Are You Burned Out?

…students were convinced that their first job out of college would not only determine their […]

David Zahl / 1.17.19

…students were convinced that their first job out of college would not only determine their career trajectory, but also their intrinsic value for the rest of their lives. I told one student, whose dozens of internship and fellowship applications yielded no results, that she should move somewhere fun, get any job, and figure out what interests her and what kind of work she doesn’t want to do — a suggestion that prompted wailing. “But what’ll I tell my parents?” she said. “I want a cool job I’m passionate about!”

Of the many trenchant anecdotes Anne Helen Peterson relays in the-mother-of-all-new-year-thinkpieces, “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” the one above I can personally corroborate, many times over. Sometimes I wonder if the main purpose of my work as a minister to undergraduates isn’t conveying the faith of the saints so much as providing a gracious backdrop for them to air their anxieties about What Comes Next and/or puncturing the dogma of careerism that (usually) operates below the level of conscious thought.

All I know is that, over the past ten years, I’ve sat across the table from scores of college students panic-struck by the “first year out” question, and doing their best not to show it. They’re terrified of making the wrong move, missing an opportunity, or simply ‘wasting’ time. Even if they know better, head-wise, the heart remains a stubborn organ.

When a senior told me last year, with excited eyes, that he’d decided to hightail it to Yellowstone after graduation and spend a few years as a fishing guide, decompressing from the pressure cooker before making any further decisions, I had to fight the urge to throw both fists in the air and cry, “Praise God!” That takes guts.

Which is another way to say that I recognized a LOT of truth in Peterson’s observations of today’s 15-35 year olds, herself included. In fact, her diagnosis extends far wider than a single demographic. (This 39-year old sure felt personally addressed). She explains:

Students internalize the need to find employment that reflects well on their parents (steady, decently paying, recognizable as a “good job”) that’s also impressive to their peers (at a “cool” company) and fulfills what they’ve been told has been the end goal of all of this childhood optimization: doing work that you’re passionate about. Whether that job is as a professional sports player, a Patagonia social media manager, a programmer at a startup, or a partner at a law firm seems to matter less than checking all of those boxes…

Peterson may merely be the latest to challenge the perception of millennials as entitled, but she could be the first to describe those mechanics in terms that sound like they’ve been ripped out of Galatians. The phrase “the treadmill of the to-do list” appears more than once as she traces a form of Justification by Work Alone in which the cardinal sin appears to be anything that might be construed as dawdling. Peterson is older than most of the folks she profiles and was thus spared the pieties of the cult of productivity until a bit later:

Grad school… is where I learned to work like a millennial, which is to say, all the time. [ed note: see also “The End of the Sick Day”]. My new watchword was “Everything that’s good is bad, everything that’s bad is good”: Things that should’ve felt good (leisure, not working) felt bad because I felt guilty for not working; things that should’ve felt “bad” (working all the time) felt good because I was doing what I thought I should and needed to be doing in order to succeed…

When we talk about millennial student debt, we’re not just talking about the payments that keep millennials from participating in American “institutions” like home ownership or purchasing diamonds. It’s also about the psychological toll of realizing that something you’d been told, and came to believe yourself, would be “worth it” — worth the loans, worth the labor, worth all that self-optimization — isn’t…

[Malcom] Harris, the Kids These Days author, writes. “Efficiency is our existential purpose, and we are a generation of finely honed tools, crafted from embryos to be lean, mean production machines.” Yet the more work we do, the more efficient we’ve proven ourselves to be, the worse our jobs become: lower pay, worse benefits, less job security. Our efficiency hasn’t bucked wage stagnation; our steadfastness hasn’t made us more valuable. If anything, our commitment to work, no matter how exploitative, has simply encouraged and facilitated our exploitation…

Hmmmm… if it walks like a curse, and talks like a curse, and smells like a curse, well, you know the rest. There’s more to it than just careerism, but the end result is a widespread, pernicious condition Peterson calls Burnout. While she never goes so far as to label burnout a spiritual malady, no other word applies. I mean, check this out:

“The exhaustion experienced in burnout combines an intense yearning for this state of completion with the tormenting sense that it cannot be attained, that there is always some demand or anxiety or distraction which can’t be silenced,” Josh Cohen, a psychoanalyst specializing in burnout, writes. “You feel burnout when you’ve exhausted all your internal resources, yet cannot free yourself of the nervous compulsion to go on regardless.”…

Even the trends millennials have popularized — like athleisure — speak to our self-optimization. Yoga pants might look sloppy to your mom, but they’re efficient: You can transition seamlessly from an exercise class to a Skype meeting to child pickup. We use Fresh Direct and Amazon because the time they save allows us to do more work

The media that surrounds us — both social and mainstream, from Marie Kondo’s new Netflix show to the lifestyle influencer economy — tells us that our personal spaces should be optimized just as much as one’s self and career. The end result isn’t just fatigue, but enveloping burnout that follows us to home and back. The most common prescription is “self-care.” Give yourself a face mask! Go to yoga! Use your meditation app! But much of self-care isn’t care at all: It’s an $11 billion industry whose end goal isn’t to alleviate the burnout cycle, but to provide further means of self-optimization. At least in its contemporary, commodified iteration, self-care isn’t a solution; it’s exhausting.

That’s one of the most ineffable and frustrating expressions of burnout: It takes things that should be enjoyable and flattens them into a list of tasks, intermingled with other obligations that should either be easily or dutifully completed. The end result is that everything, from wedding celebrations to registering to vote, becomes tinged with resentment and anxiety and avoidance….

The best way to treat [burnout] is to first acknowledge it for what it is — not a passing ailment, but a chronic disease…To describe millennial burnout accurately is to acknowledge that… [w]e’re deeply in debt, working more hours and more jobs for less pay and less security, struggling to achieve the same standards of living as our parents, operating in psychological and physical precariousness, all while being told that if we just work harder, meritocracy will prevail, and we’ll begin thriving. The carrot dangling in front of us is the dream that the to-do list will end, or at least become far more manageable.

That last part is particularly universal, is it not? The treadmill of the to-do list is just that: a treadmill, AKA a ladder toward some dream of wholeness with no final rung.

Course, the Never-Enoughness is not just capitalism’s fault. It’s the nature of self-justification, as such, it’s not something you can really argue with. Arguing and proving and rationalizing is the very fuel it runs on! The only reliable way forward, I’m told, involves falling off the ladder and seeing what–or Who–catches you.

But you can understand why forms of religion that play to the rhythms of To-Do List Optimization find such immediate traction (and marketability) among millennials–and other humans. Destructive or not, that’s our comfort zone: a spirituality you can theoretically #win.

It probably goes without saying that any such horse-and-carrot schema, religion- or seculosity-wise, will eventually burn a person out. I mean, it’s not a coincidence that people in contemporary Christian circles, both on the Right and the Left, have been talking about burnout for ages. To-Do List Christianity, also known as Semi-Pelagianism, burns people out, pure and simple. It assumes a capability and agency that we simply do not possess in ourselves, setting all but the most self-possessed up for disappointment and discouragement (and sometimes rage). The real, er, product isn’t holiness so much as ‘deconstruction.’

And so I find articles like Peterson’s both inspiring and a little frustrating. Inspiring because the message of the Gospel is a message for the burnt-out and burnt-up, for the hopeless treadmill-ites and their compromised cousins (you and me), about the God who has done for us what we could never do for ourselves, forgiving those who’ve ‘traded the truth for a lie’ and replacing the dangling carrots of the law of with the gift of grace–and righteousness. I read her article and feel myself clinging to Christ even more tightly and gratefully than before, genuinely tickled to embark on a fresh season of uniquely passionate work ministry.

Yet such missives are also frustrating–perhaps saddening is a better word–because of the resistance that message of one-way love encounters, year in and year out, even/especially from those wringing their hands over declining rates of belief or church attendance or whatever, who, despite everything Peterson describes (and from which no one is really immune) insist on hedging the grace of God with spiritual fine-print. I know that sounds defensive, and that no one wakes up in the morning jazzed to hang millstones around anyone’s neck, but I’d be lying if I said the headwind didn’t sometimes take a toll.

I mean, given the very real psychic and circumstantial burdens people are living under, how sad is it that the dictionary definitions of ‘preach’ and ‘sermon’ are what they are: Sermon defined as “a discourse on a serious subject, containing instruction or exhortation. Also contemptuously, a long or tedious discourse or harangue.” And preach defined as “now usually derogatory: to give moral or religious advice in a self-righteous, condescending or obstrusive way.”

Could there be any starker evidence of Christianity being understood today primarily as law? Or any more urgent indication that ‘what the world needs now’ is not another To-Do but a To-Done? I mean it. Any Gospel that doesn’t have absolution at its center is just noise – i.e., a true waste of time.

I suppose my prayer this year, then, is not just that God would guard us from defensiveness & self-righteousness, or optimize our compassion for those whose burnout expresses itself differently than (but just as unhelpfully as) our own, but kindle fresh hope in ashes of our lives. It’s happened before and it can happen again.

A little more of Ronnie Tutt’s drumming wouldn’t hurt either:


13 responses to “Are You Burned Out?”

  1. Derrill says:

    So good! Thanks, DZ.

    • David Zahl says:

      Thank YOU for sending it to me, Derrill. in the course of an hour, i think three people forwarded it to me…

  2. Benjamin Self says:

    Shew… this is one of those posts that just keeps pummeling me with hard, familiar truths about my life. I can’t help but feel a rush of gratitude. Sometimes it’s a load lifted just to have things we’re feeling given voice like this. Thanks Dave…

  3. Pierre says:

    When I was 18, I went from a big low-population state to an elite Ivy university on the East Coast. It was an entirely different, alien sort of world, with all of these pressure-cooker expectations to perform. But more than that, there was a sort of pressure to “maximize the gift” – to use the opportunity of being at such a school to one’s maximal possibility. Getting in was kind of like winning the lottery, so who would want to “waste” their lottery winnings? I still struggle with this nagging feeling, ten years out, that I’m not fully maximizing the gift. I still struggle with endless to-do lists, the feeling that getting anything done requires completing a set of exhausting menial tasks.

    This article inspires me to think about bringing back something I did in college though… somehow, at age 18, I managed to conclude that I needed to take every Sunday as a sabbath day, and do no schoolwork at all. I could tell that it would completely take over my life otherwise. And it was such a beautiful feeling. I think I need to bring back regular sabbath. This time, as a respite from the tyranny of the law, pressure to level up, completing to-do lists, etc.

  4. DLE says:

    We can talk all we want about this, but ultimately, I hear no one offering solutions.

    We can want all we want to find a way to step off the treadmill, but the work world is now structured in such a way that if you do, you’re over, especially if you’re older than 45. You’re either optimizing every moment or you’re worthless. Because there’s always a better optimizer out there waiting in the wings.

    Can you step off and make peace with stacking grocery store shelves for minimum wage for the next 30-40 years?

    I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that if it’s bad when you’re 35, it’s going to be soul-crushing when you’re 55 and you just can’t deal with another frantic day of optimizing every second and always being “on” so you can keep putting food on the table for just one more day.

    It’s in times like these that grace and reality don’t seem to intersect in the Venn diagram of life. Given how things are, how do we make grace and reality play well together when the Sabbath Day is done and the week of ultra-efficient work begins?

  5. Helpful reflection and good advice, David. Of course it applies well outside the Millennial bracket (and I always find it sadly amusing in a biblical sort of way when the Millennials catch all the blame for the sins of their Boomer parents). Of late, I have ‘fallen off the ladder’ myself–it felt like being pushed–and am waiting to see what–or Who–catches me. Thanks for the timely piece!

  6. Sarah says:

    I’ve been waiting for the Mbird take on this! One thing that you both do (you and Anne Helen Petersen) that I appreciate it is not to advocate for a “solution,” per se. But of course the “to-done” is so much more appealing that anything else might be able offer 🙂

    • DLE says:

      People have been noting this issue ever since Jack Welch converted “Personnel” to “Human Resources.” The problem is not the lack of observations but the lack of answers. No organization in the West pays less attention to and has less to say about what we do for 45+ hours each week, the dominant activity of our day, than the Church in the West. Unless it’s to throw in with the corporate world and simply say we should do everything as unto the Lord and start a Bible study during lunch hour.

      But seriously, people are truly struggling with their work lives, possibly more than with anything else in life, especially when everything is so specialized and the competition fierce to the point that people don’t just grab for the brass ring and fail, but they fall off the carousel altogether.

      At what point does not offering solutions simply mask that no one has any?

      • Sarah says:

        I think the futility of writing about solutions is just that they’re either huge — overthrow capitalism — or tiny — read a book and turn off your phone before bed. I think little pushes against the dominant work culture are helpful — especially when they come from people in power (i.e., a supervisor who doesn’t check e-mail after x’o’clock).

        What would you advocate that the Church do? Genuinely curious :).

        • DLE says:

          In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when women first came to the big city to serve as typists in offices, several denominations worked with companies to instruct men on how to treat them gentlemanly, and they also bought hotels in which to house them and keep them safe from predatory guys in the city.

          I think of that kind of interface between corporation and Church. What would be a need the Church could serve that can build up the office, work on behalf of the employees, and make the corporation better and happier? Explore those spaces and perhaps smarter people than me can propose some workable win-win solutions.

          My concern is that the modern workplace is so antithetical to the Church that just getting heard would be an effort in itself, much less partnering toward anything.

        • DLE says:

          Will add that ethics in business is at such a staggering lowpoint, that perhaps the Church would have a way to promote how the Kingdom of God can transform the ethical operation of a workplace. Of course, proving the Church is more ethical than the surrounding populace it serves is getting to be a harder sell than it once might have been.

  7. Michael Cooper says:

    There are no solutions to be offered by the church or by anyone or anything else. Not to the real problems. Love can enter into the problem, but love does not solve the problem. That is the frustrating truth, and if the church offers solutions to proplems and not naked love that solves nothing but accomplishes everything, then the church is selling a damned lie.

  8. […] This week saw the release of Anne Helen Peterson’s much-anticipated book Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, and Wired ran a fantastic […]

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