A few months ago, my editor very kindly suggested: “Maybe you’re just dealing with some burnout, and could use a few days off.” My reply was adamant: “I’m not burnt out, I’m just trying to figure out where I’m going to go from here.” I’d *had* the rest after election. I was supposed to be refreshed. I wasn’t burnt out; I was just floundering.
Still, I did take a few days off, and you know what I did with them? Tried to write a book proposal. But I didn’t feel better, because I didn’t really feel anything. Sleeping didn’t really help. Exercise didn’t help. Reading sort-of helped, but the reading that interested me most was politics reading, which just circled me back to the issues that had exhausted me. I got a massage and a facial and they were nice but meh. In hindsight, I was totally burnt out! I was so burnt out I was smoldering! Not by the specifics of the reporting I’d just done, but by the baseline of my entire life. I thought burn out was like a cold you could recover from — which is why I missed the diagnosis altogether.
Even if I refused to call it burn out, I knew there were things I was avoiding. And if I couldn’t figure out what else I was excited to write about, at least I could write about my “errand paralysis.” When I talked about it on Slack, one of my editors was dubious: she took pleasure in completing household tasks like laundry; it felt cathartic. But I could do the laundry. I could make meals, and walk the dog, and clean the house (I love cleaning!) The thing about errand paralysis is that it applies to the things on the bottom half of your never-ending to-do list, and everyone’s bottom half is different.
Was I just bad at my job now, or bad at life? I asked my Twitter/Facebook followers if they had something akin to “errand paralysis,” and the answers became the foundation for the essay to come. A few of the most compelling:
Okay, I had a thought about this, but it's kinda inchoate and it's late here so please forgive any conceptual muddiness... I think this is symptomatic of alienation? The thought I had, as I was standing at the coffee machine interrogating why I was putting off a half-dozen quite serious 'errands', like, preventing myself from getting kicked out of grad school, getting paid for my day job, was: I put them off because they're *about me.* They're not about a career, or study, or pleasing my parents, or serving the community — all those things I've been raised and conditioned to care about. I was raised in the Catholic social justice tradition, where spending time and money on caring about yourself is seen as shallow and self-obsessed. But I was also raised in the neoliberal tradition of being deeply attentive to the hoops I have to jump through next. If it's 'just' about me, then I can let them slide without letting anyone else down. Sure, I build up a *ton* of anxiety worrying about them, but that's just anxiety, I'm used to that.
I've heard Noam Chomsky talk about "efficiency," and I think it's related, but I don't know where to read up on it. But for example, Comcast (the example I think he used, or at least a call center) optimizes their own efficiency at the expense of the customer's. So seemingly small tasks really are burdensome. You spend 90 min on the phone being passed from person to person and put on hold because it saves them money and manpower. A trip to the post office or bank is tedious because there aren't enough people working there, and they aren't all trained to do the things you need them to do, because that is more efficient for them. So I think it's a combination of everyone working more (no stay-at-home spouse), and also the businesses or institutions you have to deal with helping you out less in the name of increasing their profits.
Emily McDowell Studio had a great post about this on Instagram a few months ago. She calls it self-parenting vs. self-care. "Something I learned the hard way: for a lot of us, including me, 'self-care' does not mean, 'allowing yourself to do whatever the hell you want.' For a long time, I was like, 'Pint of ice cream!' 'Sleeping until noon!' WOO SELF-CARE! And then I realized that none of those things helped me be any less of a mess or feel any better. I need to think of 'self-care' as 'self-parenting' in order for it to work, and self-parenting means I end up doing a lot of stuff that I actually don't wanna do. I consider my self-parents to be, like, Mr. Rogers and Oprah. And they make me take care of myself by getting off my ass and exercising, meditating when I'd rather watch some Housewives, and eating a dinner with nutritional value instead of a Haagen-Dazs bar from the gas station. Discipline as self-care: WHO KNEW?"
"Self parenting" is a lot more useful than "self care". I don't need to be told to take a bath, I need to be told to go to the doctor before my Rx all expire.
These were just a handful of the hundreds of responses I received — there was something bigger here, something I couldn’t quite fully theorize, and as an academic the thing you do when you know there’s an idea but can’t quite articulate it = you start amassing what I call “the blob.” You read as much as you can, you follow diversions, you try to organize it. I emailed my friend Jonathan Malesic, who burnt out of his tenure-track academic job and now spends his days writing and thinking about burn-out (and labor). I asked him for some reading recs. I started googling “adulting” and “burn out” just to comb through the rhetoric that’s been used to describe it, especially in shorter, dismissive pieces and in pieces in millennial-directed publications (Bustle, Elite Daily, etc.) I read Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days, which lays out the ways in which millennials have been “optimized” for labor from childhood. (Buy this book, I can’t recommend it highly enough). I gutted (the academic word for finding the heart/essence of a text) a dozen “self-help” and burnout-assistance books. I thought about each of the industries/objects that millennials have supposedly killed, and what’s actually going on with each. I read about anxiety baking and the relentless of parenting and the year in chores. (If you’ve read this newsletter for any amount of time then you know that I organized all of this using Scrivener.)
A framework started to emerge from the blob. And then I put that framework on top of my own life — which then forced me to reconsider my history, and the way I’ve narrativized it. I went on a long walk with my partner, who’s a “prime” millennial raised in an even more self-optimizing environment, and compared notes: what changed in the handful of years between my childhood and his? When my friends and I made fun of the next generation of students at our college, what was the actual shift? Why had my students reacted so emotionally to my well-intentioned suggestion that they just go work at a dude ranch for the summer after graduation? What was really going on with the joke, developed amongst my Master’s cohort, that “everything good is bad, everything bad is good?” Why did I feel great about writing my dissertation on CHRISTMAS?
Sometimes, when you’re writing, it feels like you’re fingers are chasing your brain, trying to get all the thoughts out on the page before they run away. I felt addicted to writing this piece. It felt like it had its own gravity that kept pulling me back to it. The draft ballooned: 3000 words, 7000, 11,000. (Don’t worry, we edited it down) I wrote 4000 words in one day and felt like I’d written nothing at all. I felt like I could write it forever, in part because writing it felt great: clarifying, cathartic, therapeutic. Not because I was wallowing in self-pity — I don’t feel pitiful! — but because I was giving shape to the condition that had become so familiar, so omnipresent, that I’d ceased to recognize it as a condition. It was just my life. But now I was amassing language to describe it.
Finishing the piece (which you can find here, if you haven’t already) felt like writing a benediction to myself. Some people have said that I should’ve gone further with my indictment of capitalism as the greater ill, but the problem with a didactic ending — or truly calling for the revolution, which hey, I’m all for — is that it’s theoretical and hypothetical, at least for most people, to have meaning. (Same with the use of words like “neoliberal” to describe the parameters of contemporary millennial life: for the vast majority of readers, it’s not elucidating, it’s alienating). More useful, at least for myself — and, judging from so many others’ responses — is developing a framework for what’s happening, which allows us to understand why we act the way we do, and then change or advocate (by voting, or joining a union!) accordingly.
The process of writing the piece was so therapeutic that I’d have been happy if a dozen people read it and found it useful. That millions have read it is truly just icing on the burnout cake. As for critiques, yes, my dudes, I know that this condition is not exclusive to millennials, but we are defined by the conditions that inform it in a way that is foundational. Yes, I know that Young Gen-Xers and Generation Z feel this too; generational boundaries are smudgy. No, I don’t think having kids fixes burnout; if anything (and this is addressed in the piece) it makes it worse, especially for women.
My essay is rooted in the parameters of my own admittedly white, middle-class, college-educated experience, and there’s so much more to be written about how burnout works differently for different identities — this very valuable thread from Tiana Clark is worth your time in thinking through how black and brown burnout is often rendered invisible, including through essays like mine; as Tressie McMillan Cottom points out, "Generations are for white people. Boomers, Gen Xers, Millenials, Zs, Qs, Xs and Os - when we hold them up to even the barest bit of light, we can see how these are constructs for white, western people."
The thing about thoughtful critique is that it makes you want to engage it and continue the conversation — and I am grateful for those who continue to do so, instead of simply telling me that their grandparents survived The Depression so I should buck the fuck up. (Some of the best feedback I’ve received = from Boomers who feel like it’s helped them understand their kids and co-workers). I’m going to keep thinking about the specifics of burnout in the months to come — my next task is student loan forgiveness (and the broken promise thereof), which should be coming sometime in the next few weeks. But if you have ideas for other components of the millennial experience to write about, I’d love to hear them.
Things I Read/Watched and Loved This Week:
Few things in journalism have given me as much quiet joy over the last four years as this NYT series
I try to share a lot of articles on life with kids/life kid-free because I think one of the major enduring struggles of feminism = real empathy for people who’ve made different life decisions than we have. Here’s one of the best essays on child-less life I’ve read, and here’s one of “the special misogyny reserved for mothers.”
It’s a true skill to write a profile so good it makes you immediately want to seek out the work of the person profiled
“I don’t necessarily feel hated. I feel respected. They wouldn’t come after me if I were not effective. I consider myself a master legislator.”
BLOCKERS IS REALLY GOOD AND SEX-POSITIVE AND FEMINIST!
This week’s inexplicably beguiling “just trust me.”
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