Millennial Burnout and the Demise of Vocations
By now, thousands of people have read Anne Helen Petersen’s widely-shared BuzzFeed News article, “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.” It’s a well-written article, and one that raises some valid concerns about the future of an enormous demographic. But I can’t help wondering if the phenomenon Petersen is driving at reflects a deeper generational crisis than simply financial instability.
At the heart of Petersen’s analysis is a harsh dichotomy between the promise of early millennial life—you can be anything you want to be—and the sterile reality of millennial adulthood—you are your employment and nothing else. To take Petersen at her word, the promise justified many childhoods of relentless optimization and discipline and high-stakes testing, none of which truly paved the way for freedom and workplace bliss. But there is a faulty premise underlying this account: the assumption that who one is is truly reducible to how one makes a living, and how one is viewed by the surrounding culture.
Indeed, the problem Peterson discusses was baked in from the start, because both millennial mantras—you can be anything you want to be and you are your employment and nothing else—are false. First, there is no such thing as a “completely independent” or “fully autonomous” individual. As finite creatures born into contingent circumstances, we quite simply cannot be whatever we want to be. Some settings we choose; others we are born into—but we cannot opt out of the duties we face without leaving ruin and pain in our wake. And second, we are always more than our simple day-to-day employment: we have duties and goals and responsibilities that exceed any single job description.
Here, I find it helpful to recall the quintessentially Lutheran doctrine of vocation—a principle long stressed by my former professor Dr. Gene Veith. To have a vocation is to be called by God to serve in a particular role at a particular time, with the various obligations that result from such service. As life unfolds, we find ourselves called to responsibilities in different domains. For example, simply by virtue of being born to living parents, I inhabit the vocation of son. When I married my wife, I took on the vocation of husband. When I became an attorney and took the oath of professional conduct, I took on the vocation of lawyer (or, alternatively, officer of the court). If and when I have children, I will take on the vocation of father.
Right now, my self (such as it is) rests at the center of a Venn diagram of overlapping duties. No single vocation is absolutely determinative of who I am (I would submit that Christian is not a vocation, but rather a recognition that all our myriad earthly vocations are ordered to God).
In that spirit, I suggest that the true tragedy of the millennial generation is the collapse of the model of overlapping vocations into a single undifferentiated “personal brand.” The cultivation of the brand—which goes hand-in-hand with attainment of the perfect job—demands that “real life” must be perpetually delayed, deferred into the far future on the grounds that one is “keeping their options open.”
To be sure, contemporary culture has seen a blurring of distinctions between one’s vocation in the workplace and one’s other vocations (24/7 smartphone access is a mixed blessing, to put it charitably). But those distinctions remain nonetheless. There must be a point, for instance, at which the duty to serve faithfully as a good husband means forgoing opportunities elsewhere.
And this is not a burden, but a gift. To inhabit multiple vocations is to experience an incredible joy—to affirm that our day-to-day experiences are not steps toward a “real life” to come, but tangible moments in which we encounter God and neighbor. And this means, in turn, that our vocations are not something to be attained—to be achieved at the end of a long road of struggle and disappointment and progress—but something given, here and now.
Thinking of our “life roles” in this way casts the millennial burnout phenomenon in a somewhat different light. Burnout will always follow as a necessary consequence of the conceptual collapse of our vocations into one “brand” or “path” or “career.” Who, after all, can perpetually orient their whole self toward one goal—one destiny—and not lose perspective? And if that goal ever slips away into a fog of bad performance reviews, mediocre grades, or unreturned emails, what else is left as a foundation? Such is the nasty anti-teleology of contemporary life.
These comments will likely be of small comfort to those underemployed in unpleasant jobs and laboring under enormous student debt. Fair enough. This is more of an elegy for the idea of vocation than a roadmap for the future. But perhaps, when our generation has children of its own and sets out to prepare them for the world, some of us will recall the lessons of yesteryear—and remember that we are, and always have been, more than our personal brands.