Stressed out – just not enough to care

How the burnout generation is becoming more apathetic than ever

In early January of this year, my friend shared with me Anne Helen Petersen’s viral Buzzfeed article, “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation”. Petersen’s argument is unsurprising to many 20-something-year-old university students who could read the piece as a description of their day-to-day; she argues that millennials suffer from burnout because of the pervasive idea that they must optimise, prioritise and ultimately, be as productive as they can be, to gain a stable career and life. The ensuing disillusionment is destabilising.

Petersen’s article has been subject to a wide range of valid criticism, perhaps most notably, Shannon Palus’ Slate piece that proposes that burnout is not a millennial-specific condition. And while that may be true, Petersen’s depiction has seriously resonated with young adults; my friend even reported to me that she read it in a lecture, after which multiple people from the row behind her approached her to discuss it.

“With any and every decision we make, we feel the weight of our entire future.”

As a remedy to the common anxiety that students share about approaching the workforce, many spend any free time on professional goals and securing a more stable future in an uncertain world. Petersen spoke to university students, finding that many “were convinced that their first job out of college would not only determine their career trajectory, but also their intrinsic value for the rest of their lives”. With any and every decision we make, we feel the weight of our entire future.

These concerns are increasingly frequent for our generation, exacerbated by the non-stop news cycle that constantly informs of us of impending financial, environmental and political crises. So, in response, we seek out stability. It’s drilled into us that we must strive towards something to validate ourselves – university acceptances, academic achievements, careers. And thus, we begin to build our entire lives along tight, narrow lines that stretch outwards towards those objectives.

And maybe this isn’t specific to our generation – after all, careers and universities existed before us. But, our modern, constant connection to information and others has mutated these burdens. When we can be checking updates on Venezuela, whilst answering work emails, the newest Kardashian feud pinging on our feeds, messaging in multiple group chats – everything is urgent. Because you can do everything, all the time, you feel that you have to.

This isn’t to say that a goal-oriented life is not worthwhile – but it’s undeniable that when we view our lives this way, opportunities become zero-sum games. Whatever internship you don’t get is because somebody else was better prepared for that role. Whatever job you get is at the loss of all the other applicants, equally as hopeful as you.

Consequently, we map out hyper-individualistic paths for ourselves, because we feel that is the best way to control our fates in an otherwise unpredictable world. Self-help articles preach ways to cut unnecessary friendships out of your life, maximise your time and to serve yourself as best as you can. In moderation, of course, these are not all bad. But we often think that it is a necessity to forgo hobbies to spend more time on ‘real-life goals’. Tajja Isen’s poignant piece on her experience of being told that law school would mean giving up her love of reading literature is only one example of a frequent, repeated student experience. Ultimately, as our lives become more linear, we cease to move laterally.

We become less and less convinced that there are worthwhile things around us (passions, friendships, solitary time for reflection) and only look ahead. So, even though I am constantly reading a mélange of updates on my phone (the quickly unravelling melodrama of Jeff Bezos’ life, the Jonas Brothers’ comeback, the rising India-Pakistan conflict), our lifestyles, which demand everything to be streamlined and consolidated, bar us from engaging deeply with any of this information. However, this doesn’t assuage our anxieties. Being inundated with anxieties about our own personal futures, we struggle to reconcile the rat-race lifestyle of serving one’s own individual pursuits, with the guilt of knowing there are graver issues that need to be tackled. So, we become paralysed. We’ve been told that unfortunately, some things are just out of our control, so we should put our heads down and focus on us. What happens when we are left feeling totally inadequate in the face of solving issues like climate change?

“It seems to be a common problem for many young adults to be caught in this paradox of being hyper-fearful about the world but also vastly apathetic.”

It seems to be a common problem for many young adults to be caught in this paradox of being hyper-fearful about the world but also vastly apathetic. Even if you’re consumed by the thought of rising sea levels and our accelerating path towards a resource war, you might just keep putting off buying that Keep Cup. It’s just not high up enough on your to-do list when you’ve got multiple applications due this week. Even though we know there is change that we can enact, we choose not to. Because how much can we, as individuals, really do? Why put my effort towards something that doesn’t benefit my life and doesn’t even really affect the world?

At the same time, real grassroots change has been appreciable in recent years. Social media has given us the holy grail of community building, with campaigns such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo creating serious shifts across the globe. Movements that started online now have huge political and social capital, for example, Amanda Nguyen’s Rise is now active in 5 countries and has successfully passed legislation in 14 states in the USA. It is valuable to understand that time spent on other efforts and not just ourselves, is also worthwhile and consequential.

In his 2013 speech at Syracuse University, the author George Saunders described our innate human selfishness as “Darwinian”. Even if we do not intellectually think that the universe revolves around us, we “viscerally” feel it and it influences the way in which we make decisions. Saunders identifies this as one of the great obstacles to a fulfilling life. He implores, “do all other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead…but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness”.

Maybe it is naïve to think that kindness is the solution to our problems, but how else can we describe an effort to be a little more selfless than we are now? Kindness encompasses the infinite number of ways in which people of our generation can start to look outside of themselves to achieve, contribute and live in a meaningful way – not just blindly and irreverently moving forward as many of us do now. Ultimately the way that we can begin to change is by being conscious, being aware of how the decisions we make affect the world around us. By seeking solutions outside ourselves, rather than towing along the line that goes in the direction of a self-imposed goal of advancement, at all costs.

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