As millennials' quest for self-optimization causes us to crash and burn, activists are pushing for an intriguing solution.
At the start of this year, BuzzFeed ran an article looking at why millennials are becoming the burnout generation. Reporter Anne Helen Petersen picked apart her own sense of paralysis surrounding “high-effort, low-reward tasks”—things we need to do but that inevitably fall to the bottom of our infinite to-do lists, far below the myriad of life hacks, personal goals, and extracurricular activities all designed to show what great investments we are for prospective jobs, partners, and friends.
Petersen puts this down to a direct result of our generation’s continual quest for self-optimization. Peeling back the learned experiences and coping mechanisms that got her, and millions of others, where they are today, she hones in on one continual pressure point. From a young age, millennials are told that everything they do should ladder-up towards concrete achievements.
In the same way machine-learning and AI are helping us optimize our exercise regimes and personal finances, the millennial mind has been trained to fill the gaps in our lives with as many marketable activities as possible. But the infinite struggle to fine-tune ourselves is causing many of us to crash and burn. Overloaded and fraying at the seams, the constant expectations faced by those born between the early ‘80s and late ‘90s is leading to an equally constant sense of overload.
Tom Curran is a professor in the Department of Health at Bath University in the UK. Last year he co-authored a paper on the rise of perfectionism among millennials, and found a strong correlation between striving for impossible standards and burnout. “There’s definitely a link between to the two,” he tells me. “Perfectionists face an exhaustive daily battle trying to demonstrate their worth in the eyes of others and because of that, they feel every bump in the road when it comes to daily stress. It’s really quite an exhausting trait.”
Why millennials are showing higher signs of perfectionism is hard to unravel, but Curran thinks there’s a myriad of wider political stresses and societal attitudes to blame. “It’s difficult to say,” Curran explains, “but I think there are a lot of factors.” He cites the changing landscape of education and the competitive nature of our individualistic society, as well as seismic changes like the global financial crisis and the explosion of social media.
If that wasn’t ominous enough, Curran found all this was breeding the worst type of perfectionism. He says there are three dimensions to this trait. The first comes from within and tends to be propelled by high self-standard and goals. The second is about social expectations and the perception that others expect you to be perfect. The third is about imposing perfectionist standards on others. “We found all that all three have increased,” Curran explains. “But it was socially ascribed perfectionism that had undertaken the largest increase—significantly larger than the other two.” Pressure to meet the high expectations of others, Curran found, strongly correlates with depression, anxiety, and suicide.
“Perfectionists face an exhaustive daily battle trying to demonstrate their worth in the eyes of others and because of that, they feel every bump in the road when it comes to daily stress.”
Curran’s research goes some way to shaking the idea that “millennial burnout” is merely anecdotal. It’s a dangerous epidemic that, left untreated, runs the risk of leading to much bigger problems. And it’s not just millennials who are buckling at the demands of the contemporary workplace. Last year a survey of workers in the in the US found that 23% experienced burnout at work very often or always, while 44% said they felt it sometimes.
Across the world, workers are now pushing back against impossible expectations. In New York, the first legal hearing was recently held for the “Right to Disconnect” bill. The proposed bill would make it illegal for companies of 10 or more employees to answer “out of office” texts or emails unless it’s an emergency or clearly demarcated as overtime.
Cutting back on work emails isn’t the end-all solution, but part of a series of measures that can help. Another proposition that’s been picking up pace across the world is the idea of a four-day work week.
Aiden Harper is a researcher and co-founder of the four-day week campaign in the UK. Started in 2016, the campaign has led to prominent voices in UK taking the idea of working Monday through Thursday seriously. “I’ve been quite close to the action,” says Harper, “and all forms, from small business to large organizations like the Wellcome Trust, are discussing it. They recognise there is a business case for working less, and the next stage is economic development. Harper is referring to news that the Wellcome Trust—one of the UK’s biggest scientific research foundations—is considering moving all of its 800 head office staff to a four-day week in a bid to boost productivity and improve work-life balance.
“The constant strive for personal perfection is at exact odds with what it’s trying to achieve: economic and personal growth.”
It’s not just the UK pushing for a shorter work week. Last year, China’s leading research organisation, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, advised that by 2030, all workers should be on a four-day working week to “ease the daily grind and boost the economy by stimulating leisure sectors such as tourism, entertainment, and sports industries.”
“The four-day working week is increasingly becoming the new common sense,” adds Harper. “I think it falls into part of the zeitgeist in our society and it’s not going away.” Condemning the perception of “social malaise” as an individualistic issue, Harper blames the “commodification of the self” as the reason why people are feeling constantly exhausted. “Whether it’s the notion of exams, building the self through a good resume, or the things we do outside of work…It’s all about how we can market ourselves.”
The constant strive for personal perfection is at exact odds with what it’s trying to achieve: economic and personal growth. Across the world, productivity is either in stagnation or in decline. A key part of kick-starting that starts with taking a realistic look at what conditions people need to flourish, despite the ingrained notion that more input equals more output, regardless of the long-term consequences.
Millennials, a demographic capable of moving the culture forward on issues like gender and sexuality, are now trying to overturn another social conjecture. It wasn’t that long ago that a six-day working week was the norm (the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America Union was the first to successfully demand a five-day work week in 1929). Perhaps it won’t be long before the three-day weekend becomes the new norm.