Below is a lightly modified long-ass Twitter thread that I wrote earlier this week about burnout. It got a high amount of traffic (for me) and I thought some might benefit from having it in blog post form, with some added citational links to other work on these subjects. The thread began as a riff on this Tweet from Anne Helen Peterson:
This response also suggests burnout only “counts” if you’re parenting. And normalizes burnout for parents. If you’re interested in the normalization of burnout for those doing reproductive and other types of care work, Laura Briggs’ How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump for more on this trap. And care work doesn’t begin and end with parenting either. As a thirty-seven year-old millennial not parenting, I still have non-waged kinkeeping that is chronically time-starved. Off the top of my head, kinkeeping activities beyond parenting:
- Remembering/celebrating family & friends’ birthdays, holidays, etc.
- Caring for an ill spouse
- Caring for an ill parent or sibling
- Caring for companion animals
- Feeding, exercising, caring for your own body
- Writing letters, emails, to long-distance friends and family
- Meeting friends and family for coffee dates
- Participating in community life (church, neighborhood, volunteer orgs.)
- Participating in political life
- Creative pursuits that make the world a more beautiful place
Feminist activists have been pointing out at least since the mid-20th century that when people who previously did unpaid kinkeeping labor (women, teenage daughters, spinsters, elders) are pushed into wagework the need for that labor doesn’t disappear. You either have to pay someone to do this work, or you do it yourself as “second shift” work (leading to burnout), or — because of burnout and a literal lack of time — it doesn’t get done.
(A bit later…) I read Anne’s newsletter on writing the burnout piece, which is all I could face today (So much irony in feeling too burned out to read about burnout…). Some lateral thoughts that bubbled up:
In the newsletter she quotes someone citing Chomsky on “efficiency” for business = extra labor for customers. I haven’t read the Chomsky analysis but I recall a great example of this presented in terms of retirement and pensions vs. 401(k) model. (I tried to find the example online while compiling this post and the Internet defeated me.) Pensions make the work of investing the responsibility of the company rather than the employee. You work, you retire, you get a set amount from your employer. You don’t need to make many complex high stakes choices to ensure the money is there for you. In the 401(k) model, the employee is responsible for ongoing, complex financial management. Most of us do not have expertise in this area, or money to pay independent experts, but WE are responsible and shoulder the risk even when we struggle to be “good” savers.
This shouldering of responsibility and risk — packaged for us as freedom of choice across many areas of life — means in practice that human rights become contingent on our ability to become experts in navigating countless complex systems.* If we don’t have money to outsource the labor of making informed, meaningful choices we are in practice held responsible for “choices” that are not, in fact, in our ability to actively make.**
*My reflections here are shaped by a reproductive justice framework, especially about the human rights problems created by “choice” rhetoric. So a shout out to those scholars. You can read an introduction to reproductive justice here and I also recommend this excellent book on the history and activism of the movement.
**Inserts obvious all caps footnote that along every vector the existing inequalities of race, class, gender, health, education, immigration status, disability, etc both create and amplify this responsibility trap.
On a less meta level than the risk/responsibility trap and its violation of fundamental human rights (YOU HEARD ME) My wife Hanna and and I experience decision fatigue so frequently we have a short-hand for it: “ferret shock”. (The internet informs me another term for this would be overchoice.) If we’re out running errands or standing in the grocery aisle and one of us asks the other to make a decision, that person often says “I”m ferret shocking” and the asker knows exactly what they’re talking about and we go home.
Another thing the burnout discussion is reminding me of Courtney Martin’s Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters (2007), my own reaction to it at the time of its publication, and the limits of countercultural lifeways. For those who haven’t read it, the nutshell argument was/is that for (white, middle-class, aspirational) women of my age cohort (b. 1981) had learned we could/should strive for perfection and it was killing us. When I read it in 2007, I didn’t see myself in this narrative. I knew the narrative, sure, but I had also been insulated from it in a variety of ways leading from my parents’ own countercultural decision to let me opt out of formal schooling until college, and do college extremely part-time as a commuter. Because I never socialized intensely with my cohort or with people drilling aspirational messaging into my cohort, I had some measure of distance from that narrative. I didn’t feel like a failure for opting out of many things my peers felt were obligatory.
(There’s a complicated side narrative here connected to queer identity, chronic illness, and religious subcultures but that’s for another thread.)
But the thing about structurally-created burnout is that you CANNOT opt out as a single person or even, in many cases, as a subculture or community of crunchy-granola-hippie types (I’m speaking of myself here, with a mixture of mild self-parody and entirely sincere commitment to crunchy granola). The same year Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters came out I moved to Boston for grad school and was structurally forced into a number of systems — graduate school, student loan debt, resume building, the cost of living where I attended school and worked etc. — that create burnout. For a lot of that first year in Boston and back in the formal school environment, I felt like an extreme failure for having been unable to find a countercultural alternative to the cross country move –> graduate school –> librarianship path to adulting. I knew that aspects of the systems I was becoming embedded within were actively toxic to me.
In the past (through social privilege and positive family support for those alternative choices) I had been able to create loopholes for myself. But loopholes don’t create long-term structural change; they don’t fix the problem that created the need for the loophole. And even for the people (like me) who had the resources to create them, they are typically temporary. What I’m groping toward here is that burnout gets spun as an individual mental-health, self-help problem, when burnout is a collective and structural problem. It’s been baked into a system that capitalizes (literally!) our burnout. That doesn’t mean subcultural attempts to address and assuage burnout are pointless — I would argue based on my own experience and my historical research that such subcultural attempts are vital in demonstrating that burnout is historically created and change is possible.
Jo Freeman’s work on the tyranny of structurelessness is also informative and applicable to the condition of burnout we are coping with, as a society as well as individually, in this historical moment. The essay’s basic point is all groups have a structure. Either the structure is explicit, rulebound, with pathways of power and accountability or the structure is denied, shadowy, with no accountability for those who gain power. (Sound familiar?) The language of libertarian freedom of choice so beloved by the GOP and many on left too becomes the tyranny of structurelessness. Sure, we technically all have “choices” … but we don’t all have the power to take meaningful advantage of those choices. And the illusion of everyone having equal agency, in reality, allows people uninterested in sharing power to seize control because they are loud and pushy and don’t care. There is no structural way to stop them.
(When I think about the tyranny of structurelessness, I often remember Angus Johnston’s piece on the value of using Robert’s Rules of Order as a collective decision-making process: “Remember that Robert’s Rules are there to protect your rights, and those of the other members of the group.” If you’re interested in how structure can facilitate inclusivity, I highly recommend reading it.)
So finally, let’s talk about the idea of a “millennial” cohort and whether cohort generalizations are at all useful in this conversation about burnout. Some framing statements: generational language, like decade language (“the Sixties”) is primarily a marketing concept not very useful for historical analysis. Nevertheless, the term is in widespread use. When I use it, I use the Pew Research Center definition: Those born between 1981-1996. A fifteen year spread. I will turn thirty-eight this year, the oldest “millennial” as I was born in 1981. Those born in 1996 will turn twenty-three. So by raw age, the millennials so defined are in middle adulthood. They have jobs, bills, kinkeeping responsibilities. Most are no longer their parents’ dependents. Many have dependents of their own. If I had become a parent at age eighteen, my child would be twenty, possibly in college, possibly a parent themselves. That’s the cohort we’re talking about.
So is the idea of a “millennial” cohort at all useful or are we just stuck with it? I think it can be useful as a concept with some important caveats. I would argue that “millennial is a narrative not an identity. It is a story we tell about the people who arrived in adulthood between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s. It is a normative force that helps organize the conditions of our adulthood. Like most normative forces it is less representative than it is pre/proscriptive. It tells us who we are expected to be. Which is why the archetype “millennial” is white, rich, able-bodied, etc. The archetype is tied to age, yes, but in a looser way than birth year. It is a story that lays out how our lives should be organized and also itemizes the ways in which we fail those benchmarks. As a “discourse” (theorists might say) the story about millennials activates when and where our lives intersect with that story. Regardless of our technical age.
Some aspects of the millennial narrative have to do with the big-picture national and world events that shaped our childhoods and early adulthoods: Reagan and Thatcher, globalization, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the gutting of the social safety net, Bush v. Gore (my first presidential election), and our endless wars of aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan (I was twenty on 9/11). Those things shaped the lives of everyone who lived through them or is now dealing with the consequences, but the idea of “millennial” argues that these things shape us uniquely depending upon our age and/or “stage of life”. But not everyone follows the middle class, orderly story we are sold (another narrative!) about what order we (are supposed to, ideally) live our lives. So the intersection of a world event with a stage of life gets messy super quickly.
Let’s take the 2008 economic crisis. In 2008, I was beginning my graduate program for library science. My wife, technically a Gen Xer was two years ahead of me in the same program. She graduated into a much more precarious job market than I did. But so did much younger and older graduate students! I was in the same program with people age twenty-one and people in their forties. As a group, our graduate school experience was shaped by the conditions of the millennial narrative with no regard to age. So, in sum, it can be useful to think about how the millennial narrative is both shaped by and shapes the stories that we tell about our lives, the order in which we do (and are supposed to do) things, and how it is used to penalize human beings who fail the narrative.