As all of this was happening, the hardcover of this book had just been released, and I was being asked in interviews, over and over again, what does burnout feel like, what does it look like. “It looks like whatever you’re feeling now,” I’d tell them. In other words, it looks like life during a pandemic. It is the ongoing experience of precarity. It is the constant, unspeakable fear for the health of your family and your community. It looks like work spreading into every corner of your life. It’s being asked to do more than you are able every day, and then waking up and being asked to do it again. The pandemic didn’t create burnout. It just made it undeniable.
“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.” It’s the sensation of dull exhaustion that, even with sleep and vacation, never really leaves. It’s the knowledge that you’re just barely keeping your head above water, and even the slightest shift—a sickness, a busted car, a broken water heater—could sink you and your family. It’s the flattening of life into one never-ending to-do list, and the feeling that you’ve optimized yourself into a work robot that happens to have bodily functions, which you do your very best to ignore.
When Social Security was first signed into law, it excluded federal and state employees; agricultural workers; and domestic, hotel, and laundry workers until 1954.
As a teen, Brenna took on an increasingly demanding schedule, mostly focused on grades—she thought, and her parents reinforced the belief, that grades would help restore the family’s middle-class stability. “I didn’t realize until after college,” she admitted, “that these things weren’t what actually made people rich.”
What you’re doing when practicing your times tables or taking a standardized test or writing an essay isn’t learning, but preparing yourself to work. This is an incredibly utilitarian view of education, implying that the ultimate goal of the system is to mold us into efficient workers, as opposed to preparing us to think, or to be good citizens. And this utilitarian view matches how our current educational system operates, in which success hinges on a student’s ability to adhere to a narrow understanding of “successful” behaviors: getting good grades, performing well on standardized testing, behaving “appropriately” and deferentially toward teachers, establishing “normal” social bonds with peers, and being willing to participate in physical education.
If a child is reared as capital, with the implicit goal of creating a “valuable” asset that will make enough money to obtain or sustain the parents’ middle class status, it would make sense that they have internalized that a high salary is the only thing that actually matters about a job. There are some students who achieve just that: some doctors, most types of lawyers, maybe all consultants.
The desire for the cool job that you’re passionate about is a particularly modern and bourgeois phenomenon—and, as we’ll see, a means of elevating a certain type of labor to the point of desirability that workers will tolerate all forms of exploitation for the “honor” of performing it. The rhetoric of “Do you what you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life” is a burnout trap.
Millions of millennials, regardless of class, were reared on lofty, romantic, bourgeois ideas of work. Eschewing those ideas means embracing ones that have never disappeared for many working-class employees: A good job is one that doesn’t exploit you and that you don’t hate.
If you think you’re insulated from the precariat—through your current job, or your education, or your parents’ standing—you’re wrong. You might currently be part of what Standing calls the “salariat”—the class of workers who are salaried, have agency within their jobs, and report feeling that their opinion counts within the company.
The purest example of this concept is the social media influencer, whose entire income source is performing and mediating the self online. Most people’s lives aren’t so explicitly monetizable, but that doesn’t mean they’re not cultivating a brand to project to the larger world. To wit: I have a friend whose brand is “Parenting is hard but always worth it.” Others include “My kids are so bizarre!”; “I’m a Cool Dad”; “Wilderness overposter”; “Books are life”; “Wheels up”; “Culinary adventuress”; “Cosmopolitan nomad”; “I ride multiple bikes”; “I am yoga”; “I have friends and we drink alcohol” and “Creative being creative.”
This mindset may be delusional: Yes, of course, managers do think about how much work we’re producing, but only the worst of them are clocking how many hours the green “active” dot is showing up next to your name on Slack. And most of our coworkers are too worried about LARPing their own jobs to worry about how much you’re LARPing yours. We’re performing, in other words, largely for ourselves. Justifying to ourselves that we deserve our job. Justifying to ourselves that writing for the internet is a vocation that deserves steady payment.
Squint at your parents’ parenting practices, and you can see the outlines of what have become the expensive, anxious, and paranoid parenting practices of today. First, there was the fear of the ever-more-dangerous world—and the accompanying threats to children’s well-being. Those threats could be subverted, but only through vigilance and knowledge, which gradually translated into total surveillance—of our children, but also of other people’s parenting practices.
Modern parenting has always in some way been about doubting your own competence. But never before has that doubt arrived with such force from so many vectors. Like all expectations, ideals, and ideologies, the question of who’s actually enforcing these parenting standards is a knotty one. No one likes them, and yet there they remain, providing a sort of informal parenting surveillance state, manifest in gossip and passive-aggressive Facebook comments and “well-intentioned” mom support group chatter.
Many women can list, in detail, the bevy of tasks, attitudes, and habits that accompany “good” motherhood—and then, in the same sentence, admit there are simply not enough hours in the day to even come close to doing them all. And yet women who can, try. It’s the millennial way: If the system is rigged against you, just try harder.