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Burnout Isn’t Just a Millennial Affliction

Anne Helen Petersen’s BuzzFeed essay correctly captures a very real condition, but in limiting it to a single generation, she precludes the most promising solutions.

Photo illustration of a burnt match against a blue background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Igor0305/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

For stretches of my adulthood, I have self-soothed by forgoing cooking dinner in favor of eating an entire bag of flavored kettle chips. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Anne Helen Petersen’s most recent BuzzFeed piece, “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” resonated with me. Petersen spends the piece detailing why people my age feel so overwhelmed by small to-do list items, like going to the post office or the grocery store: We’re so burned out from trying to endlessly work and fulfill our larger goals, and that we essentially no longer care about the small things that don’t come with a major reward. I shared it on Instagram. I told my roommates to read it. Petersen’s newsletter notes that since its publication on Saturday, millions of people have read it, too.

But as I turned the piece over in my head and talked about it more, I found myself increasingly skeptical of Petersen’s thesis. Not that burnout isn’t real, but that it’s as inherent to millennials as Petersen claims it to be. As writer Kim O’Connor put it, the essay is “somehow too general and too specific at the same time.” It functions best as a personal essay, but it’s framed as the Rosetta stone to millennial life (perhaps because it’s in part responding to attitudes and trend pieces that also falsely lump millennials together). And yet, she never really delivers compelling evidence explaining why the experience would be unique to millennials, beyond vaguely nodding to the “parental optimization and monitoring” that some millennials were raised under. She ignores the fact that other generations currently experience the same effects of work email in our pockets and shiny lives of our peers on Instagram. She also ignores the fact that people who are not white and not middle class and not able-bodied have suffered the effects of burnout for longer than millennials have even been around (a privileged blind spot that, to her credit, she seems interested in considering more deeply post-publication).

Equally frustrating is Petersen’s further assumption that burnout is unsolvable, particularly for the relatively privileged people Petersen’s piece centers around. I reject this notion partially because my lived experience is different: I hit peak burnout—by Petersen’s definition—during a major life change. I was leaving a live-in boyfriend after I found myself in the role of default apartment manager, responsible for the daily tasks of keeping things clean and running. (Petersen notes that many women find themselves in the position, but doesn’t realize that it’s a position at least some of us can remove ourselves from.) In the overwhelming effort that it took to break up and move, I found myself letting a lot of things go: I failed to return a dog harness I ordered by mistake, was told by a friend that I stopped asking questions about her life, and left a nearly brand-new $100 floor lamp next to my soon-to-be-former building’s free table because I simply could not conceive of what else to do with it. Would I need lamps in my new life? Who could say!

But then I went to therapy twice a week. I scaled back as much as possible at work while still completing my job. I took long walks with my dog with a to-go cup of tea from Starbucks. I did some of the things consumer culture markets as self-care because I know from experience that they genuinely help me feel better (face masks, bath bombs), and I skipped the ones that don’t work for me (shopping, Pilates). I did my own particular forms of self-care, too: I lost myself in doing interviews for freelance projects, I went rock climbing, I posted Instagram stories about how I was feeling confused and sad, I considered new apartments in different cities, turning over in my head the vast expanses of options I am lucky to have for my life.

This is the true nature of self-care—not overnight oats, not massages, not vacations, not the Pomodoro technique, which Petersen cites. Some of these things may work for you, but none of them should be held forth as a one-size-should-fit-all prescription, which is how Petersen evaluates and rejects them, and most other things that could help her burnout. It is figuring out what makes you, personally, reinvigorated and better able to manage stress. Jenna Wortham, a New York Times reporter, wrote affectingly about “redefining personal luxury” in an essay for Bon Appetit in 2017. Buying body scrubs and something called a “Himalayan primordial mineral powder” was failing her, so instead she turned to creating daily rituals for herself. She started “cherishing the walk each morning to get coffee on my way to work, lingering in the sun and noticing the clean, brisk air,” acts so small they seem feeble against our rat race burnout system. And yet: “[s]omehow even that tiny routine helps steady me for the million things that lie ahead each day.”

Like Wortham, some of the things that re-inflate me are small and free. Few of them are things that appear on shelves at stores neatly labeled “happiness.” But for me, it took therapy to get me to a point where I could fully suss out what those things and acts were for me, to feel their effects (it is also taking therapy to keep me there).

The true problem with grappling with burnout, with fighting it, is not that it can’t be done, but that doing it can be costly. What was letting that $100 lamp go to me? What was crying in front of my boss as I tried to navigate my move and hold it together at work? What was the money it took to break my lease? What were the health insurance payments, the therapy bills? To me, a white woman with a job, and no kids, and no student loans (thanks, mom and dad and public college!), mostly it was shame. This is a theme of Petersen’s essay, too: It’s how she feels about the fact that she can’t get her knives sharpened, manage her inbox, or donate books. “My shame about these errands expands with each day,” she writes.

What would those things be to someone else? A lot more. “If I don’t answer an email or attend a committee meeting at my university, I might suffer different consequences than my white, male millennial counterparts,” notes poet and creative writing professor Tiana Clark, in a Twitter thread criticizing Petersen’s piece (and which Petersen linked to in a newsletter entry following up on her piece). “Not filling out arduous insurance forms for certain communities isn’t just bothersome, but could be damaging, fatal even.” As Linda Tirado writes in Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, “It’s amazing what things that are absolute crises for me are simple annoyances for people with money.”

Ultimately, burnout isn’t a “millennial condition,” as Petersen argues. It’s the condition of being human in a capitalist society. The specifics may be new (Slack allows for nonstop work, Instagram makes the fruits of your work feel small and dull), but I have trouble believing that my great-grandmother, working on a farm in Pennsylvania with a dozen-ish kids, never had tiny to-do list items that rolled over from one week to the next—what Petersen dubs “errand paralysis.” I have trouble believing she never felt the day-to-day of running a household went underrecognized in those years way before The Feminine Mystique sought to blow the lid off of unrecognized labor.

Petersen’s essay only makes sense as anything beyond a personal one if you accept that millennials are somehow both monolithic, and deeply inherently different than the swaths of people who were born at different points in history before them—a questionable premise in and of itself. As Aisha Harris wrote in Slate after the 2016 election, self-care isn’t a new concept either. It’s one that has existed for decades in the medical establishment before it turned political with the women’s and civil rights movements. “Women and people of color viewed controlling their health as a corrective to the failures of a white, patriarchal medical system to properly tend to their needs,” writes Harris. Eventually that framework was coopted by the wellness industry and sold to us, which is maybe why the options Petersen runs through—the massages and the oats and the apps—fall so flat for her. That is what living under capitalism is: The solutions we’re sold don’t line up with the problems.

What is most self-defeating about Petersen’s insistence that burnout is a millennial-specific affliction, or even that it affects us primarily, is that such an assertion actually limits the one thing that she thinks could fix it: collective action. As Petersen writes, “individual action isn’t enough. 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.” She’s right that this is the main approach that that would start to move the needle for everyone. But we’d be better suited to do it if we can acknowledge that it’s not just our generation that feels so overworked and undersupported that we are can be stymied by small chores—and therefore not just our generation who should agitate for policy changes and labor conditions that would ease the burden.