Harping on the characteristics that supposedly define each generation has turned into a rigid and perverse type of stereotyping. Any meme or op-ed about a “millennial" conveys a clear picture without any context: they are tattooed, bespectacled, sensitive, entitled, lazy, unconcerned with tradition or structure, and whiny. Baby Boomer parents and coworkers famously love crapping on them for it, despite the fact that millennials (who are widely considered to be born between 1981 and 1996) are the most educated generation in history, with an estimated 39% having a bachelor’s degree or higher. Only about a quarter of Baby Boomers and 29% of Gen X achieved the same level of education. This should tie current twenty and thirty-year-olds to stable, satisfactory employment and financial wellbeing. Yet data show that millennials generally have accumulated less wealth comparatively at this point in their lives than baby boomers did in their twenties and thirties. More millennials also have student debt and in larger amounts than any other group. Experts paint a pretty bleak economic picture of the millennial condition. And it doesn’t help that many young professionals are also getting “burnt out" trying to achieve an expected higher level of professional, personal, and social success than our parents.
“Millennial burnout" connotes the fatigue and dissatisfaction experienced by millennials as a result of these pressures. It seems like the kind fodder that would get the cartoon of a derisive baby boomer cackling: ‘poor babies can’t handle a 9-5 job. Let me play a song on the world’s tiniest violin…’ But the phenomenon seems to resonate with many young people, and it isn’t just the 9-5 job that is stressing them out. In a viral Buzzfeed op-ed, reporter Anne Helen Petersen described how the straightforward life path taken by much of the older middle class is implausible and insufficient for the current generation.
“As American business became more efficient, better at turning a profit, the next generation needed to be positioned to compete," Petersen wrote. “We couldn’t just show up with a diploma and expect to get and keep a job that would allow us to retire at 55. In a marked shift from the generations before, millennials needed to optimize ourselves to be the very best workers possible."
What is optimization? First, it is a $10 billion dollar per year industry. In a personal context, it is workout regimens, diets, mindfulness apps, self-help books or programs, and lifestyle blogs. These things are marketed as the avenues that should be taken to keep up with fit, seemingly happy, well-traveled friends and personalities seen on the social media feeds of 75% of millennials. In a professional sense, optimization often means attending school at night for another degree, putting in work on the weekends in order to stand out in the office, and taking side gigs or unpaid positions to add further experience to a resume. In order to be successful, all this has to be done under the weight of student debt and whilst “adulting:" a term defined by Petersen as a “catchall for the tasks of self-sufficient existence."
This is perhaps where there might be a grain of truth to the idea that millennials don’t “adult," or get married, buy a house, and have kids. Research has found that today’s young people are much more likely to live at home and get married later than their parents did. The issue is that they don’t have the time or money because they are spending it all on the self-defeating quest to succeed.
Petersen argues that “when we talk about millennial student debt, we’re not just talking about the payments that keep millennials from participating in American ‘institutions’ like home ownership or purchasing diamonds. It’s also about the psychological toll of realizing that something you’d been told, and came to believe yourself, would be ‘worth it’ — worth the loans, worth the labor, worth all that self-optimization — isn’t."
The “something" Petersen is referring to is our culture’s idea of success: the upper management position or the fulfilling creative job that affords a self-sufficient lifestyle. The “something" could also be six-figure’s worth of Instagram followers, or an owned property in the suburbs. Whatever it is, many millennials are finding that the cost is too high. If success is fulfillment, leisure, and financial freedom, too many of today’s young people are unfortunately unsuccessful.