There’s a reason we can’t stop talking about Anne Helen Petersen’s studies on burnout. What mainly distinguishes her writing is a patient empathy; she looks beyond the sheen of privilege, or “first world problems,” to recognize actual suffering in the lives of millennials. In her new book Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, Petersen lets the evidence speak, or howl in pain, for itself.

Many of us, especially millennials, can feel like life is one big to-do list: work harder, have more fun, stop complaining, sleep better, look better, stop complaining. We have little option but to feel as if we must be doing something wrong, a sure sign of what theologians call the law. As Petersen points out in her introduction,

… we’re asked to adhere to exacting, and often contradictory expectations. We should work hard but exude “work/life balance.” We should be incredibly attentive mothers, but not helicopter ones. We should engage in equal partnerships with our wives, but still maintain our masculinity. We should build our brands on social media, but live our lives authentically. We should be current, conversant, and opinionated about the breakneck news cycle, but somehow not let the reality of it affect our ability to do any of the above tasks.

Petersen excels at compiling these scenarios. You begin to feel a sense of clarity about modern life, that indeed it offers convenience, comfort, but also an incredible amount of expectation — and, of course, burnout.

Yet this problem, she says, “will not be cured by productivity apps, or a bullet journal, or face mask skin treatments, or overnight fucking oats.” We seek such life-hacks because they seem manageable, but really they just add more demand, another thing on our list. Eventually, for the 100th time, we will ignore the notification from our productivity app. We will forget to prep the overnight oats. We will feel as if we are failing while also growing more exhausted — but we will keep trying. Petersen describes it this way:

Exhaustion means going to the point where you can’t go further; burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years.[1]

We learned to “keep going” from an early age: “the predominant message of our upbringing was deceptively simple: All roads should lead to college, and from there, with more work, we’d find the American Dream.” The Dream might look different than in years past, but it certainly hovers over the next horizon, an illusory enoughness inside a pair of suave college sweats. But as Petersen notes, college does not alleviate economic stress; for many it exacerbates it, with debt and no guaranteed employment.

Even so, “Every part of a child’s life … can be optimized to better prepare them for their eventual entry into the working world. They become mini-adults, with the attendant anxiety and expectations, years before adulthood hits.”

When I was a child, my peers were separated into “Gifted and Talented” and regular. Swing sets were dismantled for safety reasons, and by age 8, extracurricular activities could set you on track toward college. As one of Petersen’s interviewees says, “It never occurred to me that life without college was optional … or that my life would be worth living without a college degree.” Another student admits that, for the benefit of his résumé, he started joining high school clubs, most of which didn’t even convene. Other students undertook pointless volunteer opportunities which left them feeling not accomplished, but cynical.

There is a physical cost to all of this: panic attacks, insomnia, skipped periods, hair loss. For me, it was anxiety. Sleep was replaced by mind-numbing Lady Gaga videos at 2AM and refreshing College Confidential until my eyelids drooped and I dreamed of rejection letters. When I finally arrived at the dreamed-of school (yay!), I realized a life of résumé-padding had only just begun.

*

During that first week there was an Activities Fair crawling with students performing sales pitches, like retailers trying to get you to try something on. Anxious about missing out, I signed up for everything.

That was how I wound up in a charismatic religious group that was nothing like the religion I had been raised in. This group promised an alternative to the constant cycle of performance. In fact, I was encouraged to set my sights beyond “this present age,” at things of eternal significance. Yet over the next four years, I would discover much of the same. What Petersen calls a secular “gospel” — overwork — was confused with the actual gospel; you know, the “good news.”

My group was a young, impassioned sect associated with the Assemblies of God. (AG is the world’s fourth-largest Christian denomination but was only founded in the early 20th century.) Perhaps its youth makes it particularly impressionable to wider social trends, despite conscious attempts to shutter itself against them. In this Christianity, success is unclearly defined but is still the most important thing. We hosted a wealthy entrepreneur, whose message was that being rich and creative could contribute major wins to the Kingdom of God. Success can alternatively mean a huge turnout, or a large number of baptisms. To this end, effort — giving all you have — is non-negotiable.

In secular life, Petersen spies the mythology of self-salvation everywhere; it’s called “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.” Christians, too, will be familiar with this language. We feel that we should be able to lift ourselves out of the mire of sin. But no: famously, Rudolf Bultmann likened this to a man trying to pull himself out of a swamp by tugging upward on his own hair.

Working all the time, in Petersen’s view, is an attempt to alleviate panic about things we can’t control. Campus ministries have internalized this, too. There are no weekends. Instead, there are volunteer opportunities, “retreats,” seminars, reading groups, Bible studies, and church, which could go for hours. Even something like playing video games late at night might be a form of “service,” if in some way you feel you are obligated to minister to the students you’re playing with. Some night you might find yourself in a prayer closet at 2AM, taking a shift for human trafficking or any other good cause like racial justice or wealth equality.

The problem is that when the cause is good, there is never an adequate reason to step back from it. Tougher still is when you have a “call” to do more. During my time of religious burnout, I was a student leader — and, to be clear, wanted to be a student leader — but holding that position meant that I tried to be both student and clergy; a leader, a scholar, and a Christlike caregiver; to have a faith that moved mountains and good enough grades to get a job in four years. With professional clerics, similar patterns exist. Petersen tells this story:

Alex, who’s white and grew up lower-middle class, graduated from college in 2007 and started looking for a job pastoring a church. In the twelve years since he first started looking, he’s applied to over a hundred jobs. Sometimes, he works multiple jobs; others, he can’t find even one. He currently has a job with a church, but his contract ends this summer, and he doesn’t know what’s next for his family, who moved in with his parents last year to make ends meet. He’s currently looking for any job with a consistent schedule, a reasonable commute, and a clear mission or focus. “Healthcare,” he says, “would be a big plus.”

But as he continues to seek — and fails to find — work as a pastor, he finds himself cycling between anxiety and shame and depression, and all of it bumping up against the sense of “calling.” “There’s the idea that we are being led to something larger than ourselves: God, the universe, whatever,” he told me. “So when we are burnt out, or put up boundaries, there is a sense that we are somehow betraying our call by not loving every single minute of it.”

A “calling,” in other words, is often an invitation for exploitation, whether you’re a zookeeper or a teacher or a pastor. … It doesn’t matter how many people admit that un- and underpaid internships are exclusionary and exploitative. New graduates still flock to them.

If only Alex’s story were unique. But anyone who’s occupied that world for even a little while knows that it’s not. I would like to think that COVID has slowed the pace, but alas, the demands continue, just adjusted. As Petersen notes in her newsletter on clergy burnout, “[W]hen the secular world is as exhausting and precarious as it is now, the religious leader, tasked with tending to the spiritual needs of their congregation, is going to absorb it to the point of overflowing.”

*

In my experience, vocation, or “the call,” pushed you in two directions generally: the mission field or the marketplace. The marketplace means a normal, secular job. There, you can experience all of what Petersen describes: career precarity, a lack of security, all with the added expectation that you would spiritualize the workforce or make meaning out of that consulting firm.

Many students graduated to internships or fellows programs, which as Petersen notes “create content and provide labor at a fraction of the price of a salaried employee.” More impressive were the missionaries, who, though they had to raise their own funds and survive on cans of beans, at least had landed somewhere meaningful, usually across the Atlantic. And when they want to come home? The agony of guilt.

That’s what happens when we don’t talk about work as work, but as pursuing a passion. It makes quitting a job that relentlessly exploited you feel like giving up on yourself [or God], instead of what it really is: advocating, for the first time in a long time, for your own needs.

Doesn’t it sound selfish to advocate for your needs? Yes — especially if you are a millennial. Because you have likely felt the weight of that accusation your whole life. Today, Petersen writes, “self-indulgence has become the necessary way to frame self-preservation.”

But shouldn’t Christians be different? Shouldn’t believers take up the cross? To that I wonder, whose cross, and for what? After all, the missionary’s motivation may not be so different from that of the secular accountant, businessman, or lawyer. If we are honest, the search for enoughness, or justification, drives so many of our biggest life choices no matter where we place ourselves in the sacred/secular continuum. But only Christianity will demand self-sacrifice as a rationale for not paying you.

If you are burned out, Petersen writes, there is nothing to be done. No more rules, checklists, steps, or tips. She simply reminds us of “the radical idea that each of us matter, and are actually essential and worthy of care and protection.” That we have inherent value. That we are enough. “Not because of our capacity to work, but simply because we are.”

Such concepts may not have the savvy, applicable look of a checklist, but they do say quite a bit about where we stand in the rat-race of pressure, guilt, and performance. And — when you let them reverberate into the reality of everyday life — they might also sound a lot like love.

[1] Another notable symptom is that “the feeling of accomplishment that follows an exhausting task — passing the final! finishing the massive work project! — never comes.” In its place is a dull anxiety that something might still go wrong.