The publication in January of Anne Helen Petersen’s viral Buzzfeed article, “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation” has generated many different responses: enraptured recognition, thoughtful reflection and of course — snarky cynicism. But whatever the response, there’s no doubt it touched a vulnerable spot in our collective mind.
The rejection of the idea of millennial burnout seems to usually take two broad forms: that it’s an elaborate cover story for entitled laziness or that it’s a fancy term for common fatigue brought on by a long to-do list. The solutions offered are just as predictable, often boiling down to "don’t be so lazy." Or, if you’re really that exhausted, just stop being “aneurotic mess" and do less.
Though they appear mutually contradictory, these positions share a basic premise: that whatever millennials are complaining about stems from bad choices (doing too little or too much), and so can be remedied by making better choices (doing more or doing less). This focus on our choices may help account for the tone of exasperation audible in so many of these responses. What seems to disturb or at least irritate many critics is the implication that humans are not in full command of our minds and bodies; that we may be victims of forces larger than us.
Think of many of the psychic 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. Sigmund Freud pointed out long ago that we fear nothing more than the state of helplessness. 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 houses.
Because arguably the most significant and distressing takeaway from Petersen’s article was that millennials are subject to social, technological and economic pressures that threaten to overwhelm the nervous system and wear out all our coping mechanisms. Yet even this idea seems to provoke another criticism, namely of "presentism" or historical tunnel-vision; surely this isn’t the first generation to suffer from overwork and exhaustion, to have to adapt to new forms of technology and culture?
In my own writing on burnout, cited by Petersen, I point out that there are indeed various historical precedents for this condition. Late medieval theological writings spoke of acedia, a depressive world-weariness that induced lethargy and distraction, preventing true contact with God. Nineteenth-century writers on psychopathology coined the term neurasthenia for the overburdening of the nervous system caused by the daily onrush of stimuli generated by the new urban industrial society. But if we’ve been here before, what has changed for millennials? Is the economic and cultural air they breathe really so different?
Before answering that question, it’s worth trying to identify what is common across all these different iterations of burnout. What we notice immediately is that despite the very different causal factors and conditions, each generation is describing a strikingly similar predicament. It’s a predicament I constantly hear expressed by patients in my consulting room. On the one hand, there is a yearning for silence and reclusion, a break in the unremitting flow of noise. On the other, a fear of pressing the off-switch, whether on their electronic devices or the mind itself — what might we miss?
The burnt out (or acediac or neurasthenic) self is thoroughly weary of activity but unable to find rest. This is what distinguishes burnout from simple exhaustion. If the exhausted person can feel the day’s work is done, their tired muscles and depleted energy levels can bring them a certain satisfaction, priming them for restorative sleep. In his 1989 “Essay on Tiredness,” the Austrian writer Peter Handke describes the intense physical exhaustion felt after working the threshing machine on his family farm at harvest time. “Thus we sat,” he writes, “…savoring our common tiredness…A cloud of tiredness, an ethereal tiredness, held us together.”
Compare this “ethereal tiredness” with the anxious weariness described by my patient Sophia (name and other details changed to protect confidentiality). A successful urban planner in her early thirties, Sophia had recently moved to London in a mood of hope and anticipation. But this soon gave way to a debilitating depression, from which she escaped by plunging into overwork, as though only blind overactivity could hold her together.
A psychoanalyst might have expected to find some deep fault line in Sophia’s early life. But she had grown up in a loving and supportive family in a prosperous Sydney suburb. This, we discovered, was the essential problem; from her earliest childhood, she’d felt stalked from within by the assurance that she could do anything she put her mind to. It’s here, I think, that we can identify the specifics of millennial burnout.
The effect of this kind of message is ambiguous. It can spur ambition and achievement, but it can also leave the recipient of it forever feeling as though they’re falling short, that they could do more, attain more, be more. And of course, this isn’t a message Sophia will have received exclusively from her parents; on the contrary, it’s the maxim of our entire culture, amplified at every moment by the ideals of beauty, accomplishment, talent and taste — perfect homes, bodies, families, jobs — beamed at us from magazine pages, TV screens and social media feeds.
What Sophia experienced along with so many of her peers is a kind of internal persecution. Not the persecution of what psychoanalysis calls the super-ego, the voice in us that says we must provokes punitive guilt for our low levels of morality and responsibility. It is instead the more insidious persecution of the ego ideal, the voice that tells us we can! The ego ideal makes us the sitting target of our culture of self-optimization and positive thinking.
The message that we can work harder and be better at everything — even rest and relaxation! — results in a strange composite of exhaustion and anxiety, a permanent state of dissatisfaction with who we are and what we have. And it leaves us feeling that we are servants rather than masters of our work — and not just of our waged employment, but of the unending work we put into achieving our so-called best selves.
Josh Cohen is a psychoanalyst, academic and writer. His latest book is "Not Working: Why We Have to Stop."
This article was first published on NBC News' Think.