Updated: Jul 24, 2020
In this article, E examines why millennials are the burnout generation. What factors contribute to our collective exhaustion? She looks at our shared traits and the global crises that defined our generation, as well as probes burnout as a feminist issue.
Burnout—we’re all familiar with it, aren’t we? It’s not just stress. It’s chronic stress that results in mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. When we’re burned out, we’re unable to function properly. We can’t even complete basic tasks in and out of work. In extreme cases, burnout can lead to mild to serious medical conditions including but not limited to insomnia, a weaker immune system, substance abuse, type 2 diabetes, and depression.
Aside from ourselves, I’m sure that most of us know at least one other person who has experienced burnout. It’s a widespread problem that existed even before Miss Corona decided to show up and crash the party. But did you ever stop to wonder why it’s such a common thing nowadays, especially among millennials? What are we doing wrong? Or is there a system in place that makes it practically impossible to avoid burnout?
Work as Identity
Before we look into the systems that lead to our collective burnout, let’s first look at the things that most of us do that significantly harms our mental health. Have you heard about workism and toxic productivity?
As Derek Thompson said in his The Atlantic article titled Workism Is Making Americans Miserable, work has transformed dramatically over the past century. From jobs to careers to callings; from necessity to status to meaning. Work has become part of our generation’s identity. (Though Thompson’s article pertains to the U.S., this idea doesn’t just apply to American millennials. I’m sure that “work = calling” is a universal creed for this generation, no matter where you are in the world.)
And if your job is your calling, shouldn’t you be giving it your everything? After all, work isn’t just a living anymore—it gives your life meaning. In a way, we were conditioned to believe that our purpose in life is to find a job that fulfills us. Because who would want to be stuck in an office, five days a week between nine and five, doing something you hate?
Therefore, if your job is your passion, you should be giving it your 101%. It is a responsibility you have—not to your boss or to the company—but to yourself. And if your job is not your passion, it is your duty to pursue your calling and create a side hustle (basically, a second or third job) that fulfills this need.
For instance, I've been seeing a lot of friends turning their hobbies into online shops via Facebook and Instagram. Baking and leather-making used to be their activities outside of work, but these have now become second sources of income.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with starting your own small business or turning your hobby into a profitable activity. However, we can’t ignore the fact that this is also work, even though it may not feel like it. This just shows us how deeply rooted workism is in our lives. It almost becomes intuitional.
Productivity has also become an identifier of worth. You’re only as valuable as your productivity. We were conditioned to believe that every amount of time spent working is good, while every amount of time spent not working is bad. Even outside of work, we measure our days based on how productive we are. Our lives are composed of to-do lists—deadlines, chores, meetings, etcetera.
I mean, can you really just sit around all day and do nothing? If you can, can you do it without feeling guilty about wasting precious time?
Rest has become a source of guilt for a lot of millennials I know. Because the time we allocate on rest is time not allocated on pursuing our passions. It’s like you’re doing yourself a disservice if you take a moment to rest, because it postpones you from achieving your big picture goals.
(By the way, if you can’t relate to what I’m talking about, I am so jealous of you.)
It’s good to be productive, but when it turns into the air we breathe, it becomes toxic. Even if you’re distributing your energy towards different things (e.g. work, chores,
hobby, socialization), it’s still important to dedicate some time to do nothing but rest. And I’m not talking about the hours you sleep at night. I’m talking about reading for leisure or taking a long bath. Watching a movie and letting it have your full attention instead of playing it in the background while you work or do chores.
Rest, though it does not “produce” something we can see or touch, is actually “productive” because you are taking care of your mental health.
While it is true that our parents and grandparents have worked and felt tired because of their work long before we’ve entered the workforce ourselves, there’s a blaring difference between their exhaustion and ours. I’m not saying that they didn’t work as hard as we do now, or that they didn’t feel as tired as we do now, but there’s a system in place that makes our fatigue exponentially worse.
The millennial burnout can be attributed to two major factors: technology and global crises.
I think we can all agree that technology is both a blessing and a curse in terms of work. Technology helps us become more productive in doing our jobs, but it has also allowed work to bleed through other aspects of our lives.
Think about this for a second: During our grandparents’ time, they go to the office. They work. And then they leave work to go back home. They don’t have laptops or smartphones that carry the office wherever they go. The work day ends when they leave the physical structure of the office. And that was completely fine.
Fast forward to fifty years later, we now have gadgets that have instant messaging apps, emails, collaborative word and spreadsheet processors, and other software that enables us to work whenever and wherever. Even if we’re not doing work, we’re thinking about it because we have constant reminders of the tasks we are yet to complete. Work is literally at our fingertips all the time. And if you’re like me who gets a little bit manic if I don’t complete the tasks that I’ve set for myself for a given week, it gets tempting to let work take over my weekends as well.
(Not to mention, if you subscribe to the idea of workism, i.e. work is passion and meaning, it’s doubly tempting to keep working during your downtime because you have long-term goals to achieve.)
Aside from allowing work to bleed through our lives outside the office, technology has also birthed social media. When millennials started entering the workforce, that’s when social media really turned into what it is today—a popularity contest. Likes, comments, and follower numbers have real-life effects on our mental health.
In terms of work, social media became a place where people often brag about how productive they are or how they manage to achieve work-life balance despite their crazy schedules. This constant show of performative productivity and stability has a dangerous subliminal message: “Get your shit together, even when things are falling apart.”
Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996. In 2008, the first batch of millennials were in their mid-20’s, which means they were just starting to work. So when the global financial crisis hit, normal indicators of success—like buying a car and/or a home or building up your savings—became harder to achieve for these new workers.
This is not just true for American millennials; even Filipinx millennials struggled and are continuously struggling to climb up the rungs of success because of the huge economic shift brought about by the 2008 financial crisis.
And now that the last batch of millennials are in their mid-20’s and have joined the workforce as well, we are now faced with another challenge—the COVID-19 pandemic. Between a global financial crisis and a global pandemic, it is understandable that our generation is more exhausted than the generations before us. Yes, they also went through these difficult and uncertain times. Boomers may even argue that they went through different wars.
But if we examine the social transformation that these two events have created—the “new norms” as some would say—and the portion of the workforce that has to bear the brunt, millennials are definitely at a disadvantage.
We’re the first generation to have to start our careers and build our lives in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. During the coronavirus outbreak, the majority of the workforce is made up of millennials as well.
Despite these extreme circumstances, we are still expected to show up and be productive. Isn’t that just great?
Burnout as a Feminist Issue
Since I am a feminist and this is a feminist magazine, I want to quickly talk about burnout as a feminist issue.
Recently, J and I were interviewed by MYX VJ Samm Alvero for Chalk PH’s #ChalkTalks series. In this interview, we talked about channeling our Filipina power, and we were asked what exactly this means to us.
I answered by saying that Filipina power can be seen in everyday Filipinas—those who work to provide for their families but are also fulfilling domestic roles. In the Philippines, traditional gender roles are still embedded in our society. Even though women are working, we are also expected to take care of the children and manage the home. Our roles at home are also a form of labor, though it may be underappreciated and undervalued by society.
In other words, there’s another layer to our burnout that men don’t usually have to face. Because we have more roles to fill (and have more labor to do), we are more susceptible to burnout. I think that this is a feminist issue that is worth examining further. Women are believed to be weaker than men in this patriarchal society, but if we pay closer attention, we’ll find that we are often doing more work than men, especially now that we are active members of the workforce.
Therefore, doesn’t this make us, women, actually stronger than how we are perceived by society?
I wrote this article with a specific demographic in mind: working Filipina millennials, particularly those who have white-collar jobs. But I want to say that, when looking at work and burnout as a feminist issue, we should also take into consideration the intersections that make us the women we are today. Women’s struggles in the workplace look different given a specific industry or a person’s economic and educational background. Stay-at-home moms are also at risk of burnout. What about women who have blue-collar jobs?
Again, work and burnout is a conversation that we need to have as feminists. We can only truly understand this issue if we hear other women’s experiences with it. Hopefully, we can talk about it in one of our IskaMustahan webinars or podcast episodes. (Yes, that’s right. An IskaMustahan podcast is coming soon!) But if you want to talk to me and J about this further, you can always reach out to us on Instagram, @thefilipinafeminists.
For now, let me leave you with an unsolicited advice, which I’m stealing from my therapist: Your value is not dependent on your productivity. Don’t forget to rest and take care of yourself, queen.
You can get a downloadable PDF version of The WORK Issue for P99 or ALL of our first six issues for P299! This version contains exclusive content, so go to bit.ly/tffsMagOrderForm to place your orders. Part of our proceeds for the month of July will go to #BayanihanSaMontalban, a fundraiser for less privileged families, sick and elderly folks, and PWDs.
This post is sponsored by Simula PH.