The Burnout Generation
Stylish sweats, the dark side of selfies and Lost-meets-Mean Girls in this underrated YA series.
Last week, I borrowed psychologist Adam Grant’s ‘languishing’ to explain the malaise you’ve been feeling lately. But COVID blues aside, I’m itching for a deeper explanation to our burnout. Because I can’t remember the last time I didn’t feel like I’m running on a hamster wheel. This nagging pressure to always be doing more wasn’t born from the pandemic; I’ve been addicted to working for years.
The only difference is that now, with all the hours bleeding together under lockdown, what was always borderline toxic productivity has become all-consuming. The shift—and the effect it’s having on my energy levels—is revealing just how much I’ve internalized capitalism; it’s making me realize our burnout might be a cultural condition.
Relationship expert Esther Perel says it’s our addiction to work that explains why people feel so burnt out right now, “Burnout is what we experience today as a result of the intense meaning that work has for us. When work is the place where you search for self-worth, it becomes unrelenting.”
“Do what you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life” right? I grew up believing if I find my “passion” and work hard enough to make it my “career”, I’ll be happy. I also live in a culture that defines people by what they do, rather than who they are, and so, as Esther Perel says, “We look to work today for belonging, for identity growth, self-development, for purpose, for meaning, for community.”
Why do we make work our life? In an age where everything feels transient, work offers a means of making something tangible; permanent, a way to “leave behind a legacy; be part of something bigger” as Sunny Chisholm describes.
The problem is, it’s never enough. I reach inbox zero but there’s always more I could be doing; I reach a career milestone and there’s another one waiting. “Busy-ness and productivity and the shallow idea of success are usually empty calories,” writes Anne Helen Peterson. “When the endorphin rush of being ‘on’ and its attendant stress fade away, you’re left with a hunger for something more substantial.”
The expectation that anything can be monetized and everyone should have a personal brand means I can and should always be producing. “Any time that you take off is tinged with anxiousness that you could be working,” writes Anne Helen Peterson in How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation, “Every minute you’re not working, you’re losing money.”
The rise of the creator economy—in which I’m neither an “artist” (with an agent to manage my assignments) nor a “writer” or “photographer” (with explicit skills hired on a permanent basis)—means I create “content” for which I’m constantly seeking validation by pitching to magazines and posting on social. Content as our modern currency means I’m in a constant flow of consuming and regurgitating information; work and me are inseparable. My success hinges on my hustle; my happiness falls on me.
“The combo of individualism and capitalism makes it so we’re working more hours, we figure those hours will go by easier and faster if we love the work we’re doing—but it can also keep us from critiquing the structure in which this is unfolding. It puts the burden of ‘creating work-life balance’ back on individuals. Our current system of work ties job titles, income, and dream jobs to ambition, value, and self-worth—but the system is failing us. The pressure to have a dream job serve as your sole identifier can feel like a lot.” – Rainesford Stauffer.
Burnout, then, becomes both my doing, and my responsibility to fix. In a 2011 study aptly called Work’s Intimacy, respondents reported feeling it was their individual fault that explained why work took up so much of their lives. But as Ann Friedman says on the Call Your Girlfriend episode I recommended last week, “This is a systemic issue. You can’t self-care yourself out of capitalism.” I can escape burnout temporarily with my CBD gummies or a vacation or a Netflix binge, but the system, and my cultural conditioning of hyper-productivity, remains unchanged when I return. It’s why we’re *literally* called the “burnout generation.”
Realizing my burnout is less a result of the pandemic, and more likely from an addiction to work that was bred into me from adolescence, makes the prospect of managing it that much more daunting.
Next week, I propose some solutions. (Send me your tips if you have any!).
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With life moving to our screens over the past year, we’ve all had to spend a lot more time looking at ourselves on video calls. “One of the strangest things about Zoom is you’re looking at yourself, usually we don’t look at ourselves when we meet with other people,” child psychiatrist Dr. Helen Egger tells me over the phone. The heightened self-consciousness is driving an increase in plastic surgery, according to Dr. Melissa Doft, a NYC-based plastic surgeon.
But even before the pandemic, our devices had been becoming our mirrors—we all have an online version of ourself. Face filters on Instagram, and editing apps like Facetune allow us to perfect that image of ourselves. The occasional dog-eared filter on an IG story or light adjustment on a post may seem innocent, but when everyone does it, it creates a new standard of beauty of how we think we’re supposed to look. Even worse, face filters conflate facial differences into one ideal face—‘Instagram Face’ (think, high cheekbones, poreless skin, cat-like eyes and plump lips).
Where we used to compare ourselves to celebrities, now we compare ourselves not only to our peers online, but to ourselves. The disappointment we feel for not living up to our curated online self is having serious mental health effects, especially for young girls. In talking to Dove on their latest ‘Selfie Talk’ Campaign—which encourages educating young people on the harmful impact of editing apps and face filters—I learned some pretty scary stats: they found that just 10 minutes of editing and posting selfies increases anxiety and decreases confidence, and 80% of young girls have used a retouching app before 13 (!).
But there’s reason for hope! Read the full story for more.
I could not be happier that slob-chic has become fashionable over the past year. With the loungewear market booming, brands are elevating their comfy offerings—they’ve never been more soft and stylish. I rounded up some loungewear pieces to gift mom. My personal faves? Knix’s Cozzzy set, Lululemon leggings (a classic) and adorable mom-daughter matching rompers from Smash + Tess (all Canadian brands!); these whimsical patterned robes, these fuzzy slippers, and sweatpants so soft you don’t need undies.
(If you’re like me—burnt out without a mom this Mother’s Day—these also make great self-care gifts… I find being comfortable without looking totally horrific does help me feel better—might as well be comfy and chic while you burn right?).
🇮🇳 India’s current crisis is a grave example of what happens when rich people turn a blind eye.
“Now the rich sit alongside the poor, facing a reckoning that had only ever plagued the vulnerable in India.” - Vidya Krishnan.
🔥 COVID has turned our work addiction into a burnout crisis.
💻 In quarantine, hustle culture easily becomes toxic productivity.
👭 And your toxic productivity/addiction to work has an opportunity cost.
🤳Maybe artists wouldn’t be so burnt out if we weren’t now considered “creators.”
“The creator economy leaves little room for the kinds of projects and practices that don’t fit its preexisting digital structures — anything that doesn’t come out on a daily or weekly basis; creators who aren’t personally charismatic or willing to be parasocial targets; or material that is too challenging to net the immediate embrace of an enthusiastic audience.” - Kyle Chayka
📱 In the creator economy, social media decoupled fame and fortune.
“‘Free’ content on centralizing platforms is monetized, but most of the money flows directly from advertisers to the platforms themselves.” - Drew Austin.
💰 It’s why creators need a middle class, because success is currently concentrated at the top. Not every creator can become a celebrity.
🧒🏻 Many of us don’t fulfill the traditional markers of adulthood—getting a job, moving away from your parents, getting married, and having kids—so when do we become adults?
“Consider reversing your question…When are you really a child? These adult roles that everyone’s so worried about being taken on too late, what about people who have to care for sick parents as children, or who lose them at a young age? Circumstances sometimes thrust people into adult roles before they’re ready.” - Julie Beck
🎓 The real reason young adults seem slow to grow up? The ‘high school movement’ made becoming an adult in your 20s the norm.
“Today’s youth reach the markers of adulthood on remarkably similar timelines to the youth of a century ago.” - Nancy E. Hill.
👨👩👧👦 Advice your parents gave you vs. advice you will give your kids.
My Parents: Never show up to a party empty-handed.
Me: Never show up to a party. Send a text to the host twenty minutes before the party starts to say that you’re “sooooooo sorry” to cancel but your stomach is feeling “weird.”
My Parents: Don’t talk to strangers on the Internet.
Me: Talk to every stranger on the Internet, because meeting new friends in your thirties is really fucking hard.
🌍 But really, I can’t complain.
I loved Lost, Buffy, and Mean Girls, so naturally I fell for a feminist Lord of the Flies/Breakfast Club spin on all three. The Wilds (Amazon Prime) is about a group of burnt out teen girls who’ve been sent by their parents to an all-female wellness retreat in Hawaii. Their plane crashes on a remote island, leaving them struggling to survive.
Gradually we learn there are bigger forces keeping these girls on the island—namely a super-feminist corporate mogul who believes pushing the girls to become more resourceful will benefit society. The island sci-fi plot line is where the show falls short.
BUT where The Wilds shines is in its flashbacks: every episode we get to know the story behind each of the teens. A sassy misfit caregiving for her dying father, an athlete with an eating disorder, a closeted gay Christian pageant queen, an Indigenous sister duo—I’ve never seen such a diverse and refreshing cast. I can’t wait for season two to make up for where season one disappointed.
In this burnout episode of The Cut, relationship expert Esther Perel discusses how we’ve made work one of our primary sources of identity and purpose.
“Burnout is what we experience today as a result of the intense meaning that work has for us. When work is the place where you search for self-worth, it becomes unrelenting. If work structures your life to that extent, then the inability to meet the demands will translate into burnout.” - Esther Perel.
Tara Jefferson, founder of The Self Care Suite, blames our obsession with work on our culture’s non-communal nature, “One of the biggest shackles of capitalism is that everything is individualistic.” The solution then? Ask for help. “People say that that old saying it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village regardless. Everybody needs a village,” says Jefferson.