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Why 'Adulting' Is Hard And Millennial Burnout Is Actually A Thing

Courtesy of Anne Helen Petersen
Anne Helen Petersen is the senior culture writer at Buzzfeed News.

Think about your to-do list.

Now, think about how many things on that list have rolled over from last week ­­­– or maybe even last month. It could be something as easy as dropping off a package at the post office, but for some reason it just sits there on that ever-growing list of errands, haunting you.

Even though you may be killing it at work, you feel almost paralyzed when it comes to doing something as simple as getting your pants hemmed. If this sounds right, you may be experiencing Millennial burnout.

Or at least that’s what Buzzfeed reporter Anne Helen Petersen says in her viral essay "How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation." It’s a thoughtful look at an often-misunderstood generation. Petersen spoke with KUT about why she decided to write the piece.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Petersen: It started with me trying to figure out why I couldn't do some of the things that kept rolling over on my to-do list – sharpening the knives, taking my shoes to the cobbler, dropping some books off at the library to donate. As I looked more into what was actually fueling that errand paralysis – which is a ridiculous name, but a way to describe what was happening – I came to realize that what I actually was experiencing was burnout. And I just had failed to recognize it in that way because to me burnout had seemed like something that you come down with like the flu and you can recover from, you know, with just a weekend off or some time at the beach.

And so as I shifted my paradigm to start to think of burnout as more like the base temperature of my existence, it led me to think – OK, what are all the things that are making me feel burnt out? And, I mean, most of all it's that I'm working all the time and I have long internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. And how is that condition, that continual self optimization, spread across my generation?

Hamdan: I think it's fair to say that when your article was published it got a huge response from people all over social media, many of whom were rallying behind you. But there were a lot of people who didn't. And I think one of the biggest arguments against your piece was that Millennials don't have a monopoly on burnout. It's something every generation goes through. What exactly makes Millennials so different?

Petersen: So burnout is really characterized by this feeling of everything flattening into a long to-do list that never ends. And that is a characteristic really of the Millennial generation, but also of our current moment in which we're dealing with both mediating the self online, but also with the idea that the more efficient we become, the less we get paid. The more work we have to do, the less secure our jobs are. There's also the fact that many of the characteristics and the things that are contributing to burnout, they accumulate more forcefully, more acutely on the Millennial generation.

So, one of the things I talk about is incredible student loan debt, and that is something that is accumulated for Millennials in a way that no other generation has experienced. And you know all the figures about worst jobs, right? So, if you think of jobs is good or bad and what that means is not what the job is per se, but in terms of how you are treated, the security, knowing what your schedule is every week, the ability to advance, that sort of thing, being able to seek recourse if you are mistreated through something like a union. Those good jobs are increasingly difficult to find. I know a lot of people who are gainfully employed doing three side hustles, right? So, it's a different thing than I'm gainfully employed in a job that will be my career for the rest of my life and provide me with a 401K.

Hamdan: As a Millennial, I will say it's nice to read an article about our generation that doesn't just talk about how lazy and entitled kids are these days. I mean, I know and work alongside so many that disprove that theory, but I guess I'm curious to know what you think Millennial burnout says about our society as a whole?

Petersen: Well, I think even that contrast that the way that Millennials have been characterized as lazy and entitled and all of these things, it shows that a lot of the work that we do isn't necessarily recognizable to older generations as work. So, emailing at midnight from the bed – that is not something that is necessarily recognizable as labor. But at the same time those sorts of behaviors are things that flatten everything into work and contribute to that feeling of, you know, always try and optimize the self for more labor. I think that one of the tenets of capitalism is that you should be always getting more efficient, always getting higher returns, and it's always about more; it's about growth and to sustain that growth that means that you are continuing to tax the individual and their ability to work.

In America, it's unrealistic to think at this point in time that we are any moment soon going to have an overthrow of the capitalist system. However, I do think that you can look to movements on both ends of the political spectrum – whether it's the populism of Trumpism or Democratic Socialism – we understand that the issue is economic and that something needs to change. And so it will be very interesting to watch as Millennials actually enter into leadership positions –whether at the city, state or national level – and how they are going to implement policies and legislation that will hopefully change our relationship to work and to labor.

Hamdan: I was going to ask how do you think this can be fixed, if at all, and it sounds like perhaps one of the ways is that once Millennials start taking these leadership roles, as you said, things will change?

Petersen: Hopefully. I think, you know, in the near term, I say in the essay that just writing it was incredibly therapeutic to me and recognizing what I was experiencing had a name and a way for me to wrap my head around why I felt bad.

And I think that's part of the reason why the essay has been shared and read so much is because it gives a name to a very shared experience that many people thought was theirs alone and that they couldn't understand, you know, why do I feel bad? Why do I feel this way? It's a shameful thing that I can't be an adult or I don't feel happy as an adult. But giving it a name and giving us a language to talk about it makes it something that, you know, we can talk about as a societal issue and also makes it far less shameful.

Nadia Hamdan is a local news anchor and host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT.