Venti iced coffees from Starbucks. Packs of Adderall bought from a friend of a friend. An alarm for a ten-minute power nap at 8 p.m.
All of these are symptoms of a common, but deadly virus: millennial burnout.
What is millennial burnout? The term became popularized after a Buzzfeed essay on the subject went viral this January, but the condition was actually first studied in the 1970s. In short, burnout happens when you’ve internalized the notion that you should be working at all times –– and as a result, you have little drive or desire to do anything. You feel guilty for sitting down in front of the TV, you keep putting off the simple task of mailing something at the post office, you groan a little when your boss texts “got a second?” on a Saturday. You feel as though anytime spent not working and being productive is a waste of time and a source of guilt. Even if you’re spending your free time doing constructive activities like yoga, going to dinner with friends, reading a book, doing crossword puzzles, etc., it still feels like you aren’t doing enough.
In other words… you’re burnt out.
But, here’s the thing: we shouldn’t. No, I don’t mean we need to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and stop whining –– I mean, we shouldn’t have to feel like this.
Technology and social media are fantastic innovations, but they’ve also paved the way for a culture that not only thrives on productivity, but expects it constantly. Since technology allows us to basically be available 24/7, it’s assumed that we should jump at any opportunity that comes our way. If you get an email from your boss at 11 p.m., you’re expected to read it. If you get a “can anyone help with this event?!” text in the groupchat, you’re expected to respond chipperly. Opportunity for extra credit? Side gig you can put on your resume? Cycling class that meets twice a week? You bet.
I’m going to just say it outright: the idea that we must be doing something productive at all times and constantly contributing to society… that’s bogus.
We need leisure. I’m not just saying that because I want an excuse to blow off my homework to watch the latest Riverdale episode. Leisure is a fundamental biological need. Consequences of sleep deprivation can be devastating, resulting in serious cognitive deficits even in the brains of generally healthy adults. Not to mention the physical and emotional toll constantly working takes on your body.
Of course, burnout is not exclusive to only millenials, nor does it look the same across all demographics. Buzzfeed’s Tiana Clark’s response piece explores what burnout looks like specifically for black American women, writing: “For millennials of color, not only do we have to combat endless emails and Slack notifications, but we also get strapped with having to prove our humanity inside and outside of the workplace and classroom… sometimes I feel that I have to be so grateful for everything that I can’t talk about how I’m hurting and overwhelmed.”
Clark raises a valid point –– burnout is an intersectional phenomenon, and should be treated as such. I think it’s important to look at burnout through the lens of many different young people under many different circumstances, rather than just throw face masks everyone’s way and yell “self-care!”
For me personally, I’ve definitely experienced burnout, this academic quarter in particular. I’m in 17 units, in several different clubs and working. Most nights, I average about five hours of sleep, if I’m lucky. And the thing is, I do feel lucky. I know I’m incredibly privileged to be able to attend college and study something I’m passionate about. I’m having a very different 20s experience than my dad, who immigrated here from the Philippines as a kid, then commuted to Berkeley while sharing a bedroom with several of his siblings and working as a contractor to pay off debt. I’m extremely grateful for my education. But, I still find myself wanting to break down in the library at times because it’s 10 p.m., I’m only halfway through my list of things to do, and I just want to go home and watch “The Office,” goddammit. I think a lot of millenials who are first-generation college students, immigrants, or children of immigrants may feel similarly. Burnout can come with an added dose of guilt under such circumstances.
So, is there a cure for burnout? Well… yes and no. There are things we can do to ease the pressure off ourselves, like taking up an exercise class, learning to assert our boundaries, meditating before bed, designating 20 minutes a day to watch funny YouTube videos of cats. But the problem goes deeper than that. It’s rooted in our culture, our education system, capitalism, our upbringings. There’s no “one-size fits all” antidote. It’s not something we can fix overnight.
Regardless, we owe it to ourselves to listen to our bodies and brains when they cry “enough!”
Kelly Martinez is a KCPR staff member and Cal Poly Journalism senior. She wrote the article. Ivy Kolb is a Cal Poly Graphic Communications senior and a KCPR DJ. She created the artwork.