What We Can Do About Millennial Burnout

After reading Anne Helen Petersen’s Buzzfeed piece on millennial burnout this week, I felt extraordinarily discouraged. 

In her piece, Petersen vocalized so many of the things we talk about at She Spends like emotional labor and the struggle to do menial errands. 

It also touched on the larger struggle our generation faces: after years of being groomed to desire traditional success (the job, the house, the dog, the kids), what happens when we can’t get it?

When I shared it with the Facebook group, it was no surprise that it resonated. But like myself, many of the group members were left wondering, what now? If we’re so burnt out, yet so constantly striving for more, what can we do? 

The more I think about it, the more I believe that the answer lies in changing what we value, which is incredibly difficult to do. 

This is because even if we weren’t, as a generation, raised by parents who wanted everything for us and acted accordingly, we’d still be living in a system where the things we value the most supersede our longevity. 

Here’s what I mean: In the United States, we live in a financial system that prioritizes GDP growth as a measure of success as a nation. GDP, or gross domestic product, is simply a financial measure of all the goods and services we as a country produce during a set amount of time. 

At the same time that the value of our nation depends on GDP, the existence of our country — and the planet generally — is threatened by global warming. Climate change has increased over time as a result of our own consumption. And yet, we still prioritize GDP growth as a nation, which pushes consumption higher.

As individuals, we can barely make real change on these issues because our own lives, perhaps rightfully, take precedence. Our generation is buried under a veritable mountain of student debt.

What’s more is that on the individual level, our ability to lead a healthy life is based solely on the amount of money we’re able to make. That becomes clear when we consider our health system, in which if we want important healthcare procedures, we need money and insurance. 

It’s easy to see how this system continues to tell us that our lives could be better with more money. And, of course, to make more money, we need to become more successful. Even without pushy parents, we as millennials still would be on that hamster wheel of work and pressure that Petersen points out in her story.

So what could we value instead of GDP growth? For some, it’s community. For others, it’s religion, or ideas, or science, or art. I first started thinking about this on a personal level when I read The Communist Manifesto recently. The manifesto posits that our system values money — or “capital” — above everything else. I started to wonder what our system would look like if we shifted away from valuing capital, and instead picked something like ideas or community.

A system that prioritizes community over capital likely wouldn’t produce things in the same way. Ditto for any of those other values I mentioned above. And yes, to be fair, it's impossible for our national value system to change completely in a short amount of time. But, given current conditions in the United States, I think it’s important to consider what exactly we value, and how our lives are shaped around those values. 

We can do this on an individual level by taking stock of our worldviews, our consumption habits, how much we value material goods and services, and what actually brings us joy in this world. 

I found this blog post on determining what to follow on social media by To Universe With Love incredibly helpful in these considerations. As a result of reading the post linked above, I went from following a lot of influencers on Instagram who posted #topshelfies and brand promotions to following educational art and poetry accounts. It’s totally changed the way I use the Instagram app. 

I also found Jennifer Taylor Chan’s recent post on materialism helpful. It suggests envisioning our values in a pie chart. The more materialistic we are, the less room we have in our pie to value other things.

It’s also worth considering the system at large. I recommend two pieces from Longreads: “Beyond Growth” and “Happy Health Economy.” Both of these pieces discuss how our financial system would look if GDP was no longer the measure of success. 

I’m curious to know what you think, She Spends readers. Shoot me an email if you’d like to discuss. We’ll also post a thread in the Facebook group on this topic where the community can chat about these issues.