Millennial Burnout: Two Student Perspectives
How to identify and address burnout, both at work and in school
Academic Workism Pushes Students Past Their Limits
There is a new idea emerging in North America: the concept of “workism,” which suggests that the most personal fulfilment can be found through professional achievement.
Derek Thompson works for the Atlantic and is a self-professed “workaholic.” He has researched the concept of workism and the inevitable burnout that comes with it.
Thompson believes that this shift is due to the movement away from standardized religion. The newest worship? Hard work. Millennials and GenXers are being given the notion that we will find happiness through working hard and mastering our professions, not through spiritual or religious dedication.
There is nothing wrong with being committed to your work, and it’s true that you can reap great satisfaction from achieving your goals. The problem arises when we allow our work to define us. For many students, that work is school.
I started attending university right after I graduated from high school in 2017. I received a full-ride scholarship to attend UVic based on my GPA and started my first year in the creative writing program. I was so excited! My hard work had literally paid off. The only catch was that I had to get straight A’s and take five courses per semester. No problem, I thought. I got A’s through high school. Why should this be any different?
Was I ever wrong. Balancing school, relationships, and a “university experience” proved to be a lot to handle. I began to hate writing and the stress of getting a good grade that came with every piece of work. My anxiety was constant. Feedback felt like an attack on who I was as a person. If I got a grade back that wasn’t an A, I would run back to my dorm room and sob into my pillow.
If I could no longer be the super-smart high school kid, who was I?
By the time I was supposed to head back to UVic for my second year, I had lost the scholarship. The thought of going back crippled me. I made the decision to move back home and work for a semester. This was not an easy choice. I felt like a failure.
During my semester off, I enrolled in regular counselling sessions and took up mediation and yoga. By taking the time to ground myself in a regular spiritual practice — not by participating in organized religion, but by performing the rituals of being present and connecting with nature — I was also putting effort into being easier on myself.
During the second half of that year, I made the decision to pursue journalism, which brought me to KPU.
I believe this struggle is not unique to my experience. Many students feel the weight of workism, the pressure to define ourselves by our work.
The reality is that it’s not a bad thing to work hard and to be fulfilled by that work. But when work causes us to put our true self aside, we burn out. I now focus on learning without letting a grade define me.
I am not claiming to have it all figured out. Far from it.
I do know that I will never let myself sob over a “bad” grade again. There are other aspects to life that are more important: My health, the practice of self-love, friends and family. These are things that will always be with me.
Side Hustle Culture is Another Culprit in Millennial Burnout
Young adults are often expected to harbour unrealistically large workloads, from taking long shifts at low-paying jobs (and studying on the side) to forming connections for a brighter future. The burnout from trying to balance all of these responsibilities can definitely be hard to manage, and it’s very real.
The Millennial generation and Generation Z are seen as having many resources for balancing work and life. Yet it seems that, even with these available resources, it’s still hard for young people today to maintain their mental and emotional health under this pressure.
Perhaps it’s because these generations have to get more done in less time in order to keep up with competition and pay our bills. The things we need to complete feel daunting when they reappear day after day.
Part of this is the pressure to maintain a part-time job while still having a “side hustle.” Then there’s the pressure of networking with people who could possibly lead you in the direction of your dream job, or to other additional gigs.
With all of these things to do — on top of school and the rest of life — there’s simply no time to complete it all. The jobs that we have take up so much of our time and energy, and weekends are set aside to do assignments or clock in and out of a corporate cell that drains our remaining energy from us.
I, for one, feel the burnout quite often. As a full-time student, I try to limit the amount of hours I work on a weekly basis so I can have enough time to focus on my school work. Yet, I still feel like I don’t have enough time to manage both responsibilities.
It’s not like I have the option to only focus on school either. I have to work because work experience matters when you need to start sending out resumes to future employers in a couple of years.
As much as a degree can do for you, if it comes without any form of experience, you won’t have an edge in entering the workforce.
This leaves us stuck in a cycle of working to get experience and working to save money to survive in an expensive city like Vancouver. Over time, this leads to burnout.
Some members of older generations might think we young adults are overreacting about the burdens many of us have to manage today, but we aren’t.
Student loans, coping with the local housing market, finding a job that not only helps you make a living but also brings you purpose and happiness — things like this raise our anxiety levels constantly. Day after day, you’re reminded of how impossible it is to buy or rent a house. You’re being reminded of how bleak and unaffordable your future is looking, yet you’re still expected to work hard and look forward to it with a smile.
Any Millennial or Gen-Z person is bound to feel stressed out from a life like this.
I don’t believe I’m speaking just for myself when I say that we’re tired. We want and need change. Our mental and emotional health needs to be accounted for with further support on an individual level and greater solutions on a systemic level.
Right now I don’t have everything figured out yet, and I’m sure other young adults don’t either. However, I would like to think about my future and feel a sense of happiness because I know I can afford to buy my future home or land a job I love. The responsibilities that young people are expected to achieve need to be more realistic, and giving them support needs to be more of a priority.