When I decided to take a gap year, it was because I knew I was burnt out. I was tired all through the last year of college, my anxiety was acting up and I was slacking on small tasks and errands. It was very confusing initially, doing laundry or sending emails were menial tasks as compared to my research projects and assignments at college. But somehow, I managed to do college work really well.
Why was it that I was slacking on the tiniest of tasks? I didn't know. All I knew was that I was stressed, tired and almost always sleepy. My mom told me once - "You are just getting lazy and out of routine because you live all alone now." And I though maybe that was it. I was getting lazy. But it didn't add up when it came to college assignments, I was acing those while also fulfilling my deadlines.
For a few months before my final exams, I was diagnosed with depression alongside my already existing generalized anxiety disorder. So I assumed it was just those two that got in the way. But I was super productive during my exams - I even scored well. After my finals, I had a whole lot of time to spend doing nothing. So I did, I didn't have assignments, I didn't have to study and I didn't have to make notes.
Which meant I should be able to do all the other tasks I had put off - laundry, doctors appointments and cleaning up, but I still couldn't. Instead, I started looking for internships and jobs so I would have something productive to do.
This perpetual need to do something "productive" is a characteristic of what has now come to be known as Millennial Burnout.
What Is Millennial Burnout?
A BBC article on the issue explains that millennial burnout "has a lot of similarities with regular burnout, otherwise known as work burnout. Burnout is a response to prolonged stress and typically involves emotional exhaustion, cynicism or detachment, and feeling ineffective."
In a popular article by Anne Helen Petersen, she describes how millennials became “the burnout generation”. She describes some of the consequences of edging towards burnout and identifies what she calls “errand paralysis”, marked by a struggle to do even simple or mundane tasks.
There are many psychological and physical symptoms associated with burnout: anxiety, depression, insomnia, weakened immunities, loss of appetite and substance abuse, as well as depleted energy levels. All these point to a loss of control, to no longer being fully in charge of oneself. It's difficult to explain the sort of helplessness that comes with this sort of burn out - insisting that burnout is really just elective laziness or over-activity is a way of assuring ourselves that we’re not helpless, that we remain the masters of our own lives.
Why Are Millennials So Burnt Out?
This generation surely isn’t the first generation to suffer from overwork and exhaustion, to have to adapt to new forms of technology and culture? Burnout has been common to everyone, regardless of generation so why are millennials so hell-bent on making our burnout seem more grave? Because it is.
It's easily explained when we look at the shift from the previous generation to this one, the quality of life, the standard of living, and the means of survival have all changed. It's very easily observable when we look at this transition.
As I mentioned earlier, the perpetual need to do something "productive" is a characteristic of Millennial Burnout. Earlier, there was much less concern for the future - sure people planned out five year or even ten-year life plans but they didn't consist of the overly competitive, cut-throat competitiveness that exists today.
Sports, musical instruments and art were all creative hobbies taken up to enrich our lives, to relax and more importantly, to have fun. That's a concept that has been lost in the transition - doing things for the sake of having fun. Fun for fun's sake. It has shifted to a more goal-oriented, competitive environment where productivity is based on the capitalistic goal of the action.
Even children now are supervised in every act - even their ability to win games like hide and seek. A person's capability is now gauged from childhood itself. Parental supervision to perfect their child is not uncommon. For the previous generations - their childhood was made of stories, fiction, games and fun. The current generation barely has stories to tell because children are pushed into the capitalistic framework as early as 6 and 7 years of age.
So, by the time we reach college, we have already exhausted ourselves to a point of overactivity. And if the pressure isn't enough from assignments at college, we are made to have 20-year life plans that all revolve around material success - which leaves very little space for tasks that have no material payoff. Hence the term, "errand paralysis." The fact that we won't gain any material value from doing mundane tasks like laundry makes us lose importance for them.
Our expectations are set higher and much earlier than they were for the generation before us, somewhere along the line between competitiveness and material payoff - we lost the ability to relax. A common case to that effect is that many millennials feel restless and unproductive when they relax or take time off. The constant need to work and build our lives according to the high standards set by the current society has lead to the millennial burnout.
What Can We Do About It?
Reccently, a new scientific research has demonstrated the “massive cognitive load” on those who are financially insecure. Living in poverty is akin to losing 13 IQ points. So it isn't just an issue we have made up, or continue to exaggerate. It is a real problem that needs some type of reform.
Unfortunately, there seems to be no solid solution that will "cure" the burnout or make it pass any faster. It's almost chronic because of the way we have ingrained capitalistic and material success into our system. As Anne Helen Petersen describes it - "There’s no solution to it. You can’t optimize it to make it end faster. You can’t see it coming like a cold and start taking the burnout-prevention version of Airborne. The best way to treat it is to first acknowledge it for what it is — not a passing ailment, but a chronic disease — and to understand its roots and its parameters."
We simply have to address the issue and try to move past it, as we would to regular stress. It may not be just that simple, but it's one way to move forward. Individualistic choices also make a difference, recognizing that materialistic success and payoff are not the only means to productivity and acting on the same makes it easier. Unlearning the already ingrained mindset even in the slightest bit will help reset your burnout, even if it is temporarily.
"We are beginning to understand what ails us, and it’s not something an oxygen facial or a treadmill desk can fix. " Anne writes, and it stands true - simply putting on a face mask and going for a jog isn't going to fix a long chain of capitalistic thoughts. Dismantling these ideas is the only way to push burnout from the way and actually be "productive" in whatever sense you find it suitable.