by Katie Murfitt
MILLENNIAL BURNOUT– is it a valid concept, or just an updated spin on the experiences of past generations? Casting aside accusations of a ‘snowflake generation’, let’s take a closer look at what Burnout is, and what’s unique about burnout when it comes to Millennials.
What is burnout and how does it affect Millennials?
The concept of burnout – wherein prolonged chronic emotional and interpersonal stress leads to emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and reduced achievement – has reached such proportions in society that burnout is now recognised as an occupational phenomenon by the World Health Organisation. While the symptoms of burnout may be the same across different generations, the unique economic, social, and life circumstances facing each generation gives rise to the widespread increase in burnout across all generations.
Millennials are now in sharp focus as they start to compose a larger proportion of the workforce . These are individuals aged between 22 and 38 - those who have grown up in an age of technological innovation, constant connectedness, and in the past decade uncertain economic conditions marked by job scarcity and uncertainty .
Burnout across the generations
Certainly, burnout is not unique to Millennials. The term ‘burnout’ began to emerge in popular culture as early as the 1960s, however it was not until 1974 that the concept was researched academically . Evidence suggests that burnout does not impact everyone in the same way. Certain internal factors, such as perfectionism and unhelpful thinking styles, as well as external factors, such as job satisfaction and workload, have been linked to elevated risk for experiencing burnout (for a more detailed discussion check out our blog post on How to Recover from Burnout).
Importantly, not only does burnout vary between individuals, but the factors contributing to burnout are also unique across different generations. For instance, Gen Xers (born between 1965 – 1980 ) are in a workforce where they may occupy more senior roles with greater responsibilities where they are often faced with doing more with less. Some may even be returning to the workforce after years away focusing on parenting duties, and are faced with competing with a younger generation that is more in-tune with current developments in knowledge and technology. Outside of work, they are also rapidly becoming the sandwich generation where they are in positions of caring not only for children, but also for elderly parents.
Millennials also face a significant transitional stage. Given that they are aged from their early 20s to their late 30s, there are significant milestone ages ahead – 25th, 30th, 35th, and 40th birthdays beckon on the horizon. These significant ages can often be tied up with self-analysis of progress - not only in the career sphere, but also in other areas of life where there are ‘achievements’ to aim for - travel, living arrangements/ home ownership, romantic relationship status, and even parenthood.
CHALLENGES FACING MILLENNIALS
Millennials are faced with a melting pot of social, economic, and technological change which give rise to unique challenges such as:
Lack of security – economic, employment, educational
Technology breeding constant connection and an inability to ‘switch off’
Internalised standards resulting from social comparison driving heightened work pressures
Let’s look at each of these factors in turn.
MILLENNIAL CHALLENGE #1 - Lack of security (economic, employment, educational)
In a period of economic downturn (such as one that we have faced for over a decade), increased competition for work has led Millennials to look for ways to gain an edge over others so as to secure employment.
This edge can come in various forms – undertaking postgraduate studies, doing volunteer work, or taking on unpaid internships just for a more impressive resume – all of which come with significant financial drawbacks. Add to that taking on paid employment in order to pay the bills, is it any wonder that the mind is switched on to focus on work for much of the time?
The subjective experience (at least from the perspective of this Millennial!) is that of having to feel constantly ‘on’, focusing on how to do better, to do more, or produce more, in order to ‘have enough’ to be the most suitable candidate.
MILLENNIAL CHALLENGE #2 - Technology breeding constant connectedness (and unhelpful social comparisons!)
Millennials are a generation that grew up with rapid technological changes during their formative years, most notably the Internet, which allowed access to everything at your fingertips NOW.
Anytime. Anywhere. That’s what access is like for Millennials. Technological advances on the one hand have made flexible work arrangements possible, yet it’s led to a blurring of lines between work life and home life. It’s possible to check work emails any time of the day. It’s possible to access work and study documents remotely in order to ‘get ahead’ by doing work outside of work hours. It’s possible (and necessary!) to keep abreast of work developments via LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and so on! Is it any wonder that we’re seeing the rise of ‘errand paralysis!’.
When you combine the constant connectedness afforded by technology with the hypercompetitive nature of the job market (see Point 1!), it’s easy to see that not only do Millennials feel a need to be constantly ‘on’, they’ve grown up in a technological environment that facilitates the constant connection so that they can do more and do better. This blurring of boundaries between work and life makes it increasingly hard to switch off, thus increasing the risk of burnout.
Being constantly connected can also give rise to unhelpful social comparisons (thanks social media!). Millennials are bombarded with the ‘highlight reel’ of the successes of most of their peers through platforms such as Instagram and LinkedIn. Social comparisons of this nature can lead to feelings of inadequacy, which only serve to reinforce the push to do more and be more (see Challenge #3!).
MILLENNIAL CHALLENGE #3 - Unrealistic internalised standards are fuelling Millennial Burnout
By now the picture of Millennials being constantly ‘on’ to get ahead, and being able to do so through being constantly connected, is clear. What this shapes are standards that are difficult to meet, yet Millennials hold themselves to these as markers of achievement.
Remember those milestones we talked about? The 25th, 30th, 35th, and 40th birthdays? Each of these come with the pressure of self-evaluation:
Have we ‘made it’ in our careers? Did we end up where our education and experience were leading us towards?
Do we have enough job security?
Have we reached other milestones in our life?
Making inroads into this laundry list of standards – albeit by certain timeframes, together with the lack of job security (see Millennial Challenge #1), the pressure to be constantly connected (see Millennial Challenge #2) certainly breed a ‘hustle mentality’…but this all comes at the expense of realistic personal expectations and self-care. Next stop…burnout central.
HOW TO MANAGE MILLENNIAL BURNOUT
Insight into the causes of the mindset of Millennial Burnout is one thing, but analysis alone won’t help you break out of the situation. So here are some tips for overcoming Millennial Burnout.
1. Set boundaries with yourself
Yes, there is always something more you can do to hustle and get ahead in life. However, are you driving yourself to the brink of Millennial Burnout? A vital lesson is to learn how to say ‘no’, particularly to yourself. And take time to do something simply because it feels good and fills up your cup. Adulting may be hard work, but it’s important to take a step back and be grateful for the experiences: find a mindful moment to reflect and show yourself some compassion.
2. Actively dial back social comparison
Comparisons might be most conspicuous when we look to social media, in particular Instagram. Yet we know that Instagram is just a highlight reel, just one short moment in time, just one of a hundred photos taken wherein you’ve stumbled on the perfect trifecta of the right pose, the right lighting, and the right filters.
While we’re becoming better-practised at dialling back the comparisons with social media, what about the social comparisons we make between our lives and those of our friends’? We have friends who may seem to have it ‘figured out’, but as with Instagram, we just see the snapshot of their lives - no one posts about the jobs they didn’t get, or the paper they couldn’t publish, or the race they didn’t finish.
So, focus less on ‘what looks good’ on paper to yourself, as testament to your level of education, to your friends, and practise a bit of self-compassion…that what you’re doing feels hard, but you are chipping away and getting there. The timeframe may not look like what you’re after, but there’s no point getting caught in a cycle of pushing too hard, experiencing burnout, taking time off to recover (and then feeling like you’ve fallen behind)…and rinse and repeat.
3. Build skills to help with burnout
Tackling burnout involves a combination of working on unhelpful thoughts around productivity, perfectionism, and internalised expectations. Here at The Skill Collective, we have a unique focus on working with high performers: academics, professionals and athletes. We help people shift their unrealistic expectations and unhelpful thinking styles (such as ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’, catastrophizing, and an all-or-nothing approach) that can lead to burnout, depression and anxiety.
Tackling burnout also involves developing skills around realistic goal setting and realistic time management to contain your never-ending To Do list of self-improvement, and improving self-care.
AND BEFORE YOU PROTEST…
We can already hear you – there’s not enough time, there’s too much else to do, you won’t get ahead by standing still… Let’s cast that aside. The To Do list will be never-ending. Rather, the important questions are:
What will you prioritise?
How sustainable is the pace at which you are operating?
Is it worse to burn out, then having to spend months to recover and have your self-esteem take a hit, or to ease your lead foot a bit so that you can actually arrive at your destination?
Can you really afford not to take action?
Feeling trapped and experiencing burnout? Why not grab our tip sheet below to learn more about what you can do.
 Raising the bar: Australian Millennials in the Workplace. Retrieved from:
 Carney, T., & Stanford, J. (2018). The dimensions of insecure work: A factbook. Manuka, ACT: The Australia Institute, Centre for Future Work.
 Freudenberger, H. J. (1974). Staff burn‐out. Journal of social issues, 30(1), 159-165. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.1974.tb00706.x
 Lancaster, L. C., & Stillman, D. (2003). When generations collide: Who they are, why they clash, how to solve the generational puzzle at work. New York, NY: HarperBusiness.