Precarity, debt and social media: BuzzFeed writer Anne Helen Petersen on the modern brand of burnout

Young Canadians across the country say they feel like the pressure is on, and many told Tapestry they feel mentally exhausted. Anne Helen Petersen breaks down how millennials have become what she calls "the burnout generation."
Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer for Buzzfeed News in Montana. Her essay How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation went viral. (Charles Aydlett)

A couple of years ago Alicia Raimundo's life looked great. The 29-year-old was a mental health professional who counselled youth and coached speakers. She also spoke with the  media about mental health issues.

But she didn't have full-time work. And even after supplementing her income with other jobs, she said she went paycheck-to-paycheck and had no real savings.

Raimundo said  these economic stresses, along with a constant feeling of missing out, led her to feel burned out.

"I was feeling depressed and oftentimes suicidal," she said. "It was a scary, scary point of my life."

Raimundo, a Vancouver resident, isn't alone in feeling burnt out.
Alicia Raimundo, 29, of Vancouver, B.C., is one of many young Canadians feeling burnout. (Alicia Raimundo)

Young Canadians across the country say they feel like the pressure is on, and many told Tapestry they feel mentally exhausted.  

Anne Helen Petersen wrote about how young people in North America have become overworked and overstressed for BuzzFeed called  "How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation."

She told Tapestry's host Mary Hynes that after the 2016 U.S. election, she realized she might have been experiencing some burnout herself. Petersen said she felt so drained she no longer knew what she wanted to write about, and had trouble completing seemingly basic errands.

Errand paralysis

"[It's] this feeling like you have really long to-do lists and it includes all these things that should be good things that you'd like to do," she said.

"But it all just flattens out and nothing feels special or worthwhile."

Petersen called that experience "errand paralysis" in her article — a to-do list that never gets finished, especially if the task has no immediate benefit but would be personally helpful.

It's not a new phenomenon — marginalized communities, like people of colour, have always been more at risk to economic and social stresses.

Petersen, however, said that burnout's breadth and intensity has reached a critical mass.

When it comes to errand paralysis, for example, Raimundo noted that she has been putting off getting an identification card, even though she needs to it to get medication.

The paralysis comes from a combination of overwork, job precarity and social media. A quick browse of Instagram and Facebook and it looks like everyone is living the most balanced version of themselves, Petersen said.

The three factors feed into each other. People are more inclined to overwork because of job precarity. Looking at social media, meanwhile, can lead people to try to present their own lives in the most positive light, which can be its own form of work.

"I think that's why we come up with words like 'hustle' or 'grit' is to give a positive capitalist spin on working all of the time, past exhaustion," said Petersen.

Working past exhaustion

That exhaustion can have lasting impacts both inside and outside of work.

In Halifax, a 24-year-old graduate student, Vicki Papuga, said she wakes up most days already feeling tired.

Papuga said she has trouble taking time off without feeling guilty and that her research projects and a mountain of email make it hard to stop thinking about work.

When talking to her mother and boyfriend, Papuga said she found her attention fading after 10 minutes of conversation.

"If I have any sort of leisure time … I feel like I'm not committed as much as I should be committed — that I'm not working as hard as I could be working," Papuga said.

Several Canadians Tapestry talked to noted that even if you do try to relax, leisure can become its own form of work, often thanks to social media.
Victoria Stacey says how something will look on Instagram is always a concern for her. (Victoria Stacey)

Victoria Stacey, 26, is a social content writer, who turned her love of arts and crafts into a side hustle. She began hosting crafting workshops and promoting them on her blog and on Instagram.

She's gained some 7,000 followers, but her social media presence has started to influence which project she attempts in her free time.

"There was a time when I said to my fiance, 'Look I don't know what I want to pick ... because I want to make sure that it's going to do well on Instagram or it's going to do well on my blog and social media,'" she said.

"That is definitely the wrong way to look at it. But … that is always in the back of my mind."

Petersen said that social media may not look like work, but it very much is. Keeping an up-to-date LinkedIn page or managing a personal brand are part of the modern workplace that didn't exist ten years ago.

Few easy solutions

"There is a real shift between my granddad who worked at 3M and went to work from exactly nine  to exactly five and then got retirement with full benefits at age 55," said Petersen.

"And what the current reality is with our work situation is, which is like, I'm going to work till I die and have no savings."

Petersen isn't optimistic when it comes to solving burnout. With systemic causes, she said there's only so much a single person can do to prevent burnout.

For those suffering, she recommended attending therapy, though she added that's not always affordable or accessible.
Ben Baird of Victoria, B.C., has asked for a reduced work schedule after suffering burnout. (Julie Higginson)

Ben Baird, a housing outreach worker in Victoria, B.C., said he could feel his burnout coming.

Sometimes, he found himself in situations where he had to lie to clients.The stress of that, combined with a chronic health condition, led him to ask to be dropped from full-time to part time — before his burnout could take over his life.

"I'm fortunate that I don't have dependents, or I don't have a lot of financial responsibilities. So it allows me to do that," said Baird. "But it's a necessary step for me to take."


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