Herizons Commentary

Millennial Burout and Me  by Ayesha Mian Akram
Millennial Burout and Me

When I turned 30 last year, I had mixed emotions: pride at my accomplishments, sorrow at leaving behind my carefree youth (#adulting) and apprehension about what was to come. But most of all, I felt exhausted.

As a millennial, I am part of the “burnout generation.” Millennials account for about 27 percent of the Canadian population and represent those born in the 1980s and
1990s. Today, we are between 20 and 39.

Isabelle Miner describes millennial burnout on the blog Career Contessa as something that happens when “you’re overworked, overstimulated and striving for excellence in a world that sets the bar high. And as a millennial, you’re setting your own bar even higher.”

This need to overachieve counters the stereotype that millennials are a group of entitled complainers. As Anne Helen Peterson writes in a Buzzfeed article, millennial
burnout reflects an internalized pressure to “be working all the time.” Peterson notes that it’s a generational issue— one that has become “our base temperature … It’s the way things are. It’s our lives.”

As with many societal pressures, millennial burnout disproportionately affects women. An ever-increasing number of young women who “have it all” report that they are burning out before the age of 30.

Why is this happening? The bar for achievement is high for millennial women. Generations of feminists before us fought for, and achieved, landmark social and legal changes. The expectation for millennial women is that if we want it all, we can have it all. The path is clear.

Accordingly, millennial Laurin Liu who, at 20, was elected the youngest female Member of Parliament in 2011, says she “grew up being told that I could be anything I wanted to be” because “full equality is what we were promised.”

We feel obligated to do it all because we can. I myself am writing about burnout while managing full-time graduate school, a teething toddler, community commitments and a mortgage—and I am not alone. French millennial author Emma, in her comic collection, The Mental Load, describes how such obligations, together,
weigh on the person “always having to remember.”

Despite a growing household load taken on by men, Emma says the exhausting weight of managing the mental load is “almost completely born by women.” This includes the never-ending list of family-related work: book the pediatrician appointment; add hummus to the grocery list; take winter tires off the car; buy the birthday present. I can’t count the number of times I’ve collapsed on the couch, exasperated, saying to my partner, “My brain can’t handle all of this anymore!”

The truth is, burnout is experienced by non-millennial women, too. Generations of women have had to do this same juggling act. But when millennials speak out about our experiences, we are often told we are complaining
or whining.

So, what makes millennial women’s experience legitimately different from women of other generations? First, millennial women have to challenge stereotypes about
both women and millennials, especially in the workplace. Despite advancements, women are still fighting to defy assumptions about our work ethic and emotions, prove that we can manage both families and leadership positions, and refuse “non-promotable” tasks associated with organizing and empathy. We must also confront the assumption that millennials have a hard time putting down their avocado toast to deal with “real life.” Talk about #defystereotypes.

For millennial women, developing self-sufficiency is a high priority. According to the Pew Research Center, millennial women are more educated, make up more of the workforce, and are more likely to postpone marriage than our grandparents’ generation. All of this within inflated metropolitan housing markets and massive student debt—a life in which self-care or prioritizing mental health comes low on the priority list.

Another generational difference is that, despite the benefits of social media for feminist causes (e.g., #MeToo and #BelieveWomen), keeping up with social media requires both time and mental labour. In Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal Newport argues that our addiction to smartphones means that we are never alone with our thoughts nor have time to reset. This constant need to be “on” is felt more by women who are more active on social media than men in Canada. Thus, “having so many different shiny baubles pulling so insistently” at us, coupled with a constant need to be present, active and working, culminates in millennial women’s exhaustion.

Millennial women’s burnout is not a baseless exaggeration. As feminists, let’s work together to support one another and douse the flames, not kindle the fire.

Published in Herizons Spring 2019 issue.