Millennial Burnout is real, and it’s terrible. If you’re in the habit of reading thinkpieces (dear reader of this thinkpiece), you’ve probably encountered the concept in one of literally 50 articles about it published in the past two weeks.
The concept, essentially, is that millennials came of age in a time of economic crisis and are forced to constantly “hustle” to have any hope of a stable middle-class existence. We’re surrounded by calls for our attention, working 60+ hour weeks loving what we do in a job that “matters” while projecting an “unbothered” persona on Instagram. Anne Helen Peterson’s viral Buzzfeed essay started the conversation about Millennial Burnout, pointing to broad economic factors as well as a set of social pressures as sources of this phenomenon. Millennials are looking for a “holy grail” job that impresses both their parents and their peers. Problem is, it’s very difficult to accomplish this without either enduring up to a decade of debt-financed grad school, moving to expensive cities, or cultivating a social media presence that demands around-the-clock maintenance — and possibly without all three.
Here’s the thing: You don’t fucking have to do that.
My college friends were in two camps. Half of us moved to NYC/SF/DC to find cool jobs and/or go to grad school, and the other half stayed in North Carolina, where we’d gone to school, and got jobs coded as “whatever.” The former camp was generally successful — but were completely burned out after a few years. These cultural centers are where the internet and its content are made (the tech in SF, the politics in DC, and the media in NYC), and careers in these “cool” industries tend to transform the internet from a fun diversion into a place they are always sort of on the clock. This is exhausting. Eventually, some of my burned-out friends moved back to North Carolina, got decent but “uncool” jobs, and are now just… happier. Things are more affordable and there are way more dogs everywhere. The people who stuck around the whole time essentially got a head start on adulthood and are now seriously considering what may be inconceivable to the Big City set — buying homes, starting families, getting furniture at somewhere more expensive than Ikea.
I say all of that to say this: You don’t need to have a cool job. You don’t need to move to a city with high rent. And if you do those things and somehow manage to succeed, you need to not lord it over people. This pressure is peer pressure, and it’s making our lives so much worse than they need to be.
The explicit agenda for both top influencers and the social media companies themselves [is] to make broadcasting so essential to our lives as to become invisible.
Contra the stereotype, millennials are not lazy and entitled; they’re willing to work themselves past the point of exhaustion in order to impress their peers. This behavior has enabled employers in “cool fields” (arts, media, humanities departments, etc.) to extract huge amounts of underpaid (or even unpaid) labor from this reserve army of the unverified. Status signals like social media clout rarely yield benefits outside of themselves. Our identities have become tied up in our careers, in large part because this status inflects all of our social interactions online.
Peterson wonders what can be done “until or in lieu of a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system,” which is both debilitatingly difficult and only half of the battle. Peer pressure for cool jobs and cooler vacations, hot bods, and fire tweets isn’t going to go away under socialism.
The American economy absolutely has changed over the past 20 years — for the majority of people, for the worse. Anything else different in that time period, anything that might have enhanced the reach and power of peer pressure?
Yep. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m talking about those damn phones, the ever-present reminder that your friends are happy, healthy, relaxed, woke parents who cook every night in their perfect homes. Peterson mentions this, of course, musing about people seeing an Instagram post and saying “I want your life.” While she thinks that economic conditions are primarily to blame, the social and the economic pressures are inexorably linked.
As a social scientist, let me say: no one actually knows which of these trends is a more important driver of Millennial Burnout. And I think it’s plausible that the increased weight of the yoke of social pressure is of the same order of magnitude as economic pressure. If this is the case, we actually can improve our lives without waiting for the socialist revolution.
The idea that pressure to conform to certain ideals of behavior is not new. But leftist criticism of conformity had more force when that pressure had a corporate, patrichiarcal source. Women’s magazines, for example, moved units by defining just-barely attainable beauty standards and explaining just how hard you’d have to work. Radical feminists correctly called bullshit.
Recently, though, the parlor trick of fake authenticity via reality television and Instagram have disguised the source of this social pressure. It’s still coming from elites, but they’re pretending that they’re just living their lives, obscuring the fact that the same commercial drive behind Cosmo is still in effect. “Influencers” are the One Percent of the clout economy, the few at the top who make bank by convincing everyone else that scrolling and posting is natural and reflects your worth in the world.
It does not.
In the recent book Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy, University of Virginia media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan describes how Facebook encouraged and profited from this behavioral shift: “The more time we spend grooming our self-presentation and declaring our tribal affiliations, the more we grow acculturated to the habit. It becomes a cultural norm."
This is the explicit agenda for both top influencers and the social media companies themselves: to make broadcasting so essential to our lives as to become invisible. Vaidhyanathan invokes French theorist Roland Barthes’s idea of the mythic — myths are speech by which the powerful normalize and make inevitable their lifestyles and place in society.
If we consider “speech” to include “posts on Instagram,” we can see how this operates today. The elite really do have the resources to pay for lavish vacations, perfect bodies, sumptuous meals, and even fulfilling careers (via unpaid internships and the social clout that comes from throwing money around ). Elaborate social gamesmanship of this kind has always characterized so-called “elite” competition, although the form shifts with the culture. This can be a boon to societies that harness this competitive impulse; consider the tradition of the potlach among the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, in which prestige was afforded to whoever gave away the most of their possessions.
Elite competition can also be violent and weird. To impress and intimidate a court rival in last year’s Oscar-nominated period drama The Favourite, Emma Stone explodes a pigeon near her face during a friendly shooting match, covering her with blood. To impress and intimidate a business rival, it was revealed In this year’s most hilarious interview, Jack Dorsey revealed that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg — in an effort to impress and intimidate his social media business rival — tazed and then killed a goat with a knife before serving it to him. Cold.
Americans have always been coy about our class structure, famously leading an implausibly large portion of society to claim they’re middle class. This delusion causes the Instagram lifestyles of wealthy influencers to trickle down to the “middle class,” to the point where (per Peterson) even “domestic work is now supposed to check a never-ending number of aspirational boxes: Outings should be “experiences,” food should be healthy and homemade and fun, bodies should be sculpted, wrinkles should be minimized, clothes should be cute and fashionable.” These messages are transported by media both social and mainstream, but that distinction is meaningless — the reason everyone is watching the Marie Kondo show on Netflix isn’t because it’s good (it’s actually pretty bad ), but because everyone else was talking about the show, to the extent that “Marie Kondo” is now basically a verb (alongside, it should be said, “KonMari”).
We rationalize this extra work with concepts such as “wellness,” “self-care,” and “living our best lives” — but it’s all bullshit. This pressure used to be applied to only the snootiest Connecticut WASPs and people on Frasier, but they had the resources to pay for it. When everyone is exposed to peer pressure at the level of “I want your life,” the rich set the agenda with their private jets while the aspirational have to rent a private jet for an Instagram photo shoot.
This pressure is caused by envy. And envy is built into the DNA of social media.
The impact of critical theory on the real world is usually difficult to trace; the current post-truth era is sometimes blamed on theorists like Bruno Latour (who… just read this ), but his books aren’t exactly best-sellers and his students aren’t exactly powerful billionaires.
But French theorist René Girard — dubbed “The Prophet of Envy” by the New York Review of Books — actually did have a student who became a powerful billionaire: Peter Thiel, the literally bloodthirsty tech mogul who is notable for, among other things, being one of the first outside investors in Facebook. Cue the goat sounds:
Thiel studied with Girard while at Stanford Law, and was so deeply influenced by his understanding of mimetic desire that Thiel claims the theory was instrumental in his decision to hand Mark Zuckerberg $500,000 in seed money, and I’m sure he views the billion dollar return on his investment as vindication of Girard’s philosophy. Per Thiel: “Social media proved to be more important than it looked, because it’s about our natures.”
Thiel’s appreciation of mimetic theory continues today. The Thiel Foundation funds Imitatio, a think tank that funds and publishes research on Girardian mimetic theory. Their short introduction to Girard offers a concise definition of mimetic desire:
With freedom comes risk and uncertainty: humans don't know in advance what to choose, so they look to others for cues. People can desire anything, as long as other people seem to desire it, too.
In a 2016 essay for The New Inquiry, the Geoff Shullenberger digs into the Girardian interpretation of social media, writing that such platforms, in essence, “are machines for producing desire.” All pressure is horizontal, so anyone can be your potential rival, and you’re always competing for attention. The immediate, quantitative feedback in the forms of likes and follows makes the game visible to both yourself and your rivals.
The power of mimetic desire is enhanced in the absence of strong rules or norms constraining behavior. In more strictly hierarchical societies, the lower classes cannot see themselves as equal to the elite, blunting the edge of envy. The West has become far less socially (though of course more economically) hierarchical in the past century; we have fought against ideologies that see humans as intrinsically differentiated by race and sex, and we have de-legitimized institutions, religious or social, that constrain our behavior.
However, these victories for human dignity and freedom do not, on their own, produce good lives. Freedom holds great promise for human flourishing, but we’ve used it to create a culture that normalizes and elevates digitally mediated envy. Our individual decisions to broadcast and consume on social media have profound societal implications, and the poorest suffer the most. Envy has become FOMO, and we are terrified of missing out.
But “missing out” is unavoidable; at any given moment, we’re missing out on infinity minus one things. Rather than elevating the people who are best at producing images of things we’re missing out on, we need to spend time learning to appreciate the one thing we’re not missing out on. This entails nothing less than a straightforward consideration of the human condition, and there are no easy answers, but it’s a hell of a lot more noble than chasing the anxiety- and envy-riddled fantasy of digital clout.
What happens when you log off Facebook for a month? A recent randomized trial suggests that you spend more time socializing with family and friends, that you feel less angry about politics and less depressed, and that you spend dramatically less time on Facebook in the future.