It’s the feeling of staring at a blank wall and wanting your brain to spark but not knowing how to make it happen. Or the feeling of trying to smile and knowing your eyes don’t match (a feeling made worse by going about masked, knowing you have even less ability to fake it). Or maybe it’s the endless stream of tasks that used to seem like checkpoints on a road to somewhere but now just feel like a perpetual, joyless game of whack-a-mole. It’s the gap between promise and reality, the feeling that your feelings themselves have gone on strike. It’s burnout.
The word dates back at least to the 1970s, but it’s become something of a buzzword in recent years, and even more recently has been attached in particular to millennials, after journalist Anne Helen Petersen wrote a viral 2019 Buzzfeed article on the subject. In Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, Petersen uses her personal story as a jumping-off point and attempts to generalize outward. Like other authors propelled from viral article to not-really-advice book, Petersen responds to some of her critics in an attempt to build a stronger, deeper case that she’s writing about a pervasive social problem. “It was about a work ethic and anxiety and exhaustion particular to the world I grew up in,” she writes, “the context in which I applied to college and tried to get a job, the reality of living through the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression, and the rapid spread and ubiquity of digital technologies and social media. In short: It was about being a millennial.”
Petersen is not the first to argue that the millennial generation faces a particular set of pressures—Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days detailed the way changes in capitalism have heaped expectations on millennials to develop their “human capital,” and Keir Milburn’s Generation Left argued that all of these changes have shaped millennial politics into something with incendiary potential, precisely because millennials have so little to lose. Petersen cites Harris, along with several other researchers and theorists, to defend millennials against the everlasting arguments that they are a generation stuffed on avocado toast and irresponsibility, waiting for a good life to drop into their laps, and to explain why “burnout” is suddenly the term on everyone’s lips.
Despite some gestures toward those outside of the college-educated professional track, Petersen’s book is really about the shifting expectations of a middle class in crisis. As Barbara Ehrenreich has pointed out, the middle class is always a moving target, always insecure, always afraid of falling, but in recent decades it’s begun a perhaps terminal decline. Like Anne-Marie Slaughter in Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family—which Tressie McMillan Cottom memorably took to task for its “trickle-down feminism”—Petersen struggles with the challenge of having rooted a general argument in her own professional life. While Petersen is refreshingly clear that “having it all” is impossible, much of her book is about millennials who are in some way attempting to do so. She covers the intensity of high school and college and extracurriculars, the stress of an always-on work culture, the new expectations for parents, and the perpetual hum of social media, as though these are pressures her audience will universally relate to.
Petersen offers acknowledgement of those whose experience differs from her own: “To live in poverty, or to live as a refugee, is to be conditioned to [precarity]. The difference, then, is that this was not the narrative that millennials—particularly white, middle-class millennials—were sold about themselves.” The slippage between generation and class here illustrates the problem. Petersen may be responding to the tendency of a thousand trend pieces to use the term “millennial” as a synonym for the older term “yuppie,” but to acknowledge that overwork, exhaustion, and emotional breakdown caused by living with scarcity are not new means the generational argument continually eludes her grasp. Burnout cannot simply be the result of precarious, struggle-filled life; that would make it less a new phenomenon and more the regular condition of life under capitalism.
Which is why the most interesting parts of the book are not about millennials per se but about burnout itself. Is burnout just overwork, or is it something else?
As a diagnosis, burnout dates back to 1974, when psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first identified a specific kind of stress experienced by workers in “helping” professions. Doctors and nurses, Freudenberger found, who were expected to be self-sacrificing and had a combination of high pressure and high ideals for their work, would lose their motivation and their ability to cope, becoming emotionally drained to the point of collapse. Petersen cites psychoanalyst Josh Cohen, who describes burnout as a state where “you’ve exhausted all your internal resources, yet cannot free yourself of the nervous compulsion to go on regardless.” Another reporter, citing Irvin Schonfeld, a psychology professor at the City College of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center, calls burnout “a kind of depression that occurs in reaction to terrible working conditions.”
The concept of burnout, then, emerged around the same time as neoliberalism, when capitalism bucked and heaved before taking its current shape. That the diagnoses for work-related mental and emotional ill health changed as the shape of wage labor changed should not surprise us. After all, burnout has antecedents: citing Cohen, Petersen identifies a “melancholic world-weariness” found “in the book of Ecclesiastes, diagnosed by Hippocrates, and endemic to the Renaissance, a symptom of bewilderment with the feeling of ‘relentless change.’” Neurasthenia, the nervous condition of industrial revolution–era patients, was connected to the “pace and strain” of the capitalism of the time.
Before the 1940s, “stress,” the word most commonly associated with the kind of workplace and social strain that Petersen details in her book, was mostly used by engineers and physicists; it applied, wrote William Davies in The Happiness Industry, to metals, not bodies. The turn from applying a term for wear and tear on a physical structure to wear and tear on humans’ physical or mental states came during the era following the Second World War, a period of relatively stable capitalist expansion in the West. Stress, Davies wrote, “is something we encounter without having chosen to, but cannot avoid.” As postwar prosperity expanded in the 1960s, occupational health emerged as a field. Researchers sought to understand how work affects human bodies and minds (and hearts). They learned that “Badly designed jobs and lack of proper recognition in the workplace were clear contributors to physical and mental ill-health.” The absence of power or autonomy on the job was a major contributing factor to stress-related illnesses, which were linked to the hormone cortisol.
Naturally, bosses were interested in studying all of this, not out of a magnanimous desire to make their employees happier but because stress, Davies noted, causes missed work time. Enter the workplace wellness program, which has gradually crept into all facets of employees’ lives and become a mechanism of workplace control. For West Virginia teachers like Brandon Wolford, “the straw that broke the camel’s back” and led to the mass strike in 2018 was being forced to wear Fitbits to track their movement. These sorts of policies are designed to keep down insurance premiums and to keep workers productive.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recognized burnout as an “occupational phenomenon . . . not a medical condition” in 2019; it defines burnout as a workplace condition, though of course the modern workplace, particularly in the COVID-19 era, is everywhere and borderless. Symptoms the WHO listed were “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.”
The first and third symptom can apply to anyone; the second one, however, implies that at one point you did not feel cynical or negatively about your job. Another burnout researcher pointed out that the cynicism is only a symptom when it’s new.
Is a factory worker who is stressed, exhausted, and cynical about their job experiencing burnout? Or is burnout, to return to Freudenberger and the “helping” professions, something that requires you to have cared about your job, to have held ideals about it, in the first place? What happens when you finish nursing school, ready to go to work saving lives, only to find yourself hounded to “do more with less” each day at the hospital, without enough protective equipment or time to pay attention to each patient? Burnout in this case, as Petersen says, is what happens “when the distance between the ideal and the possible lived reality becomes too much to bear.”
In other words, burnout is a symptom of the age of the labor of love.
Workers today are more likely to be in a field where their emotions have to, on some level, join them on the job. To steal Harris’s memorable line, “any job it’s impossible to do while sobbing probably requires some affective labor.” Whether that’s teaching, serving coffee to grouchy commuters, nursing COVID-19 patients, or interviewing unemployed people about their struggles, jobs that require the worker to present a particular emotional state, to enjoy what they do or at least pretend to, are a much larger proportion of the workforce now in the United States and other Western countries than before the neoliberal revolution. This shift is in a way, then, generational, but its effects are not at all limited to millennials.
The expectation that we will see our jobs as “cool” and therefore want to do them (and do them all the damn time) has also grown. “According to Indeed.com,” Petersen writes, “between 2006 and 2013 there was a 2505 percent increase in jobs described using the words ‘ninja’; a 810 percent increase in ‘rock star,’ and a 67 percent increase in ‘Jedi.’” These particular cutesy terms might be designed to appeal to supposed millennial sensibilities, but the reality is that work increasingly sucks emotions out of workers of every age.
At the same time, work—especially since a pandemic split the world into homeworkers, “essential workers,” and the unemployed—increasingly just sucks. The social rewards we might have received from a day with colleagues are reduced to a conversation on Slack at best and awkward attempts at physical distancing at worst; the respite of home is now just another place of worry. Loyalty to the job is tested over and over as bosses skimp on hazard pay and PPE, make cutbacks, or demand productivity from the home office. With so little left to love about work, perhaps we can cut through some of the delusions that might be leading us to burnout in the first place.
Burnout seems to be reaching (if you’ll excuse me) pandemic levels. A 2018 study reported a rate of “overall burnout” among the U.S. workforce of 28 percent. A Gallup poll found that 23 percent of workers feel it “often or always.”
Work, Petersen notes, has slowly taken over our emotional lives, crept into our most intimate relationships, and turned us all into little emotional capitalists. This is why “the burnout condition is more than just addiction to work. It’s an alienation from the self, and from desire.” She makes the case that burnout is, in a way, something we do to ourselves. Even on our days off, Petersen argues, we are drawn to the very same structures that make work such a nightmare.
Those structures are often just a phone-swipe away. There’s social media, which fills our brains with dopamine at every click, and is part of many people’s day jobs as well. (Petersen reserves a special opprobrium for Instagram, a place where we project an imagined, filtered, carefully cropped picture of our dream selves living the lives we wish we had as a way to convince ourselves that all this is fine.) There’s texting, which goes from another way to make people feel “recognized and special” to another slog, turning friendships into more work. And there’s Tinder, which turns the serendipity of meeting new romantic interests into something that combines the worst parts of Facebook and a job interview.
Our never-ending, unreliable work schedules turn social media, texts, and Tinder into substitutes for actual downtime where we could expansively, perhaps radically, connect with other people. It is the time we spend with one another, after all, that has revolutionary potential; it is in those moments, when people are friends and comrades rather than those with whom we compete in each Tweet and Instagram shot for middle-class status, that we might find the potential to refuse to construct ourselves to fit into late capitalism’s mold.
Burnout is not a problem we can individually solve. It is a symptom of the world we live in, which is set up to exhaust us to the point where we cannot resist. “There is no alternative” has gone from cry of triumph to grim promise. We are often too busy to fight. But in the streets last summer, when protests once again overflowed the boundaries placed by work and rules and even a pandemic to bring us together in outrage, we found something better and more meaningful than endless “doomscrolling” through Twitter as the bad news built.
Back in 2013, Sydette Harry wrote that millennials, though they weren’t the only ones in the streets, are the people who made the movement for Black lives. In 2020, it might have become the “largest movement in U.S. history,” according to the New York Times. Millennials, Harry wrote, met their challenges “with protests, marches, and yes, cross-generational organizing.” Millennials are also unionizing—one of the best ways, of course, to beat burnout on the job. A union, at bottom, is a group of people coming together for struggle—a struggle that might be exhausting but creates the kind of solidarity that can be a bulwark against burnout.
I first heard the term burnout in activist communities, where idealism and dedication can lead to bashing yourself against brick walls, only to find that this is not how brick walls come down. As disability organizer Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha wrote for Organizing Upgrade in 2012, it is working-class and poor people in particular, most of them people of color, who have little choice but to fight for their lives. “Some of us, we work so hard. We work so much. We don’t sleep. We don’t stop,” she wrote. “We have a somatics, a way of being in our bodies, sometimes, of toughness and sucking it up and making it happen. We do it because we have to, because we love it, because it’s a way of saying fuck you to everyone who’s ever said we’re lazy and it’s our fault we don’t have money. And this can be a gift. And it can also kill us.”
“Burnout isn’t just about not having a deep enough analysis,” Piepzna-Samarasinha wrote. “It’s about movements that are deeply ableist and inaccessible.” Movements often take the shape of the things they struggle against: they can be patriarchal and racist and hierarchical and deeply unfriendly to those with disabilities, those who have to work three jobs, those who have child-care or elder-care responsibilities. And if emotional exhaustion is the key component of burnout, then just existing as a Black person, when the news is daily filled with racist attacks, is a major risk factor. Movements must reckon with the realities of our lives today, rather than replicate the murderous structures of the workplace, or risk failure. Activist burnout too often leads people to drop out of movements altogether.
The burst of movement energy in the spring and summer of 2020 came on the heels of a period when many of us had the perhaps unfamiliar sensation of having free time. Whether we were furloughed, fired, or just stuck at home without our usual social outlets, for some of us the pandemic led to the feeling of expansive boredom—a boredom in which we might find time to truly feel, and to imagine other worlds. In those moments, perhaps, we felt most acutely the push-pull of social media. It was a way to feel together again but also underscored the distance between us. I caught myself on one video call reaching to touch the screen the way I would have casually touched my friend’s arm or leg as we spoke. I yearned for connection—luxurious, time-consuming, unproductive connection. When we spilled into the streets, the feeling of boredom turned into something else.
Movement burnout is real. But it is often, I think, a symptom of the way some people do a lot of the work of organizing and not only don’t get credit but, more important, don’t get care. “Self-care” has morphed in the popular consciousness from “an act of political warfare,” in Audre Lorde’s famed line, into yet another task on a to-do list—“take bubble bath” or “do yoga,” in between yet more work—but activists in places like Ferguson told me of building structures for community care, for places to come together to look after one another, tenderly. There was jail support, yes, and advocacy for a shorter work week, but also community meals, medical and mental healthcare, discussion space, and even massages. That feeling of care was everywhere in the streets last summer, from banners reading “Care Not Cops” to people handing out hot meals to protesters carrying bags of masks, hand sanitizer, bottled water, and snacks. Alongside the willingness to take the risk of viral or police or white supremacist violence were attempts, everywhere, to mitigate that violence by looking after one another, even if we were and would remain strangers.
We were so tired of the way the world kills us slowly and then sometimes, some of us, all at once. We were tired of the way economic anxiety seeps into emotional anxiety, the way we are ruled by scarcity, the way everything hurts and it’s impossible to disentangle. In the spaces between us that social distancing still required, we found something that could, at least temporarily, force back the burnout.
Sarah Jaffe is the co-host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast and the author of Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone.