In popular culture, millennials – the generation born approximately between 1981 and 2000 – don't enjoy a particularly positive reputation. Depending who you ask, they're spoilt, lazy, entitled and unable to handle the challenges of the real world. The cliché of the 'millennial snowflake’, having meltdowns when they can't get the avocado toast they want or being triggered by some minor transgression, has worked its way deep into popular culture, so when people hear the term 'millennial burnout', an uncharitable rolling of eyes is often the response.
But is this dismissiveness fair?
Millennials are the offspring of two generational cohorts – baby boomers and Generation Xers – who grew to adulthood in times when buying property and finding well-paying work was much less of a challenge than it is today. Their expectation was that their offspring would be better off than them both in terms of health and finances, just as they were better off than their own parents, but the reality is that millennials have far fewer savings, far less equity, far less stability and far more debts, and are the first generation predicted to actually go backwards in terms of life expectancy.
This is at least partly because most Millennials entered the workforce during or soon after the Great Recession, the global economic downturn which devastated financial markets, banking and real estate around the world and conditioned the world they inhabit, its knock-on effects blurring the lines between their personal and professional lives. Faced with student debt, the gig economy and constant connectedness, millennials have internalised the idea that they should be working all the time, with social media making it difficult to avoid being constantly reminded of ways they're failing to achieve the ideals of high-achieving perfection they've been encouraged to aim for all their lives - even as those ideals have become increasingly unattainable.
The stereotypical millennial is white and middle class, but millennials who don't come from privileged backgrounds also suffer the effects of the societal and cultural shifts that shaped their generation: a recent Gallup study of around 7,500 full-time U.S. Employees found that around three quarters of millennials complained of frequent or occasional feelings of burnout at work. And millennial burnout can be even more likely for women, who, as well as coping with their professional and personal lives, are often also called upon to shoulder the “mental load” of acting as the 'manager' of a couple or family, handling the planning and organisation of their shared life.
The result can be feelings of exhaustion, ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment, with symptoms ranging from anxiety, insomnia, self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy to emotional exhaustion and depression.
So how to avoid it? Performance coach Brad Stulberg has a few suggestions. The first is not to obsess over failures or successes: allow yourself a day to celebrate or grieve, then put it behind you and get back to work. Next, don't judge yourself against other people but against your own past achievements - and judge yourself by how well you do something rather than on whether it obtains the results you'd hoped for. Think about what's actually worth spending time on, and make sure you spend time away from devices. Finally, Stulberg suggests embracing your vulnerabilities and prioritising small numbers of genuine connections with family and friends over having large numbers of virtual or workplace acquaintances.
Small steps that all of us, not just millennials, can take to foster a healthier approach to our daily lives.