Being a millennial, finding the time and desire to indulge in the act of “simply doing nothing” is a grinding process. The Dutch have even coined a term for this luxury: “Niksen”, which, in plain English, translates to “enjoying idleness” and which, in plain reality, is an almost impossible task for Gen Y.
Being born during the time bracket of 1981-1996 may have its bright sides (we were thankfully spared the horrors of the World Wars and the Great Depression) but it was accompanied by its own set of stumbling blocks.
According to Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, “Our generation has had no Great War, no Great Depression. Our war is spiritual. Our depression is our lives.” With all that has been unfolding in our era, which is taut with economic and political tensions, this generation has been suffering. The millennials, the witnesses and the unenthusiastic participants of the seismic changes worldwide are struggling to stand out and fit in at the same time. They cannot seem to heave a sigh of relief or catch a break. At all.
Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger came up with the term “burnout” in 1974—which describes a constant state of chronic stress resulting in physical and emotional fatigue—and in 2019, Anne Helen Petersen made her readers re-adjust in their seats when she associated millennials with this very condition. Her viral Buzzfeed article titled “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation” stirred all kinds of reactions among its readers—from mass approval to mocking scoffs. For a generation that is rebuffed for being lazy, whiny, confused and is frequently asked to “grow up”, especially by the Baby Boomers, the concept of “burnout” may appear to be yet another generational idiosyncrasy that is simply romanticising laziness or glorifying exhaustion. According to many critics, the burnout syndrome may be a cover-up for millennial lethargy.
But the picture is far more complex because this demographic group has been caught right in the eye of the vortex of massive turbulent and unpredictable changes throughout their lives and has constantly been pressurised to thrive under these circumstances.
The pace of the global economic and political shifts fuelled by social media, cellphones and advanced technology has created an alarming degree of disillusionment and frustration among these people. From the dominance of Facebook and Netflix to the downfall of TV and radio, from China’s accession to the breakneck speed of the fourth industrial revolution, from widespread terrorism, rampant corruption and rising debt to the sense of foreboding that the world is nearing its doomsday—all these factors have been at play at the time this generation was coming of age. And let’s not forget the universal threat of global warming. The future seems so bleak for this generation that they have to continuously hear about the blaring warning of climatic catastrophes in the coming decades when their career/family life may be at its peak.
Combine these factors with the exclusive features of a millennial’s trajectory—intensive parenting, striving for perfection in personal and professional domains, neoliberal meritocracy and of course hyper-connectivity and information overload—and what we have is generational panic.
According to a 2018 report by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, a federation of a number of US health insurance organisations and companies, there has been a 47 percent rise in major depression among millennials since 2013 and they have the highest incidence of anxiety compared to all other generations as substantiated by the American Psychological Association. The disturbing undertone of these statistics is how millennials have to bear the brunt of a world that is constantly in transition, and yet they are deemed as “entitled” adults with a perpetual sense of ennui.
But one could argue about the context of historical tunnel vision as surely the previous generations had their own share of adversities. Historians and cultural enthusiasts speak of the widespread feeling of listlessness, acedia, in medieval times that prevented true connection with God, or the condition recognised in the nineteenth century, neurasthenia, that referred to extreme stress on the nervous system due to the advent of the industrial society. But how is millennial burnout different enough to be causing this generation to turn into cases of a neurotic mess?
Victims of millennial burnout easily become guilt-ridden and cannot rest even for short periods of time, and this is where the burnout of this generation diverges from the concept of simple fatigue—where an act of repose feels rewarding and does not leave any feelings of guilt afterwards. In the curious case of the millennials, a period of rest or inactivity may not mitigate their stress but rather aggravate it. They get conscience-stricken for not utilising every moment to work towards their goals, pertaining to both their personal and professional life.
Anne Helen Petersen talked about “errand paralysis”—a condition where doing simple chores becomes overwhelming. This burnout also induces cynicism, low self-esteem, depleted energy levels and insomnia, which might overlap with the already prevalent problems of depression and anxiety. Many millennials already suffer from the Imposter Syndrome—they credit mere luck for their achievements and feel paranoid about being exposed as frauds. One of the things that have given rise to this condition is over-expectation from guardians who adopted parenting strategies that sent mixed signals, switching between over-praising and harsh criticism.
Other factors include societal pressure which comes along with the constant nagging sense of “always having to prove a point”, technological advancement, fierce competition in a cut-throat job market and the dire need to achieve perfection in all aspects of life exacerbated by social media comparisons. Social media instigates millennials to fall into a sad spiral of comparisons. They then resort to posting Instagram pictures of themselves, brandishing their “good life”—#LivingTheMoment. They paint a picture of themselves as young, exuberant and accomplished whereas in reality they are in distress.
This overworked, overexposed and overstimulated generation has to navigate itself through the maze of socially constructed standards of career, beauty and relationships, being thrown at them by screens of all sizes. They work relentlessly. They are swimming in debt. They are struggling to attain the same living standards as their parents, while striving for perfection in the face of constant upheavals. Their inner battles are taking a collective toll on their psyche and yet they have to maintain a stoic disposition of having everything under control.
This situation is somewhat akin to the “Stanford Duck Syndrome”, a term that means putting up a facade of false ease. Picture a duck floating on water, gliding effortlessly, but below the surface, its duck feet are paddling furiously. Millennials are not any different. It may look like they have it together, but underneath it all, they are scampering frantically and are running out of breath.
They are fighting a different kind of war.
Iqra L Qamari is a student of economics at North South University and an intern at The Daily Star.