Over the weekend, the New York Times ran another iteration in the conversation about millennial burnout, this time focusing on the hustling economy — a topic that has been amply critiqued in recent years. Writer Erin Griffith explored “toil glamour” and the high expectations to love the work you’re doing so much that you’ll put in long hours at the hustle. #RiseAndGrind, you’re falling behind. It followed on Anne Helen Petersen’s incredibly popular Buzzfeed piece on millennial burnout that focused on debt, disrupted career paths, dashed dreams, and reluctance to do errands.
The fundamental flaw of such pieces — often beautifully written and deeply intimate — is that they are personal. They highlight the struggles of a narrow swath of the authors’ generation, but fail to consider the larger implications that their experiences may have for the country as a whole. They bemoan a failure to achieve a promised life, but this life was only promised to, and expected by, a specific group of people.
That life includes a specific set of circumstances to measure against, with a further expectation that you love what you do for a living or you’re not living the life you deserve. But this concept of a promised land is not limited to the millennial generation. In fact, for a hundred years, that dream lifestyle has mostly looked the same: The ability to buy a nice home in a cute neighborhood with a middle-class income, an emotionally rewarding dream job, and exotic vacations to warm climates every winter. (For a uniquely millennial twist, add a French bulldog with an active social media presence.)
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The idea of “passion jobs,” where people pursue jobs that are emotionally fulfilling, has its roots in the 1900s. Every generation since has experienced frustrations when running up against the reality of the working world, whether the aftermath of the Depression for the Silent Generation, the corporate restructuring that narrowed opportunities for Generation X, or the tyranny of the precarious “gig economy” for millennials.
This dream is a specifically middle-class one, though, and it speaks primarily to a relatively small group of people: Those who always assumed they would go to college, for example, and who undertook debt to do so. People who assumed that they would be rewarded with gainful employment as a rite of passage, because this, too, was something they were told. White people. Nondisabled people. People who haven’t been thrown out of their homes or excluded from jobs because of their gender or sexual orientation. People who don’t have financial obligations to family members that may have started as soon as they were old enough to work.
For a disabled Latinx millennial with no college degree scrubbing toilets and caring for two generations at home, reading about how getting knives sharpened is too exhausting to contemplate is not necessarily relatable, even if that person is struggling with the same fundamental problem: Employers who view them as disposable and the familiar refrain that if you bootstrap hard enough, you’ll come out on top. The failed promise for many people from working and lower-class backgrounds isn’t a house with a picket fence, but basic human dignity, a life where your needs are met and you are treated with respect, whether janitor or CEO.
Treating the experience of feeling beaten down by a job that abuses you as something exceptional that primarily affects a class of predominantly white knowledge workers in New York, D.C., and Los Angeles makes commentary on the subject feel self-indulgent and privileged. It confuses a lost middle-class dream with something much deeper. It fails to expand to a larger conversation about what it means to be poor — not broke — and working class in America, and how exhausting and demoralizing it can be to have no money and feel like you have no future.
There is a nagging sense, while reading works like these, that the authors are desperately striving for class mobility to distance themselves from their imagined vision of poverty. They aren’t like those other people — the ones without college degrees, the ones caring for family members at home, the ones with messy lives who are experiencing intergenerational poverty. They’re better than that and deserve better, and thus have no reason to find common cause with the garbage men and housekeepers, doormen and farmworkers of the world, even if both are experiencing sexual harassment, a vast wage gap between worker and executive, workplace instability, and other “millennial burnout” woes.
This is a basic function of capitalism: Walling off communities that should be able to find common ground before they have an opportunity to build coalitions and power. Sweeping rhetoric that claims to speak for a whole generation while only describing narrow experiences is fundamentally alienating for members of the same generation who may find little in common with the way “burnout” is presented, even if they are also experiencing it. It can verge on the offensive when it borrows from the language marginalized people have developed to describe the bone-deep, existential pain of living in a world where they, and their lives, are not valued.
This isn’t a “millennial burnout” problem. This is a capitalism problem. Let’s start treating it like one.