How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation

Malcolm Harris lays out the myriad ways in which our generation has been trained, tailored, primed, and optimized for the workplace — first in school, then through secondary education — starting as very young children. “Risk management used to be a business practice,” Harris writes, “now it’s our dominant child-rearing strategy.” Depending on your age, this idea applies to what our parents did or didn’t allow us to do (play on “dangerous” playground structures, go out without cellphones, drive without an adult in the car) and how they allowed us to do the things we did do (learn, explore, eat, play).

Harris points to practices that we now see as standard as a means of “optimizing” children’s play, an attitude often described as “intensive parenting.” Running around the neighborhood has become supervised playdates. Unstructured day care has become pre-preschool. Neighborhood Kick the Can or pickup games have transformed into highly regulated organized league play that spans the year. Unchanneled energy (diagnosed as hyperactivity) became medicated and disciplined.

…In the past, pursuing a PhD was a generally debt-free endeavor: Academics worked their way toward their degree while working as teaching assistants, which paid them cost of living and remitted the cost of tuition.

That model began to shift in 1980s, particularly at public universities forced to compensate for state budget cuts. Teaching assistant labor was far cheaper than paying for a tenured professor, so the universities didn’t just keep PhD programs, but expanded them, even with dwindling funds to adequately pay those students. 

…For many millennials, a social media presence — on LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter — has also become an integral part of obtaining and maintaining a job. The “purest” example is the social media influencer, whose entire income source is performing and mediating the self online. But social media is also the means through which many “knowledge workers” — that is, workers who handle, process, or make meaning of information — market and brand themselves. Journalists use Twitter to learn about other stories, but they also use it to develop a personal brand and following that can be leveraged; people use LinkedIn not just for résumés and networking, but to post articles that attest to their personality (their brand!) as a manager or entrepreneur.

…“Branding” is a fitting word for this work, as it underlines what the millennial self becomes: a product. And as in childhood, the work of optimizing that brand blurs whatever boundaries remained between work and play. There is no “off the clock” when at all hours you could be documenting your on-brand experiences or tweeting your on-brand observations. The rise of smartphones makes these behaviors frictionless and thus more pervasive, more standardized. 

…But the phone is also, and just as essentially, a tether to the “real” workplace. Email and Slack make it so that employees are always accessible, always able to labor, even after they’ve left the physical workplace and the traditional 9-to-5 boundaries of paid labor. 

…Millennial burnout often works differently among women, and particularly straight women with families. Part of this has to do with what’s known as “the second shift” — the idea that women who’ve moved into the workplace do the labor of a job and then come home and perform the labor of a homemaker. (A recent study found that mothers in the workplace spend just as much time taking care of their children as stay-at-home mothers did in 1975.) One might think that when women work, the domestic labor decreases, or splits between both partners. But sociologist Judy Wajcman found that in heterosexual couples, that simply wasn’t the case: Less domestic labor takes place overall, but that labor still largely falls on the woman.

…Domestic work is now supposed to check a never-ending number of aspirational boxes: Outings should be “experiences,” food should be healthy and homemade and fun, bodies should be sculpted, wrinkles should be minimized, clothes should be cute and fashionable, sleep should be regulated, relationships should be healthy, the news should be read and processed, kids should be given personal attention and thriving. Millennial parenting is, as a recent New York Times article put it, “relentless.”

…In recent years, new scientific research has demonstrated the “massive cognitive load” on those who are financially insecure. Living in poverty is akin to losing 13 IQ points. Millions of millennial Americans live in poverty; millions of others straddle the line, getting by but barely so, often working contingent jobs, with nothing left over for the sort of security blanket that could lighten that cognitive load. To be poor is to have very little mental bandwidth to make decisions, “good” or otherwise — as a parent, as a worker, as a partner, as a citizen. The steadier our lives, the more likely we are to make decisions that will make them even steadier.

…Personal choices alone won’t keep the planet from dying, or get Facebook to quit violating our privacy. To do that, you need paradigm-shifting change.

How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation

The whining and woe-is-me kvetchigng level is off the charts. So much so that it seems the author misses their own most salient points.

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