Hamer, you know, 'All of my life I've been sick and tired of being sick and tired.' Especially for black women, being extremely exhausted and stressed affects our blood with greater intensity, at a greater rate, than it does for white women. Especially looking at black maternal health rates, especially for black academics.
"Not only are we paying off our student bills, but we're also paying off our parents' loans, which is another kind of weight that we carry as a black millennial. And so often, it's invisible and not talked about. And when my article came out, so many black women reached out to me and said they were crying, that they felt seen and they felt heard. And I think, for me, that touched me in my bones that so often our stories are not told. So I was really happy that BuzzFeed reached out to kind of broaden this conversation and kind of add my voice."
On Clark's criticism of her article
Petersen: "I think Tiana is absolutely, 100 percent correct. And I had done reading about things like vigilante parenting, which is not necessarily how we think of helicopter parenting. It is more this idea that I want to have my kids succeed no matter what, and that cuts across race and class lines. So I had been thinking intersectionally in many ways. But, at the same time, where the piece failed was thinking about the ways, as Tiana mentioned, what it feels like to be disabled and burnt out, or an immigrant and burnt out. Or especially an undocumented immigrant and a first-generation immigrant, and so many other different identities.
"That is what is lost in my piece, and I'm grateful for people who are willing to take the time to articulate. We often times arrive at this scenario where white people are asking other people to teach them, and that should not be the way this dynamic always is. It should be more about me trying to learn, not necessarily other people having to take the time to articulate this. But I am very grateful for Tiana and the other people who have been willing to, whether it's on Twitter or it's in emails, articulate how it works differently and has worked differently for generations."
David Marino and Alex Schroeder adapted this interview for the web.