OUR GREATEST VALUE
The modern link between loneliness and burnout.
By Robin Babb
In January, Anne Helen Petersen pointed out how millennials have become the “burnout generation” in a brilliant BuzzFeed essay that was as relatable as it was painful to read.
Of course, millennials didn’t invent burnout, and far be it for me to say that other generations of workers haven’t had their own particular struggles—I’ll never know what it was like to look for work during the Great Depression, for instance. But as Petersen argues, for millennials, burnout has become “our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives.” This background music, set to the tune of our perpetual student debt and a job market that keeps insisting that we be paid in “exposure,” makes for a pretty deafening noise. For those with disabilities or with significant responsibilities outside of work, this feeling of burnout can be multiplied many times over.
The unique thing about millennial burnout is that we don’t burn out, finish the offending project or work week, and then recover. We stay in that space of burnout indefinitely, because our to-do list keeps growing at the same rate that we cross things off. As a generation, we have internalized the idea that working at all hours, being “always on,” is the best way to set ourselves apart from the pack. Which is why the stereotype of millennials being lazy or entitled chafes particularly hard—we may not have stable, decades-long careers at the company store like our parents did, but many of us literally respond to emails before we get out of bed in the morning.
This ability to burn out and keep going, as Petersen says, is “our greatest value” to a capitalist system that has no interest in human wellbeing. Which is probably why companies keep vocally romanticizing this self-destructive capability of ours.
There is another contributing factor to this level of burnout that Petersen doesn’t really touch on in her essay, though: loneliness. There’s a researched link between loneliness and increased responsibility, which many of us are facing as we jump headfirst into the workforce. And this loneliness compounds feelings of burnout, depression, and anxiety because it makes us feel as though we don’t have the social resources to adequately deal with our burdens.
The same mechanisms that supposedly make us the most connected generation—namely, social media and the internet in general—divide us and prevent us from effectively understanding each other. As Jaron Lanier says in his highly targeted book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, the algorithm that personalizes our social media feeds “makes it harder to understand why others think and act the way they do.”
We all see the world from a different perspective, of course; that’s nothing new. But the algorithmic tailoring of our various feeds means that we literally don’t see the same world that other people are seeing. This makes empathy difficult.
And this isn’t the only way that social media subtly isolates us. In his book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Jonathan Crary says that “because one’s bank account and one’s friendships can now be managed through identical machinic operations and gestures [i.e., smartphone apps], there is a growing homogenization of what used to be entirely unrelated areas of experience.” In other words, maintaining friendships now looks and feels very similar to maintaining your checking account. I think of this insidious device of capitalism as a kind of gentrification of the mind: In a gentrifying neighborhood every street corner starts to look the same, and similarly, to a gentrifying mind, all activities begin to fall under the heading of “work” in one way or another. This is one of the reasons people take breaks from Instagram or Facebook, two platforms which, originally, were merely devices for us to communicate with each other. Now that they’ve become channels for us to promote fictionalized, idealized versions of ourselves—our “personal brand”—these twitchy little apps on our phones have effectively become a part of our jobs or, more appropriately, our “hustle.” One more thing on the ever-expanding to-do list.
Modern capitalism commodifies our lives, including our social lives. It corrupts the ways we reach out and express care for each other, and it glamorizes working to the point of self-destructive burnout. With all of us at the end of our ropes like this, how can we expect to be good partners, friends, or parents to each other?
Recently, after several working weekends in a row when I repeatedly bailed on social activities, a friend of mine protested in a way that got under my armor really hard. “You’re not allowed to punish yourself for not finishing your work by not hanging out with me,” she said. My instinctive denial caught in my throat. She was right. I had used the possibility of going on a Saturday hike with her as my carrot when I was racing to meet a Friday deadline, and, when I didn’t manage to meet it, I used it as my stick. I used her. And she, very justifiably, didn’t like being used as a tool for me to pressure myself.
I apologized and went on the hike. I finished my story later that day. Everything was fine, and I got some much needed social time and vitamin D.
“That’s a good friend. You should hang on to her,” said Dr. Caroline Sanderson when I shared this story with her on the phone. Dr. Sanderson, a professor of Psychology at Amherst College and author of the recent book The Positive Shift, has written and lectured extensively on emotional intelligence and happiness, and I knew she would have good insight on the link between loneliness and burnout.
“People with healthy relationships outside of work get stress relief that others don’t,” she said. Whether it’s a romantic partner, a family member, or a roommate, having somebody (or somebodies) to vent to at the end of a hard work day not only feels cathartic in the moment, it’s good for our overall mental health.
These relationships can be crucial to dealing with feelings of burnout and addressing their sources. When we are deep in the spiral of overwhelm it can be hard to get perspective, so having a friend who can see in from the outside is immeasurably valuable. “It’s so important to have somebody in your life who can not only help you out, but somebody who can say, ‘this job isn’t working. You need to do something different,’” says Sanderson.
She also recommends we start using social media to our advantage by airing some of our uglier feelings there. “Technology gets a bad rap. But we can also look at technology as being advantageous. So people could post on social media “I’m feeling really burned out in my job” or “I’m feeling really stuck,” and then other people can provide suggestions, support, or encouragement, or say “Hey, this is something I do when I’m stressed.” Because part of feeling lonely is feeling like you’re the only one.”
Though these social media channels are typically where we project the idealized versions of ourselves, they can just as easily be the venues where we talk about the hard stuff in our lives. There is a growing acceptance of talking about depression, anxiety, and other mental health struggles in the public forums of social media. There are even groups dedicated to specific grief topics, like loss of a partner or a parent, where members can talk openly with others who really, truly get what they’re going through—which might not be something that person can find in their immediate real-life social group. Talking freely about our problems, our inner darkness, and hearing even just one other person in our outer circle say “hey, me too” is a huge anodyne to feelings of isolation.
What if we talked about our feelings of burnout on social media more? What if I stopped posting the highly curated photos of myself in trendy cafes, and started posting about how many times I’ve been sick and haven’t been able to take time off in the past year? What if I talked about the constant self-doubt and the worry that I might not make rent despite working nights and weekends? What if we stopped glamorizing the hustle, and started exposing it as the exploitation of young, desperate, burned out workers that it is?
To some extent I see posts like these already happening in my circles, and it brings me hope. Hope that we might turn these tools that were meant to commodify us into tools of care. To appropriate some hard left phraseology: This might be one of the ways we build the new world in the shell of the old.
Robin Babb writes about the intersections of food, wellness, and environmental and social issues and works as the Food and Drink Editor at Weekly Alibi in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She spends her free time hiking in the Sandia Mountains and scrutinizing expensive health trends.