Millennials, those born between 1981 and 1997 and also known as Generation Y, have been accused of many things over the past few years. According to Larissa Faw of Forbes, our out-of-control spending habits are funded by our parents. Fortune Magazine’s Patricia Sellers says, “Gen Y cares most about fun, innovation, social responsibility, and time off” in distinction to our Boomer colleagues who value “pay, benefits, stability, and prestige.” And Bill Maher, who never passes up an attempt to insult entire populations, calls us “self-righteous bullies” who shame people into opinions “they don’t really hold.” Much has been made of certain instances of Millennials publicly demanding more sensitivity toward matters of identity, which has led to my favourite name for our generation, the snowflake generation. So, we are criticised for our personal budget habits, our work lives, and our politics. We certainly have our challenges, but correcting the racism, homophobia, and misogyny of previous generations is certainly not one of them.
Let me start by saying that I have healthy skepticism for commentary about generations. Taking a monolithic view of what characterises a subset of the population based on the years they were born is speculative at best and at worst detrimental to young people forging identities, careers, and relationships in early adulthood. Most of the writing on generations tends to define them by what they buy. Just search “marketing to Millennials”, and you will learn all sorts of things you did not know about yourself. Evidently, we do not have as much sex as previous generations. For a brief time, Playboy took full nudity out of its print magazine in a bid to market to us. Nevertheless, if criticisms are going to be made with the rigid category of Millennials, I want to respond in turn. Let me play the game a bit and speak in general, abstract terms. The sentiments here are not meant to define one person but to address some of the collective challenges we face. The term Millennial has been used as an epithet, but I want to use it as a rallying point. First, to the criticism that we spend too much and rely too much on our parents I say, sure, we are materialistic. We like stuff. But we do not hide our materialism like previous generations by saying stuff does not matter. And we also do not necessarily value the stuff our parents do in the same way. I hope to never own a car again in my life, but a house would be nice if I lived in a city where I could afford one.
To the authors of the criticisms about our work habits I would like to point to our experiences of the job market in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis and the years just after. Not only were we screwed by decisions not of our making nor asked about solutions to those decisions, but we are now frightened of investing in a market that we have only known to be extremely volatile. We did not lose middle-class jobs with good benefits and all the ‘frills’ of middle-class life. Those jobs were never available to us, and the middle class of our parents’ generation is so far from our reality. To the criticism that we are snowflakes, hypersensitive to issues of identity, I would say first that a little sensitivity to these matters has never made our society worse. Yes, we like political correctness because we do not tolerate overt or ‘subtle’ racism, misogyny, or homophobia. We understand #metoo because we grew up watching our mothers having to grin and bear it. The notorious Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, gets that we are the key to addressing issues of sexual harassmentand assault. Others should too. Do not call us snowflakes, Bill Maher, because we call you out.
We are not poor, lazy, or hypersensitive. You know what we actually are? Lonely and depressed. A recent study in Psychological Medicine shows that British Millennials are “twice as likely to experience depression or anxiety” due to loneliness. This has little to do with social media and more to do with the emotional barriers we put up as a result of the way our parents instilled in us a distrust of others. We heard it from their lips and saw it in their behaviours. Walls came to define our childhoods—both physical and emotional—and we are attempting to break them down. We are lonely because we are not satisfied merely with economic relationships or with making all relations about money. We saw the thinking of our parents’ generation that taught us hard work and accumulation of stuff was the path to happiness while they simultaneously told us not to choose careers for the money.
We are also “mad as hell” as Derek Thompson of The Atlantic puts it. We are angry that an economy we are ready to reform, lead, and grow cannot find a place for our individual talents and interests while providing us a living wage. No, perhaps we have not been as politically engaged as the Gen Z Parkland students now are. But you cannot have it both ways by calling us sensitive and then reprimanding us for not taking strong stands. Our sensitivity and our demand for meaningful work are not our challenges. We do have challenges, though. I can identify three: 1. Monetising our work, 2. Demanding a lot from the economy we help sustain, and 3. Building solidarity and coalitions across race, class, gender, and sexuality.
First, we have yet to find a widespread means for demanding adequate compensation for the crucial work we do for companies and the economy. We run tech firms as well as the technical infrastructure at many firms across the U.S. and Europe, but we are not compensated for it. Some firms are stretching their rigid, outdated expectations, and Millennials are beginning to make demands from employers, but we need to push harder. And we have high expectations with which to replace those. We are likely to leave a firm within three years—a smaller employment window than any other generation. Part of pushing is realising the historical circumstances that made us as a generation. Malcolm Harris says that “by investigating the historical circumstances out of which Millennials have emerged, we can start to understand not only why we are the way we are, but in whose interests it is that we exist this way.” It is no secret that powerful interests have captured our information and attention. We are saying so-long to Zuckerberg, but how far are we willing to go to take back our information?
Finally, we must build strong coalitions from the strong personal and digital networks we already maintain. Hyperlocal is our preference, but we could build a staggering political force if we used these networks to build national coalitions. We are starting to be elected to Congress, and this brings exciting possibilities. However, building national coalitions will take throwing off the cynicism of our parents’ generations that tells us politics is no way to make meaningful or widespread change. If we can leverage the high level of social trust we already exhibit throughout our personal and digital networks, we can make big things happen.
This trust is our greatest value and the one we must utilise if we are to become what Martha Laham calls “the next greatest generation.” But she also warns that we could become the next “lost generation” if we do not turn our incurable optimism into reality through the strengths we already exhibit. Those strengths—our optimism in grassroots projects as a tool for positive change, BS detector for subtle forms of oppression, and belief that we can make a living on our terms—are the capital we have. We have to redefine the social contract for a new millennium for a generation whose belief in each other is its greatest asset.
Burnout—the feeling of mental and physical exhaustion—is on the rise, particularly in millennials, and in a time of hyper-connectivity and the ‘hustle’, it’s more important than ever to spot the signs and regain a positive work-life balance. Not doing so could cause problems like ‘errand paralysis’, a condition of being unable to cope with the most basic tasks due to mounting anxiety, which Anne Helen Peterson discusses in her then viral Buzzfeed article. As she writes, “I’d put something on my weekly to-do list, and it’d roll over, one week to the next haunting me for months.”
Peterson’s essay on millennial burnout provoked a wide range of responses, including Josh Cohen’s article published at NBCNews. In the article, he examines some of the factors that may be contributing to burnout in millennials, such as the ‘ego ideal’ and the influences of modern culture. Research from the BBC backs up the phenomenon of millennial burnout, describing it as “not just another snowflake issue”, as does The Guardian’s article written by Dawn Foster. We know that burnout is real, but what can we do to about it?
Well, let’s start with the obvious. We need to take a good look at our relationship with technology. Social media contributes to feelings of burnout, according to Peterson, because much of what appears online portrays others as successful, reminding millennials of the work they must do to reach that standard. Interestingly, studies have shown that heavy technology use is linked to fatigue and stress in young adults, which means taking daily breaks from our screens should be a priority. Because millennials have grown up in a day and age where the internet has given them access to masses of information, they’ve been hard-wired to expect efficiency and convenience.
With thousands of apps at our fingertips, millennials have never had to wait for anything, so it’s no surprise that many young adults feel impatient, and as a result are working harder and faster, burning out in the process. While we can’t change the conditions in which we grew up, we can reassess how we engage with technology to ensure it’s not having any negative effects.
But what about tackling burnout in the office? Executive coach and keynote speaker, Monique Valcour said that “altering your perspective” to view the work in a more positive way is one of the best methods to manage stress. I’ve often found that work becomes more stressful when you overthink it, or when you become too focused on the outcome. Of course, achieving any goal is important but actually enjoying the process makes you more in tune with the work and less worried about the end result. Once we learn to appreciate and focus on the process, start-to-finish, the work can become more fulfilling, reducing the chance of burning out.
Arguably, the greater sense of an urgency that many millennials feel has been exasperated by the rise of hustle culture, an almost cult-like trend being pushed on young people, which advocates that working non-stop is the only way to be successful. A lot of millennials are quite ambitious, and that’s what makes us particularly vulnerable to this kind of movement, as evidenced by Peterson’s account. “Why am I burned out?” she writes. “Because I’ve internalised the idea that I should be working all the time.” I’m not against working hard or being dedicated to your passion but it should never be at the expense of your well-being. There’s no point hustling to the point of exhaustion or taking work so seriously that it becomes mentally draining. Simply put, quit hustling if it makes you feel miserable because no side-project in the world is worth burning out over.
It’s no secret the way we work is changing and many of us in the millennial generation juggle multiple jobs, making good communication all the more important. It’s often said that millennials need continuous feedback at work, which again reflects how millennials are used to speed and transparency. In stressful times, we should embrace our own nature of expecting constant communication by reaching out to people (in the real world) for support. After all, collaboration makes it easier to solve problems and a network of strong relationships could ease the pressure.
Ultimately, burnout is a sign that you need to slow down and reset. While I agree with the central argument in Peterson’s essay, her assumption that burnout is an unsolvable experience is tough to accept—because I think most of us just need to change the way we think. In short, having the right frame of mind is key, so it’s time to fight back, take control and actively manage your time to get past burnout for good.