In an essay at BuzzFeed News, Anne Helen Petersen makes the case that notoriously lazy, entitled, smart-phone-addicted, avocado-toast-munching millennials aren’t entirely to blame for their economic and social woes. She makes a decent argument. Unfortunately, she comes up dry on solutions. And by “dry,” I mean she blames “the patriarchy” and “the one percent” for college debt. Considering that letdown, I’d like to offer a few very tentative and realistic ways I think members of my generation can avoid or at least soften premature burnout.
Petersen acknowledges that the group she’s speaking to doesn’t represent all millennials. It is primarily composed of upper middle-class white people with college degrees—not all of the roughly 75 million people born between 1981 and 1996. Having been raised to maximize efficiency, minimize risk, and compete with equally driven peers, this subset of young Americans seemed primed for success. A decade later, that success has largely failed to materialize.
“Kids these days have it so easy,” we often hear. Petersen disagrees. She points out that millennials are well behind where their parents were by this time in terms of adjusted income, savings, and home ownership. As the Old Economy Steve meme has it, younger baby-boomers are the first generation in living memory to be wealthier than both their parents and their kids. Millennial student debt totals a staggering $1.5 trillion. Millions of high school grads in the 2000s and 2010s embarked on higher education with the promise that it would ratchet up their earning potential in the long term. This may have been true for their parents, and it is probably still true for some majors. But for a large percentage of those who paid record tuitions alongside a record number of classmates aiming at the same jobs, college education has proven to be a millstone, not a milestone.
In the midst of this, Petersen says many adults her age are ridden with guilt about not working hard enough. The optimization and competitiveness hammered into the noggins of a certain class of students got them through swim team, track meets, debate club, Advanced Placement exams, and into the colleges that promised a sunny future. But with stable, full-time work with benefits becoming increasingly scarce, that dream job has morphed for many into half a dozen sporadic gigs bundled together to pay the rent.
All of this is compounded by technology, which blurs the distinctions between work hours and home, and Petersen says millennials who have jobs frequently feel they are always on the clock. The result is a sense of powerlessness and paralysis, even when it comes to seemingly routine tasks, like mailing a letter or submitting insurance claims. In Petersen’s telling, “adult” has become a verb among millennials not because we’re indolent half-wits who never learned how to make a phone call or change a tire (although I am sure that is the case for more of us than she imagines) but because “adult” is not something we are ever allowed to become. Instead, it is an ever-receding mirage at the end of a road paved by endless paying-of-dues.
As I said, she offers precious little in the way of pointers for those fighting frustration and fatigue, whether they are in the workplace or trying to get there. Anyone who has read my past writing knows I don’t for a minute buy the idea that we millennials are simply victims of forces beyond our control. Yes, the crisis of college debt and the gig economy and poor health insurance are massive handicaps to overcome. But then, so were the Great Depression and World War II. Generations have surmounted systemic challenges in the past. Millennials may do likewise in the long run. In the short-term, however, there are habits we can cultivate to conserve mental energy and stamina against the kind of burnout Petersen describes.
First, we twenty-and-thirty-somethings need to realize that many of the things that feel like part of work aren’t actually work. We may not be as busy as we think. Petersen says she and others have the sensation of always being on the clock, due mainly to technology that wasn’t buzzing for our parents’ attention when they were our age. To call myself to the witness stand, I find that an honest accounting of my schedule discloses squandered hours keeping abreast of national news, succoring online trolls, cramming the latest podcasts, or trading barbs on Twitter with people I think of as status-enhancing opponents.
These activities are mental noise. I could get more done and feel more accomplished at the end of the day by tuning them out. And for those with very different job descriptions, or with jobs they dislike, or with no jobs at all, I suspect noise takes the form of texts, unread emails, undelegated tasks, unrun errands, or unanswered invitations. Whatever their guise, distractions—especially those that feel work-like—parasitize mental energy like little else. We should identify them and get rid of them. No sense wasting limited bandwidth on static.
Second, millennials should become aware of social media’s power to distort our expectations. When we wax green with envy at the lives and careers other people portray on Instagram, we inevitably grow discontent with our own, and edge further toward burnout. I’m pretty familiar with this ailment and its symptoms. Don’t go there. And don’t give in to that temptation to view your vocation primarily as a means of ascending this digital pecking order. As C. S. Lewis puts it in “The Screwtape Letters” (oh, what a quotable book!), “…a man is not usually called upon to have an opinion of his own talents at all, since he can very well go on improving them to the best of his ability without deciding on his own precise niche in the temple of Fame.” Besides, five minutes’ candid conversation with one of your Instagram idols would likely reveal that their meticulously-curated online persona tells much less than the full story. Social media for most people is a Jefferson’s Bible of life, only instead of excising the miracles, they cut out the hardship.
Finally, millennials should avoid putting pressure on mere jobs to be the fulfillment of their dreams. We’re a starry-eyed bunch, but very few people, even in past generations, stepped right into their ideal position. Rather, they toiled their way up the ladder, doing a lot of unfulfilling work in the process. Work is frequently something you do to provide for your needs, or to obtain necessary experience, not something you wow people with at cocktail parties. My first writing job was for the Farm Bureau magazine in my hometown, doing featurettes on feed stores and fertilizer companies. I expected I wouldn’t enjoy it very much, and I was right. But I emerged better at my craft. And given the Christian understanding of work, even a job you aren’t crazy about can be done heartily, as unto the Lord. If you don’t adore your work, don’t sweat it. God doesn’t require you to. And don’t be afraid to take a job that isn’t what you wanted, if it’s more economically promising than the career you studied for. Labor stats show there are plenty of openings waiting to be filled, if only someone is willing.
Obviously, these suggestions are far from a cure to the generational roadblocks Petersen describes. But generational roadblocks shouldn’t determine our attitudes about life or work, as she seems to imagine. They certainly shouldn’t inspire us to lash out impotently political bogeymen. Because whether “adult” is still considered a noun or not, it’s what we are. And learning to move past resentment and victimhood to tackle our responsibilities a little more intelligently (and a little more Christianly) might give us longer fuses while we toil for that avocado toast.
G. Shane Morris is a Senior Writer for BreakPoint