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The bitter truth about Millennial burnout We need to expose the lies used to exploit the young

Credit: Dan Kitwood / Getty

January 31, 2019   8 mins

Whatever happened to the chavs?

In the 2000s, they were a common sight in English towns and cities. To this day, there’s no consensus as to where the word came from – but it was gleefully adopted as a pejorative term for working class young people, especially those assumed to be ill-educated, welfare-dependent and criminally-inclined. It also referred to a distinctive youth sub-culture – with a dress code heavy on tracksuit bottoms, baseball caps and gold chains.

Though not that different from other street fashions of the decade (or indeed this one), the particular details marked out the wearer as a chav. In some ways, it was an anti-fashion, capable of absorbing upmarket brands (most infamously the Burberry check) and taking them all the way down.

The style was also a statement, in this case from a group that knew it wasn’t wanted, but which refused to be invisible – or to be excluded from the debt-fuelled ‘good times’ prior to the financial crisis.

Perhaps seeing an unvarnished image of itself, the cultural elite kicked down. Social satirists were merciless in their mockery. By the time the backlash to the backlash set in – for instance, with the publication of Owen Jones’ Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, in 2011 – it was too late. Chavdom was on its way out.

It’s not that marginalised youngsters have disappeared from our streets, but the distinct sub-culture is dead – swept away not just by the tide of contempt, but also by a generational shift.


The 2000s were when the Millennials took over – and that was always going to bring about changes. The mimetic nature of a smartphone-centred youth culture leaves less room for the distinct (and, at times, mutually hostile) youth sub-cultures of previous decades. No equivalent of Mods versus Rockers for this lot – or even Oasis versus Blur.

Though class distinctions are far from being absent or unnoticed among today’s young, there’s little appetite to make them more visible than they have to be. Nor does the rebellious impulse to immitate the outsider – and thereby scandalise the olds – express itself along class lines anymore. Indeed, the working class and especially the white working class, has never been less fashionable – whether culturally or politically.

Millennials strike me as being untroubled by middle-class guilt. It’s not that they use the actual words ‘middle class’ with any more enthusiasm than older generations of Brits, but, then, that’s not necessary when you’ve got euphemisms like ‘knowledge worker’, ‘creative industries’ and ‘working with people.’ Being career-orientated is not uncool if it’s a cool career. Ambitious Millennials don’t just want material success, they want it served with a generous topping of personal fulfilment (and don’t forget the peer recognition sprinkles).

In pursuing their goals, ambitious Millennials carry two bits of deeply implanted programming. The first is that this is what you deserve because you’re special – a wizard in a world of Muggles. The second is that, in spite of the above, the competition is fierce, so you’re going to have to work hard to get it.

But what if you don’t get it? Or what if you do, but the price is just too high? That is the question – one which brings me to Anne Helen Petersen and her remarkable and much-debated Buzzfeed essay ‘How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation’.


Petersen asks “why am I burned out?” and offers the following answer:

“Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it — explicitly and implicitly — since I was young. Life has always been hard, but many millennials are unequipped to deal with the particular ways in which it’s become hard for us.”

Let’s deal with the obvious objection to this thesis – i.e. in what way is “working all the time” specific to the Millennial generation? A lot of middle-aged people, especially women, would say ‘wait until you’ve got children or ageing relatives or both; wait until you’re combining the responsibilities of home with the duties of middle or senior management – then you’ll know what hard work is!’

Except this would be to miss Petersen’s point, which is that today’s young people are under pressures that the GenXers and Baby Boomers did not face at the same stage in life:

“Financially speaking, most of us lag far behind where our parents were when they were our age. We have far less saved, far less equity, far less stability, and far, far more student debt. “

The hollowing out of middle income occupations, the decline in home ownership and differentials in family breakdown mean that there is a ‘coming apart’ of western societies – an ever-widening divide between the upper end and lower end of the income scale, with an ever more uncertain and insecure buffer zone between them. The ‘room at the top’ assumptions of the easy years of capitalism have been replaced with what appears to be a zero-sum game.

To some extent, that’s a delusion, because for all the dysfunctions of ‘late capitalism’ (as it’s optimistically called), living standards now are higher, and personal freedoms greater, than in the post-war golden age. But at the same time the stakes have been raised: comfortable mediocrity, even if attainable, isn’t good enough anymore – your work, and the lifestyle you buy with it, has to be meaningful (or, at least, look that way through a social media lens). Those sort of jobs, though probably more plentiful than at any time in history, are concentrated in fewer places (the global cities in particular) and demand exceeds supply.

Petersen describes an never ending process of “optimisation” that Millennials must go through in order to make it in a hyper-competive economy. This, she says, began in their earliest years:

“Running around the neighborhood has become supervised playdates. Unstructured day care has become pre-preschool. Neighborhood Kick the Can or pickup games have transformed into highly regulated organized league play that spans the year. Unchanneled energy (diagnosed as hyperactivity) became medicated and disciplined.”

It’s interesting how many of the coming-of-age dramas of the Millennial era are about young people testing themselves – both in competition against one another and against hostile powers in the outside world. Prime examples include Harry Potter, of course, but also the Hunger Games and Divergent series. I don’t know to what extent, if any, these were created as allegories of the present, but it’s no surprise that themes of specialness, preparation and selection resonate with a Millennial audience. Certainly, there’s a generational gulf between the larking-about of St Trinian’s and Grange Hill and the serious, self-discovery of Hogwarts.

And it doesn’t end with school. The process of optimisation goes on to higher education (which has been deemed more necessary and made more expensive for Millennials than previous generations). Increasingly, this includes various levels of post-graduate qualification – yet another extractive opportunity for ‘big diploma’. Petersen describes her own progress (and exploitation) through the lower echelons of academia:

“As I continued through grad school, I accumulated more and more debt — debt that I rationalized, like so many of my generation, as the only means to achieve the end goal of 1) a “good” job that would 2) be or sound cool and 3) allow me to follow my ‘passion.’”


The post-graduate treadmill is still a minority track for Millennials, but not so the social media treadmill:

“Posting on social media… is a means of narrativizing our own lives… when we don’t feel the satisfaction that we’ve been told we should receive from a good job that’s ‘fulfilling,’ balanced with a personal life that’s equally so, the best way to convince yourself you’re feeling it is to illustrate it for others.”

She says it also about a perceived need for constant self-promotion to potential employers. I’m sure that’s right, but what comes next contains a crucial misunderstanding:

“Now, your phone is a sophisticated camera, always ready to document every component of your life… to facilitate the labor of performing the self for public consumption.”

It’s certainly a performance, but, with some exceptions, it isn’t “labor” (or “work” as Petersen also describes it). Yes, for certain vocations – writer, artist etc – there is a case for putting examples of what you can do online. But as for putting “every component of your life” online, no one demanded you do that – and most people aren’t interested. If you want to share your experiences with friends and family or a particular interest with likeminded enthusiasts, then that’s great; but if you think of such interactions as “work”, then do something more enjoyable with your time.

If you think that a laboriously curated online presence makes you stand out to potential employers then you may be underestimating the capacity of social media to make everyone look and sound the same. In all likelihood, you are advertising your conformity, not your individuality. That you may have ‘travelled in’ (i.e. gone on holiday to) south east Asia, or wherever, is of zero fascination to someone sorting through a stack of CVs. There may be some youthful achievements that do catch a recruiter’s eye – musical proficiencies etc – but savvy employers are realising that what these most clearly signify is having pushy parents with money to spare. Ditto academic qualifications not relevant to the job.

What is relevant to the job, however, is how well you perform it. Which is why I was troubled by Petersen’s explanation for the less impressive side of the Millennial work ethic:

“They show up late, they miss shifts, they ghost on jobs. Some people who behave this way may, indeed, just not know how to put their heads down and work. But far more likely is that they’re bad at work because of just how much work they do — especially when it’s performed against a backdrop of financial precariousness.”

If the overwork comes from the job itself, then that is the employer’s fault. But if the distraction is coming from outside the job – and especially the ‘demands’ of maintaining one’s image on social media, then it is the employee and his or her screwed-up sense of priorities that is most immediately to blame. You should never be so focused on “performing the self” that you fail to see where you fit in to the needs of others – especially those to whom you owe an honest day’s work.

Even in those cases where online activity does contribute to a positive professional reputation, it is highly unlikely to be more important than the reputation you establish by making a decent fist of what you’re actually paid to do. That the gateways to entry-level employment, and thus the chance to prove yourself, are often exploited (through unpaid internships and other abuses) is disgusting, but it doesn’t change the fact that diligence matters.

So, forget Twitter, Instagram or Facebook – the social network that really matters to your career is the one that forms organically whenever people of the same trade meet together to gossip about their colleagues. If you can feel your ears burning, it’s probably because they’re sharing their own direct experience of your performance and treatment of others in the workplace. If your social media self-performance comes up at all, it’ll only be to note the distance between image and reality.


In reading Petersen’s account of the Millennial culture of optimisation – “as children, in college, online” – I was struck by the thought that it wasn’t optimisation at all. The dictionary definition of the word is “making the best or most effective use of a situation or resource”. But if it’s true that the process “culminates in the dominant millennial condition” of “burnout” then quite clearly it is not optimal. In fact, I’d describe it as a process of maximisation: helicopter parents filling-up their children’s schedules with organised activity; eternal students racking up academic qualifications; consumers compulsively acquiring ‘experiences’ and regurgitating them online. This is life as a form filling exercise.

Petersen argues that “many of the tasks Millennials find paralysing are one that are impossible to optimise for efficiency”, possibly because “they remain stubbornly analog”. I suspect the real problem is that, unlike the digital interactions that tech companies make so addictive, there’s no electronically-mediated reward, no equivalent to ‘inbox zero’ or the affirming recognition of a ‘like’ or ‘follow’.

To the Millennial maximiser, the more quantifiable the achievement the better. From course credits to retweets, it’s all about the points – and what do points mean? Prizes! Except that real life, real work, real achievement remains profoundly qualitative. Points do not necessarily translate into prizes. Petersen says that Millennials have internalised the idea that they should be working all the time. I don’t doubt it, but a lot of the effort they’ve actually put in isn’t actually work, not in any useful sense. The ‘points’ that they’ve been chasing are the reward – and often the only reward – of a series of expensive and time-consuming displacement activities.

In taking issue with some aspects of Petersen’s argument, I’m not disagreeing with its central thrust. On the contrary, what she gets wrong serves as further illustration for what she gets right – which, fundamentally, is that Millennials have been sold a lie. In fact, a whole basket of lies.

As she says in the context of student debt, the cost isn’t just financial, but also “the psychological toll of realizing that you’d been told, and came to believe yourself, would be ‘worth it’ – worth the loans, worth the labor, worth all that self-optimization – isn’t”.

Well, quite.

But here’s the bitterest twist in the tale: many of the cool careers that Millennials are so ambitious to break into are with the industries most responsible for misleading them. The media, big tech and academia – these are the deceivers-in-chief. These are the guys peddling the dreams that cost so much for so little return.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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