A Millennial and a Gen Xer Discuss Burnout


This mid 90s Sears portrait demonstrates the generational divide between me and my brother. Yes, that was a “Rachel” shag and no, it wasn’t a good look for me.

Like other Americans, I have been watching one article consume many media cycles this month. If you haven’t read “Burnout Generation” by Anne Helen Peterson, here you go. She has clearly touched a raw, pulsating nerve.

Her essay notes that student debt and the changing economic landscape have altered the trajectory of people in their 20s and 30s from previous generations. Millennials are waiting longer to have children and putting off buying homes. 30% of Americans used to have union jobs with pensions, healthcare and guaranteed time off; now only 10% do.

My brother is a millennial. I am a Gen Xer, and the differences between us are pretty stereotypical. He has debt from college and graduate school he’s still paying down in his thirties. He went to graduate school to distinguish himself in a crowded job market. I did not go to graduate school because I was able to find a good job without it–and my debt from college was paid off in 5 years. My brother is unable to buy a home in our expensive area, so he and his wife moved to Portland where real estate is cheaper. My husband and I bought a home many years ago when this insane market was easier to crack. While we don’t live in that same home, the equity we gained helped us to afford our current house, which we bought at the very peak of the Great Recession.

In other words, because I was born earlier, I am better off in many measurable ways. Is this fair?

Clearly not.

So I asked what he thought of the article, as his opinion is way more relevant than mine.

Me: So, you are a bona fide millennial. Although I know you would prefer to be a Gen Xer, since you love Rancid so much. Joking. What did you think of this article?

Brother:  I think systemic disadvantages do exist for millennials. College debt is higher than ever before, and millennials are facing a job force that is more hostile to workers’ rights than boomers (unions are shrinking, many fields face an uncertain future). All the while, cost-of-living increases are raging out of control, and starting wages are as slow to react to this as a snail in January.

Throw in the fact that all things look like the world is hurtling toward eminent destruction, it’s all a lot. Millennials aren’t making it up: s*** is f***** up.

Me: Do you agree with Peterson’s argument that these disadvantages cause burnout, and more specifically, errand paralysis?

Brother: I don’t think that these disadvantages mean we can’t run simple errands.

I think the reason why we don’t like making phone calls or doing things face-to-face is because we came of age in a world with easier, softer ways around those things: email, text, etc.

Even Gen Xers, who’ve all texted and emailed most of their adult lives, they had more practice doing that before alternate, more passive forms of communication came around. Take yourself, for instance: you don’t like talking on the phone, but you’ll call your insurance provider at the drop of the hat if such an act is required.

Me: True story.

Brother: I get why some errands are exhausting. I’ve made dumb mistakes like Peterson’s boyfriend, who lost out on about $1,000 because he put off jumping through s***, confusing bureaucratic hoops.

But, exhaustion simply can’t be an excuse to not exist in the world.

Also, all of the systemic disadvantages I mentioned before are multiplied exponentially for women, non-binary folks, and people of color.

Me: Very true. Speaking of which, do you think it’s worth it for millennials to challenge the status quo? Peterson indicated that burnout should excuse those infamous millennials who didn’t vote because they couldn’t figure out how to send in the darn form. Student debt is an institutional issue largely out of one individual’s control, and the way to change it is via legislation. Do you agree that millennials should make their voices heard–calling legislators, donating money to campaigns if we can and volunteering? That seems to be the only clear path to real institutional change.

Brother: I think Peterson’s defense of the infamous millennials who said voting is too hard is wrong, and I think that’s far from the reality of what most millennials are doing. In the age of Trump, millennials are learning how to make themselves heard through their legislators really quickly. In the past two years, I’ve never seen so many of my peers call on others to get in touch with congress/representatives/etc, march for what’s right, even fight white supremacists in their streets.

Some have even decided to go into politics themselves. It’s been really inspiring. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, perhaps the most famous millennial in politics, is a great example of this. She’s trying to save the world for her generation and all those coming up behind her.

Action is the answer, and the antidote for exhaustion. That’s our only hope.

Me: What tips would you provide for millennials dealing with errand paralysis?

Brother: Resist the temptation to do nothing. I fail at this one all the time, but if we do nothing, we’re all dead meat.

Make the phone calls. Send the forms. Take the little actions you think you just can’t muster the energy for. Something that gives me some strength is this line from the late Mary Oliver poem “The Summer Day”: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one and precious life?”

Amen, brother.

Other perspectives:

The Altantic: Millenial burnout is being televised

Laura Vanderkam: On errand paralysis

What do you think about millenial burnout? Are you burned out? 




Filed under Productivity

8 responses to “A Millennial and a Gen Xer Discuss Burnout

  1. Laura Vanderkam is sound as a dollar. Funny too.

  2. And of course it goes without saying that the two of you are wise and witty too.

  3. My sister and middle brother are an echo of you and your brother with their careers and current financial positions. I’m the classic underachieving apathetic Gen Xer as the oldest, tho.

  4. I really enjoyed this conversation between you two, highlighting your perspectives. It shows how much timing matters.

    P.S. You are both adorable.

  5. I read the millennial burnout article & there was a lot I could relate to, even though I am a late boomer or early GenX-er (depending on whose definition you use…!). I do feel the millennials have a tough go of it — I look at my nephews, struggling to be able to afford even just a townhouse or condo in this crazy market here, nevermind start families, and I wish I could do more to help them. But the job market wasn’t great when I got out of school in the early 1980s either… houses were cheaper, but mortgages were something like 21%… and it was somehow still acceptable then for executives to pat me on the head and call me “this little girl” (!). I guess what I’m trying to say is every generation has its challenges to face — and work culture these days generally sucks, no matter how old you are. But I agree with your brother: exhaustion can’t be an excuse, and action is the answer. Loved listening in to your conversation!

    • Mali

      These debates are also going on here, interestingly.

      Loribeth has pretty much said what I was going to say. I didn’t realise mortgage interest rates were also so high in Canada in the 1980s. I remember the 21+% rates, and I still struggle to believe how low they are now. Of course, now interest rates are so low, trying to save for retirement is tough. (Whereas my in-laws enjoyed minimum of 10-20% interest rates on their savings during the last years of employment and at least 20 years of their retirement.) And yes, I recognise the irony of saying that given that I own my own home.

      I recognise too that culturally, the US millenials do have to deal with more challenges. Work culture, healthcare issues and student debt all contribute to an unhealthy environment. We share some of them, but not nearly to the same extent.

  6. middle_class

    I get that millennials have it tough in many ways but i dont think it’s necessarily worse than Gen Xers (full disclosure: I’m one). I remember graduating during a horrible job market. We complained that boomers had/have it much better. I think they had more opportunities than either Gen X or younger due to stagnant salaries, decline of middle class, loss of unions and pensions. If it makes millennials feel better, GenXers don not have pensions either!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s