Actually, you can’t have it all: Millennial burnout
“People patching together a retail job with unpredictable scheduling while driving Uber and arranging child care have burnout. Startup workers with fancy catered lunches, free laundry service, and 70-minute commutes have burnout. Academics teaching four adjunct classes and surviving on food stamps while trying to publish research in one last attempt at snagging a tenure-track job have burnout. Freelance graphic artists operating on their own schedule without health care or paid time off have burnout.”
—How millennials became the burnout generation, BuzzFeed News
I revised my book Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties for the millennial generation in 2017, nearly a decade out from the recession. When I set out on book tour, I got an earful about my millennial readers’ financial worries. Even with a recovered economy and job market, it sounded a lot like Anne Helen Petersen’s BuzzFeed dispatch on “The Burnout Generation.” There were people stringing together gig and freelance work, working nights and weekends on top of a full-time job, struggling to pay off student loans even on six-figure salaries. I met one young man who’d paid off over $100,000 in loans by moving into his childhood bedroom, working overtime, and cutting out all but the most necessary expenses.
This reality has always been hard to square with the media’s depiction of millennials—entitled, participation-trophied whiners who are killing various industries and institutions, from bar soap and breakfast cereal to marriage and homeownership. Petersen’s article rebuffs that stereotype, noting the pressures driving this generation toward burnout: social media–driven fixation on having the coolest job and social life; the quest to “be your best self” through self-improvement and self-care products at a time when our educational and social support systems are failing us; and most importantly, the real cognitive damage of living in poverty and financial distress (for those not privileged to avoid it).
Millennials are crashing on the shores of burnout not because they want to have it all, but because they’ve been told that’s what they should want. It’s leaving them broke, indebted, and exhausted. (No wonder Gen Z is calling into question the higher education and career treadmill to come up with its own models of success.)
There’s no personal finance panacea, no “one weird trick” to counteract this burnout, especially for millennials facing financial insecurity. It is, in part, a result of institutional failures and broken promises that go back decades. But I’m glad that this article has opened a dialogue online about the financial shame and exhaustion many millennials have been facing alone. As this perfectionistic generation settles into adulthood, an honest conversation about money will be key easing their anxiety. Now older generations, let’s please stop harping about participation trophies; all millennials want to participate in is a financially secure existence.