By Sam Keyes
It probably didn’t break the Internet, as things do these days, but Anne Helen Petersen’s rambling Buzzfeed article on millennial burnout showed up enough times on the Facebook feed to catch my attention. Like many others, I found her description surprisingly compelling. Amid the usual list of explanations and defenses about millennial behavior (horrible wages and job choices, crippling debt, disenchantment with the meritocratic ideal), Petersen sketches a more psychological and emotional portrait of the millennial condition.
Burnout as a psychiatric diagnosis for a whole generation may seem overwrought, but I found it appealing partly because of some personal resonances with the author’s story. She, like me, grew up closer to Generation X than to most millennials (I prefer to think of myself as part of the Oregon Trail Generation). Graduate school changed that status. I find it easy to identify with this generational border-crossing. Many of my high school classmates probably have little experience with millennial attitudes and problems: they married, started families, and found reasonably successful careers in the early 2000s. I traveled abroad, then returned to school for roughly a decade, then got married and found a normal job (if you can call priestly ministry normal). So by the time I began truly adulting, I was heavily in debt and the economy was in a very different place than it was when I first left college.
In Petersen’s view, millennial laziness is a red herring. The problem is not that millennials don’t know how to work, it’s that work is all they know. They have come to age in a world of optimization, in which social media and smart devices make everything part of the personal brand. Overtime is no longer staying late at the office or going in on Saturday; it’s responding to work emails on your phone in bed, texting colleagues while on a family trip, cultivating social media profiles for maximum profitability.
My high school students aren’t technically millennials, but many of them still come from families with millennial-style standards. Optimization begins early when kids are plugged into club lacrosse or soccer around age four. Parents invest huge amounts of money in these programs so that by the time kids are in high school their lives center on traveling teams and college recruitment. (One can find similar dynamics in the fine arts.) There is no free time, no true play. New interests are weighed and measured in relation to the parents’ previous investments.
Putting aside the complicated developmental issues of teenage brains, suffering from decision-fatigue and optimization is real. I see it all the time. And, as a school chaplain, I find it sad to realize that moral and spiritual education, from this perspective, can come across as yet another aspect of the endless to-do list: Earn high grades, show leadership ability, excel at sports, volunteer for a good cause, score high on the SAT, make the parents happy, get enough sleep, impress peers, look good in a swimsuit, keep an interesting Instagram feed, maintain socially useful Snapstreaks, be honest, obtain consent before doing anything sexual, be a good friend, respect God, practice justice, do what coach says.
This list will seem familiar to anyone watching the third season of NBC’s comedy The Good Place. (Slight spoilers follow.) The Good Place is a brilliant, hilarious reflection on mainstream modern morality and its implicit metaphysics. It is an exercise exploring a universe governed by the mythic structures of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. When people die, they go to either the Good Place or the Bad Place, assigned by a judge (Maya Rudolph, of course) based on a cosmic legal system of points calculated by an accounting department.
Earlier in the third season, the show’s group of protagonists start investigating what they think must be Bad Place interference with the points system. How is it, they wonder, that even the good folks — the best folks, in fact, whose sacrificial goodness makes them seem almost ridiculous — end up with deficit points?
What they find, as they keep looking, is that the system has rigged itself. The increasing complexity of the world has simply made it harder and harder to do good. You may think that you’re trying to live well, help people, and make good decisions, but one time you bought an apple grown (without your knowledge) on the profits of a system exploiting children, and all of a sudden you have -12,000 points. The Judge, on investigating actual human experience for the first time, breathlessly explains, “There’s this chicken sandwich that if you eat it, it means you hate gay people. And it’s delicious.” (I disagree with this caricature of Chick-fil-A, but I still thought the line perfect.)
Perhaps The Good Place is just a millennial discovery of the impossibility of law. The present age offers only a more extreme, increasingly unbearable version of the moral tension that Christians have been thinking about since the beginning: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15).
One of the unnamed problems lurking behind Petersen’s description of millennial burnout is the spiritual-moral aspect of optimization and the endless to-do list. Her piece makes a case for the therapeutic value of naming — talking about burnout doesn’t fix it, but it does help insofar as it reveals something true. But there are more things in heaven and earth than psychological conditions and economic development.
There may be important social and political things to do about millennial burnout, but the crucial thing to do — the only way to escape the root problem of the to-do list — is to find the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. The traditional doctrine of grace speaks quite directly to the new versions of works righteousness, as the folks at Mockingbird have discussed regularly. Policy changes may treat the symptoms, but they cannot save us from the disease. The antidote to decision fatigue is tradition; the antidote to optimization is the sacramental economy.
Ecclesial forms of life and verbal proclamations that neglect these medicines won’t just fall short of reaching millennials; they will become part of the problem.