Seven years ago, I was commiserating with a friend as we both braved the job market after grad school. “I’m trying to sell out,” he told me, “but no one’s buying.”
As you might have heard, things haven’t exactly gotten better since then. Higher education is increasingly staffed by part-time adjuncts who may or may not be living in their cars, teacher pay is shamefully low, and journalists keep getting laid off. Half of millennials are resorting to side hustles. Real wages are still stagnant, as they have been for decades, and what gains there are stay with the best paid workers — in large part because most job growth is in low-paid service work. Things are bad, and most of us are too tired to even complain about it.
That shouldn’t be a surprise, because as Anne Helen Petersen recently revealed in a viral essay for BuzzFeed, we’re the burnout generation. Everything sucks, for everyone: nearly 70 percent of the country suffers from burnout — an exhaustion so pervasive it impedes your ability to accomplish necessary tasks — and a quarter of them nearly all the time. “It’s not limited to workers in acutely high-stress environments” Petersen wrote. “And it’s not a temporary affliction: It’s the millennial condition. It’s our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives.”
But it’s worth pausing over that our. Which our? I’m not sure my friends who are struggling to make rent see themselves in Petersen, whose burnout manifests in her inability to get her knives sharpened or visit the cobbler or mail signed copies of her books. I’m also not sure a mother navigating multiple service jobs on irregular schedules while conjuring child care and dodging ICE raids sees herself fighting the same struggle as my underemployed PhD friends, whatever their wages. This country was built on the oppression of specific people — I’m not sure they need to be told how debilitating that is.
The fact that burnout is the shared condition for a generation has as much and as little meaning as we can give it. It could be the rallying cry for a genuine working class movement, as Petersen alludes to when implying that a “revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system” is what’s ultimately needed. Or it could be yet another hollow universalism the petty bourgeois use as cover while they fight to get back on top.
This country was built on the oppression of specific people — I’m not sure they need to be told how debilitating that is.
Some clarity is needed. Our ever-stagnating, deindustrialized economy has eroded the meaning we found in the concepts we previously used to analyze workplaces. White and blue collar are less helpful in making sense of a society that’s 80 percent service workers. Growing workplace surveillance has updated Taylorist exploitation for office jobs, and the inflation in college degrees has cratered ideas of skilled labor. Add burnout on top of that, and the old fault lines within the working class are obscured by the giant veil of shit we’ve all come to mistake for working life in the twenty-first century.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way for us graduate-degree-wielding children of the middle classes. But in this era of human capital, our return on investment failed. We got our debt like good citizens, we worked the unpaid internships, we did our nepotistic networking. And now we’re here, side-hustling and struggling to make ends meet, and just plain unhappy.
Since we’re also the ones writing all the takes, we’re fashioning ourselves into the faces of burnout, consciously or not. It’s not the much more populous, much more diverse group of service workers and truck drivers and manual laborers and office assistants getting the spotlight: it’s those of us who were led to believe we were promised something better. Burnout is new for us. The working people who’ve always been burnt out — well, America’s been ignoring their plight for centuries.
Depressingly, the limits of the revitalized the labor movement begin to show through the lens of this ressentiment. Aside from a few notable exceptions — like the Day Without Immigrants and air-traffic controllers during the government shutdown — recent union wins have been concentrated around the jobs me and my friends have: the ones with social and cultural capital, if no longer the decent working conditions. It’s a movement of outrage against the now clearly bankrupt promises of meritocracy, led by grad students and adjuncts, newsrooms and teachers. Their growing militancy may yet boost other unions, but for now public service workers are just happy to be holding steady after Janus, the recent Supreme Court decision undercutting public-sector unions’ ability to charge collective bargaining fees, and factory workers are still trying to stanch the bleeding from NAFTA and Trump’s farces.
On the other hand, if the quantity of burnout is masking those trends, its qualitative distinctions highlight them. The exhaustion and frustration of consigning writing to your lunch breaks at a temp gig is not the same as having a boss expand your work hours through bullshit unlimited vacation programs at your tech firm, and neither is the same as suffering the growing demands of privatized and gendered care work on $7.25 an hour. Look at how people are burnt out, and you’ll find the divisions that have long fractured working-class movements, still simmering.
We’re all victims of this exploitative regime, but we ignore variations in the experience of exploitation at our own peril. The only way to win is to pay attention to the terrain. A fight that resurrects Petersen’s ability to cobble her shoes or my ability to chase a dream job in a creative field won’t necessarily win better lives for the majority of workers. Ensuring that the promise of economic stability is kept does nothing for those to whom it was never made in the first place.
Look at how people are burnt out, and you’ll find the divisions that have long fractured working-class movements, still simmering.
But if we’re attentive to those differences, a politics centered on alleviating burnout — a promise of free time that is actually, meaningfully free — offers hope for a way forward. Socialist policies are already wildly popular, and newly elected, left-leaning politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have already proven the mass appeal of demanding them in a common-sense way. Tailored to the specific differences in experience, an anti-work politics (already advocated by writers like Kathi Weeks) that demands actually free free time would speak directly to the most widely shared experience of suffering under late capitalism.
That’s both a selling point of existing demands, and a guide for ensuring those demands actually speak to all workers.
Take health care as an example of something that currently inhibits our free time. A high-paid tech worker and a precariously employed service worker both suffer under our absolutely bonkers healthcare system. But their shared suffering is not always clear when the discussion is framed around premiums and deductibles and other policy specifics, because the specific needs of each worker quickly diverge.
Service workers just need decent health care, full stop. Tech workers might already have good insurance (especially if they work at firms innovating new methods of exploitation with a human face). But that fact also traps many in demanding jobs, unable or (understandably) unwilling to pay the exorbitant costs of Obamacare exchanges when unemployed. They also likely have to navigate the Kafkaesque labyrinth of HMOs and network negotiations when they change jobs — something happening much more often for millennials.
One of the benefits of a well-designed Medicare for All system, which would create a single insurance program with free, comprehensive care for all US residents, is that it serves the needs of both. It doesn’t just provide health care for those who don’t have it, it also gives well-insured workers the freedom to take a sabbatical between jobs, or stay home with kids, or start a creative project, or whatever it is that humans do when not required to spend their daytime hours in a job they hate — not to mention the good health to enjoy that time.
By making free time one of the central goals of Medicare for All, we can save the program from the technocratic hell that befell Obamacare. “Aside from the numbers,” Corey Robin wrote in a 2013 piece for Jacobin, “what I’m always struck by in these discussions is just how complicated Obamacare is.” Wedging itself into the horror of our privatized system, it only magnifies the “inordinate time, doggedness, savvy, intelligence, and manipulative charm” necessary to navigate health care. For Medicare for All to succeed, it can’t occupy what little free time workers have. And the more free time it saves — by directly confronting care work, racialized health disparities, queer health needs, long-term care for the disabled — the more successful it will be.
Socialism has long been about freedom as well as justice; for the burnout generation, that need can be powerfully articulated as the need for free time. It’s a demand that does more than ask the burnt out Petersens of the world to support a policy that they think will help other people. It creates a shared material interest that can hold together a stronger movement. To quote poet Fred Moten paraphrasing the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, “I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?”
Of course, it may not be enough. No one should be surprised if slightly better-off workers sell out their worse-off peers for a little extra comfort. But the snake oil of self-care isn’t making our lives better as we’re ground down by the mundane cruelty of a society antithetical to human enjoyment, so organizing workers around the thing they have most in common — the crushing exhaustion of life today — is really our only option. And to do that, we have to continually acknowledge that Petersen’s version of burnout is only a small part of the picture.