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Will Burnout Spark the Next Economic Boom?

High-achievers are leaving the boardroom to start their own businesses

Last November, Forbes contributor Larissa Faw wrote an article detailing the rates at which Millennial women are burning out. After reading Meghan Casserly's excellent follow up article, I explored the possibility that Millennial women might create a much-needed economic spark. Both articles reference a recent McKinsey report showing that women account for approximately 53% of entry-level professional positions, but hold only 37% of middle-management positions, 28% of vice-president and senior-managerial roles, and 14% of seats on executive committees. I come from the legal profession, where the story is the same. Despite the fact that women account for approximately 50% of entering law school classes, the number of women who reach equity partner status in firms has held steady for the past twenty years at around 15%.

In Pursuit of Achievement

Why do so many women in their twenties and early thirties burn out? According to Liz Funk, overachieving has become the new normal for many young women. As she discusses in her book, Supergirls Speak Out: Inside the Secret Crisis of Overachieving Girls, girls pursue achievement with great ambition, often pushing themselves beyond their breaking points. Then they transfer this achievement crusade into the workplace where they seek to advance at a quick rate. By their late twenties and early thirties, these high-achievers have already spent years running at unsustainable levels.

Burnout experts and psychologists, Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter, have identified six sources, or themes, of burnout. They are:

1. Work overload
2. Lack of control over one's work
3. Lack of recognition/reward for job contributions
4. Lack of community and loss of positive connection with others at work
5. Lack of fairness (with rules, pay structure, policies, workload, etc.)
6. Values conflicts

Corporate consultant and Gen-Y issues expert, Lindsey Pollak, surveyed 1,000 Millennial women ages 21 to 29 and found that 96% listed being independent as their most important life goal. In addition, 87% of those surveyed define success as being able to "shape my own future."

Dr. Marcia Reynolds indicates that high-achieving women look for the following five things at work:

1. Frequent new challenges to stretch their talents and grow;
2. Flexible schedules;
3. The opportunity to collaborate and work with other high-achievers;
4. Recognition from the company; and
5. Freedom to be themselves.

Notice the connection between what women look for at work and the sources of burnout? Not everyone is cut out for life in a company, but Millennials realize that there are different work/life plans and are not afraid to pursue another path if corporate culture doesn't meet their needs.

Young Women Fail to Answer the Question, "Who Will I Be?"

As girls become more achievement-oriented in high school, they seek to create a resume that will grab the attention of colleges, but often forget to think about what they want intrinsically from their work. Funk says that the high-pressure, high-achieving nature of high school distracts girls from being able to figure out who they want to be.

As a result, young women become career-oriented instead of calling-oriented. Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor at Yale who studies work patterns, distinguishes between careers and callings as follows:

Career: Those who consider their work to be a career primarily seek advancement, power, and prestige.

Calling: Those who consider their work to be a calling usually find that their work is inseparable from their life. Those with a calling work not for financial gain or for career advancement, but for the fulfillment that the work brings.

Wrzesniewski explains that those who consider their work to be a calling generally have a stronger and more rewarding relationship to their work.

Sparking the Economy

Burnout often forces Millennial women to think about what, to them, is meaningful work. Once that discovery is made, many Millennial women redefine career goals and pursue an entrepreneurial path with vigor.

A recent Harris Interactive online poll, conducted on behalf of the Kauffman Foundation, found that Gen-Y is set to be an entrepreneurial bunch with 40% of the respondents indicating that they would like to start a business at some point in the future or have already done so.

While the focus of this article has been on Millennial women, I also talk to many Gen-X women (and men) who seek to pursue their own entrepreneurial dreams because they're burned out, discovered a passion, or have decided that this is the point in their lives to go after what they want.

The research on burnout is clear - it is not a problem of people themselves but of the social environment in which they work. If that continues to be the case, Corporate America's loss will be our economy's gain.
Paula Davis-Laack is a lawyer turned positive psychology practitioner, professional coach, and work/life expert specializing in stress, work, and lifestyle issues for high-achieving women. To learn more, please visit Paula's website at You can also follow Paula on Facebook at and on Twitter at


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