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Dumb Questions for Smart People: The Pioneer of Burnout Theory Tells Us About Millennials and Money

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You think millennials face unique obstacles. Let’s start with what you’ve described as one of the most dramatic factors for them: graduating from college when the economy was in a free fall.

Right, the Great Recession began in 2008, when a lot of millennials were just getting out of school. So they had a ton of debt and credentials that didn’t get them anywhere. That’s why you got this mass of people moving back in with their parents — or taking on even more debt to get a law degree, or go to medical school, or get a masters in the humanities. There was this hope that by the time they graduated from those programs, the economy would have recovered, and they would be able to pay off all the debt. But that’s not what happened.

I didn’t understand that burnout is actually a sense of hopelessness, and one thing that prevents it is a sense of accomplishment.

It took a lot longer for the economy to recover, and by the time it did, millennials were competing with a new generation of college graduates for the same low-level jobs. It’s like the bottom rung of the ladder disappeared for a decade. The whole discourse was to blame millennials for that: “Oh, they’re lazy!” “They’re moving back in with their parents!” “They’re entitled!” When all they wanted were the same things that were available to earlier generations.

And you think the recession took a greater toll on millennials than earlier economic downturns had on previous generations, right? Why do you think that?

A lot of those downturns were followed by a faster recovery, like the recession that boomers experienced in the 1970s, or Gen X in the early ’90s. But it’s also a question of what the recovery looks like. We hear a lot about the low unemployment rate right now, but many of the jobs are not very good. There’s something called the “job quality index” that measures the kind of work people have, and it shows that many jobs today have no stability, security, health insurance — things that earlier generations could take for granted in a job.

What it means is that millennials are still dealing with the fallout from this period of stilted growth. This decade in our lives, when our parents and grandparents were accomplishing the milestones of adulthood, like buying a house or starting a family, those things are still out of reach for many of us.

Was it just the recession, or were there other factors that converged for this generation?

There were. One of the biggest is the cost of college. [In the US] many millennials’ grandparents went on the GI bill, so they didn’t have to pay very much. Then, many millennials’ parents grew up during the Cold War, when the government wanted to compete with the Soviet Union, and higher education was heavily funded by taxes. It really wasn’t until the 1980s when the government cut funding for college and schools began to raise tuition. But that was happening at the same time that the “education gospel” started to take root.

What’s the education gospel?

It’s this idea that the best way to find a job is to have the right academic credentials. There’s a lot of research that undercuts this idea, but it is a “gospel” because you’re supposed to believe it without evidence. In the 1980s and ’90s, it was becoming conventional wisdom, so by the time you got to the millennial generation, the education gospel was telling everyone to go to school, even as the cost was shooting up. That’s how you ended up with a system where, instead of going to school through a program like the GI bill, or graduating with $2,000 in debt for a degree that’s largely funded by the government, you have a whole generation graduating with $200,000 in student loans.

There’s an expectation that just because you can be reached, you should be reachable. Obviously, this affects boomers and people in Gen X, too, but the combination of this and other factors really consolidate around millennials. Burnout has become our base temperature. We’re the burnout generation.

You’ve written that all these pressures have led to a high level of burnout among millennials. It seems like we should probably define what you mean by burnout.

Growing up, I always thought of burnout as something that happens to a political reporter after, like, 300 days on the campaign trail. They just collapse. I didn’t understand that burnout is actually a sense of hopelessness, and one thing that prevents it is a sense of accomplishment. So if you think of a farmer who has to wake up early and do a long list of tasks every day, it’s exhausting — but there are measurable ways of seeing progress in that work. When you’re done threshing the field, you’re done! For a lot of millennials, the combination of graduating during a recession, with huge amounts of student debt and no steady job to pay it off, has created a deep sense of futility.

You end up with a lot of low-level jobs that bleed into each other, and it starts to feel like you’re just checking items off a to-do list without getting anywhere. It’s like you’re on a treadmill. It’s never going to end. You’re doing all the things you were supposed to do, but you’re never going to hit any of these markers that mean something to you, to society, to your family — you can barely pay the interest on your loans, let alone the principal. You’re never going to reach adulthood.

Eventually that feeling trickles into the rest of your life. You get to a point where you think, “Well, if I want to drop off my dry cleaning, then I’ll just have one more thing to do.” I call this “errand paralysis.“

And millennials get a lot of blame for these things. There’s an idea that this is actually their fault because they decided to go into debt.

I call this the “retributive view” — that if someone has debt, they messed up. It was either a moral failure or an intelligence failure. People will tell them, “Well, you could have lived on less!” And that’s true. They could have eaten nothing but ramen noodles and cans of black beans through college. They could have only four items of clothing. But if you want to find a job, it’s helpful to have social connections, especially if you’re a woman. Whether it’s trying to dress at a certain level, or buying running shoes so you can keep your body a certain way, there’s an abundance of data on how much harder it is to get employment if you don’t conform to certain standards. And all of those things cost money. So I think the retributive view misses a lot. It’s easy to say, “You shouldn’t have done that,” without thinking about the calculus that goes into some of these decisions.

It’s much easier to blame the individual than to look at the larger context.

Right, and I think context is important. For example, studies show that poverty makes it harder to make good decisions, because decisions that benefit you in the long term often involve sacrifice in the short term — which is hard to do if you’re struggling to survive. Stability makes it easier to make good decisions.

I hope we can start to think differently about the “decisions” that millennials are making, because a lot of them aren’t decisions at all.

It can’t help that millennials came of age at a time when our phones began pinging us with reminders constantly. The email from your boss appears at 3 a.m., whether it’s urgent or not.

That’s another big piece of it. Reachability — being reachable. So much contemporary work is like that. There’s an expectation that just because you can be reached, you should be reachable. Obviously, this affects boomers and people in Gen X, too, but the combination of this and other factors really consolidate around millennials. Burnout has become our base temperature. We’re the burnout generation.

Are there signs that some of these things are improving?

I think a few things are beginning to change. We had to push the idea of reachability to its breaking point for people to see how horrible it is. Lawyers were glued to their BlackBerries 15 years ago, but most of us weren’t connected in that way until the past five years or so. Now workplaces are finally starting to ask, “What do we do with this monster we’ve created?” And the smartest people are thinking radically, because digital technologies are not going to disappear. So people should be talking about ideas like a four-hour workday, or a four-day workweek. I’ve heard of companies that put a hard stop on email at 6 p.m. It’s tricky, but the intention is starting to appear. The practice will take more work. It’s going to take a lot to unbreak our brains!

OK, so we have to unbreak our brains. But are there any other ideas that you think would help?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and one of the most important ideas centers on parental leave. A lot of research shows that the only way for two partners with a child to equally share household responsibilities is when each parent takes extended leave with the child. That allows both of them to experience the amount of work that’s necessary to keep the household running, which in heterosexual relationships, usually falls on the woman. So parental leave can have ripple effects throughout the culture — if women are less burdened by the labour at home, it’s going to change the quality of life for both parents as well as the child.

Anne Helen Petersen is the author of the forthcoming book Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation (September 2020).

Wil S. Hylton is an American writer. His last book was VANISHED.

Money + the World


Anne Helen Petersen explains how things are different for the generation the world seems to love to hate.


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