Daniel Robinson

Sanity Over Success

Millennials: A Generation of Burnouts or Marathon Runners?

How can we be victims of these technologies if we're the ones creating them?

Posted Feb 01, 2019

Since graduating college in 2016 and moving to New York City, I have held four positions at three different tech companies, lived in three apartments across two boroughs, and taken two different standardized tests in order to apply to three different types of graduate programs. And after all this, I still cannot tell you with certainty what I want to do for the rest of my life.

Ironically, I am currently employed as both a career coach at a professional school and an independent college advisor, providing guidance and support to many millennial students and career-changers who are trying to map out their own, often uncertain, futures as well.  As much as I try to avoid confirming millennial stereotypes, from an outside perspective it certainly looks as if I am part of the uncommitted and entitled workforce that characterizes my generation. However, I greatly value my last few years of both personal and professional exploration and believe that there are positive trade-offs to our current job market that is often described as simultaneously unstable and suffocating.

Earlier this month, I was introduced to author Anne Petersen’s essay, How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation, featured in BuzzFeed News. In it, Petersen describes the various social, economic, and technology-driven developments that have resulted in a generation that is in a consistent state of psychological burnout. I have certainly experienced and can relate to Petersen’s assertion about the millennial experience. I am just as guilty as my peers of “errand paralysis,” including paying the neighborhood wash-and-fold to do my laundry, becoming distressed when my landlord asked me to mail a check every month versus paying over Venmo and using MealPal instead of taking five minutes to pack my lunch in the morning. Further, despite my company’s consistent promotion of work-life balance and encouragement to practice self-care, I still feel guilty for ignoring student requests after hours and even during periods of paid-time-off.  

While it is clear that Petersen did a thorough job diagnosing the problem and describing what the feeling of chronic burnout is like, she failed to offer any tangible solutions. Her inability to recognize many of the positive elements the digital era has had on items including millennial’s ability to find a meaningful career and the digital promotion of increased and more accessible psychological services cannot simply be overlooked. While macro-level issues have undoubtedly presented millennials with unique challenges, we as a generation have far more tools, resources and responsibility to help achieve professional success and emotional well-being than those before.

Petersen’s essay paints a rather hopeless picture of millennials' role in today’s digital economy. In her view, capitalism and the creation of enterprise technology have fostered a world in which young professionals are largely helpless to their circumstances. Since the market no longer values employee loyalty, young professionals are forced to job hop and move around the country. In addition, the traditional means of applying for a job have been pushed out in exchange for LinkedIn, social media, and other “systems of optimization,” millennials are yet again forced into building a digital presence and are exhausted having to constantly manage their personal brand online. They are helpless to the technology that greedy companies have put in place to maximize their work as they have no ability to set boundaries with their phones and computers. The self-help industry is not helping, but rather, exploiting the problem. Therapy and psychiatric drugs just serve to erase the feelings. But hey, this is what millennials were handed. And as she concludes, until a political revolution, overhauling capitalism takes place, what is one to do other than to continue to feel chronically burnt out?

Each generation is defined by the values and viewpoints of the world they share. When I think about my grandparents’ generation, the traditionalists or silent generation, the way they were raised, their reasons for going to college, and what they were looking for in professional life, I appreciate the challenges they faced were drastically different from the hurdles my generation struggles with today. At age 22, my grandparents got married and began to start a family less than two years later. This was, after all, what was socially expected of them at the time. Now, if one is to think about the economic consequences of this life path, it is easy to understand why finding a job that offered stability and a considerable wage may be more important than choosing a profession that gave them meaning. It is easy to see why job-hopping and career switching would be viewed as an unstable and reckless decision since young professionals had a family and children to support at home. The concept of one’s twenties being a time to explore and find oneself was rare. Loyalty to one’s family, one’s community, and one’s company were the foundation for survival and growth in a technology-free world. So in turn, employers valued and rewarded these attributes. Not so in this generation.

Technology, despite its obvious shortcomings, has opened up a world in which millennials have more options in how they choose to work and live their lives than ever before. From Petersen’s perspective, millennial culture is largely rooted in economic desperation which is further exacerbated by invasive technology. Some of the consequences of this include an unstable career path, non-existent work-life balance, resulting in a constant feeling of burnout. However, she fails to consider that technology has actually offered millennials more options and a wider perspective, which makes the appeal of settling for any one job or partner less essential.

So sure, one could make the argument that the lack of stable, high-paying jobs today is forcing people to wait to get married and start families. But even if the quality of jobs were the same as decades ago, would millennials suddenly choose to get married younger and start families in their early twenties? Or rather, have pushes towards gender equality in the workforce caused marriage to be seen as an outdated institution (particularly since the divorce rate for those 50 and older has doubled since 1990)? And yes, one could make the argument that millennials are forced to job hop because they do not have the option to work for companies that reward their loyalty. But again, if the quality of jobs were the same as decades ago, would millennials suddenly choose to work at one or two companies for the rest of their lives? Or rather, would they prefer the freedom to work at many different companies in order to find a professional environment that aligns with their personal value system?

Petersen contends that millennials’ endless quest to find work that they are passionate about is what ultimately drives them to burnout. This search for “the perfect job” encourages millennials to pursue additional, expensive education to their financial detriment. However, in contrast, Ashley Freeman, a leadership coach and corporate trainer who works closely with millennial professionals, has another take: that being forced to work in a job that is unsatisfying, even if one is good at it, is actually one of the strongest causes for burnout. As she explains:

“One major cause of burnout that I see as a coach occurs when employees choose a job they are skilled at—but largely dislike—doing. To understand why this causes burnout, it is important to distinguish between skills and strengths (passions). If an employee is not passionate about a particular skill, and is forced to carry it out over and over again at work, they burn out. Conversely, if they seek employment that speaks to their passions, the ‘work’ strengthens them.”

In short, millennials' ability to work in a number of jobs throughout their twenties allows them to learn what they do and do not want to do the rest of their lives. And while the market may be more competitive than in previous generations, there are many tools out there thanks to technology that make the application process less daunting.

Liz Wessel, CEO and co-founder of WayUp, is of the many leaders in tech that have dedicated their careers to helping students successfully transition into meaningful professional careers.

"We’ve seen that there is more pressure placed on students now than ever before to get the perfect job out of college even a year before they graduate. We [WayUp] understand that challenge and we know the way to the "holy grail" career is more often a journey than a direct path. We've created a solution that takes the anxiety out of this otherwise daunting process. We empower college students and recent grads with the tools and resources they need to find that job, land that interview, and actually get hired. Armed with these resources, early career candidates have never been more prepared or better positioned for their futures as they are today."

One obvious but often overlooked way companies can prevent burnout is by fostering strong interpersonal relationships and mentorship opportunities within an organization. As an Industrial-Organizational Psychologist and Consultant, Dr. Eve Coker trains executives on how to create environments which allow millennials to feel more connected to their work. She concludes that one of the key ways that leadership can prevent millennials from burning out is by creating a community in which they feel valued and connected. She explains that as a generation that was raised with higher levels of parental involvement, millennials often seek out relationships with supervisors and managers that resemble qualities of secure attachment.

“Many millennials have explained that they want to feel a sense of freedom and autonomy in what they do at work, but similar to many parental-child relationships, they also reported a desire for structure and expectations so that they could make sure they were doing their tasks correctly,” she explains. “They often report wanting to feel valued by the organization (as often communicated through their leadership), to have positive working relationships with co-workers, to be able to contribute to removal of barriers which cause frustration and stress, and to be able to engage in personal care which wards off or alleviates feelings of burn-out. Otherwise, when millennials have reported the experience of meaninglessness in their work, they frequently expressed that they burned out. When they burned out, their investment in performing well diminished. Many who experienced burn-out often leave their company to work elsewhere, and in some more extreme examples, just give up on working for other people entirely.”

Petersen’s essay discusses the psychological toll that the current economy and increased reliance on technology imposes on millennials, but it is a double-edged sword. Nancy Lublin, CEO and founder of Crisis Text Line, often describes how her organization “views technology as a lightsaber that can be red or blue.” On the one hand, rates of anxiety and depression have been steadily rising over the last decade. The direct correlation between increased use of technology and social media and rates of mental illness is well-documented. Perfectionism is a generational issue on the rise. Leaders in higher education have repeatedly cited that millennials demand for psychological services is unmatched in comparison to previous generations. But one has to ask, what caused millennials to come out of the woodwork and suddenly begin talking about the highly stigmatized topic of mental illness? Largely, conversation, generated via technology took a closeted issue and brought it to the open. This forces one to ask: Are rates of mental illness really on the rise, or has technology served to reduce the stigma that previous prevented young adults from seeking help?

A 2012 report, produced by Intel, conducted a multi-country analysis on individuals' tendency to overshare on the internet. The study noted that 42 percent of millennial teenagers prefer to share personal information online, rather than in person. In 2015, the British Journal of Psychiatry published an editorial that highlighted many accounts in which sufferers successfully leveraged social media to push back dangerous stereotypes surrounding mental illness. And last year, Bayar et al. conducted a 205-person study which further demonstrated that online articles and posts can serve an effective means of reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness. The implications of these various studies are clear: sharing accounts of mental illness online can be an effective way of encouraging sufferers to seek help.

On average, millennials spend over 60 percent of their time with a smart-phone in hand. As many industries have adapted to reach their consumer over digital channels, the mental health community has also taken significant steps in this direction.

In 2018, Zach Schleien founded 18percent, a global online peer-to-peer support group centered around mental health. The community leverages the popular business communication tool Slack as a means of connecting hundreds of people. He describes that the goal of the organization is to educate members on mental health, help community members make lasting connections and friendships and provide a safe place where they can share their story.  Schleien explains:

“The power of the internet allows for individuals to easily connect with others who are struggling with mental health issues or just looking for support. Platforms such as 18percent provide a solution for people to connect through a variety of topics such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression and even to help with friends and family support. People come into the community looking for support and soon enough, support others.”

Additionally, technology has also served as an incredible vehicle in locating professional help. Petersen describes how applications, such as Zocdoc, can often be counterintuitive when trying to find professional care. She explains that the availability of options can feel overwhelming for someone unfamiliar with the mental health landscape. To remedy this issue, Licensed Social Worker Alyssa Petersel founded My Wellbeing in 2017. Her platform is simple yet incredibly effective; individuals looking to find mental health providers simply fill out a short survey, and in less than 12-hours, are matched with a therapist that meets their needs. If the client does not feel the therapist is the right fit, Petersel works one-on-one with users to collect feedback and find a better match.

“I am passionate about running My Wellbeing because I believe we all need reserved space, like therapy, to explore who we are and what gets our wheels turning. Over 70 percent of people who use My Wellbeing express wrestling with anxiety, which is a definite stepping stone to burnout. Particularly for people who identify as helping others, personally or professionally, you need to take care of you, too. Taking appropriate care of yourself makes you a stronger worker, colleague, partner, and peer. Regular, consistent, just-for-me care is a non-negotiable in preventing burnout.”

As I reflect on many of the positive aspects of the digital era, resulting in increased professional flexibility and availability of resources to those otherwise underserved, I can’t help but feel that Petersen’s thesis is short-sighted and incomplete at best. The transition from adolescence to adulthood presents unique difficulties for every generation in different ways. Positive change and personal betterment can improve absent a political and economic revolution in this country. Alison Malmon, founder and Executive Director of Active Minds, encourages millennials to find acceptance with where they are currently in life. Malmon states,

“It’s hard to know at 22, or 25 what your life’s true passions are. And when you are in a place that you just don’t know, you can feel like a failure. My suggestion to millennials is to not be afraid to pursue what speaks to you—even if the answer simply is ‘getting a paycheck’—and to know that the voice and the words you hear will change as years go by, and you’ll be able to pursue what speaks to you later too. You are enough, today, as you are.”

Part of becoming an adult is learning how to leverage the tools we have in order to make the best of the situation we are in. Mental Health Editor Sarah Schuster encourages fellow millennials to “stop taking everything so seriously, do things imperfectly, and push back on the work all time culture.” And frankly, she is right: We have more tools at our disposal than ever before and are not held hostage by the technology in our lives.

Alexa Hirschberg, a recent graduate of Emory University, is hopeful for the future of millennials in the workplace. As she explains,

“The point is, whether we like it or not, the tools to work in a non-stop, ultra-connected world are constantly entering the market. While we don't get a choice about what technologies emerge that make this 'round the clock working world possible, we do get to choose how we interact with and allow these tools into our lives. With the opportunity to connect anywhere at anytime comes the responsibility to choose when and where we connect. We have much more power in defining this than we seem to believe. As Millennials rise to positions of power in the workplace, the onus to create the cultures we want to work and live in is on us. After all, how can we be the victims of these technologies if we're the ones creating them?”