There’s an article that’s been trending from BuzzFeed, How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, that caught my attention. It struck a chord with me and everyone I shared it with. We are the millennials, and we are super burned out from balancing parenthood, careers, family, and social relationships in a world that seems absent of time to pause, rest, and restore. What’s worse is that the causes of burnout, which start early in childhood, are even stronger now more than ever.
As both a leader in education and a mom, I read this article as a call to action. We cannot allow today’s youth to continue in the patterns that have caused rampant anxiety and depression, not to mention financial insecurity and limiting options for my generation. How can we as parents allow our children to follow aimlessly in our footsteps?
This post is about finding solutions we can impart through our parenting and in the opportunities we afford our children to prepare them to enter adulthood with a solid foundation for leading happy, fulfilled lives – even at the cost of redefining what a happy, fulfilled life means.
The Roots of a Burnout Culture
Before we can delve into potential solutions to the burnout problem, we have to understand its origins. As BuzzFeed reporter, Anne Helen Petersen writes, millennials face “systemic” challenges in coping with life – or “adulting” – that get in the way of managing even the simplest daily tasks, like registering to vote or returning a mail order package. It isn’t that we don’t know how to do these things, but that we are so paralyzed by the endlessly competing demands for our time.
It might not be so bad if the problem were just that we left a few errands and tasks incomplete in the face of too much to do in our busy lives. However, these incomplete To-Do List tasks are only a symptom of anxiety, depression, and financial instability that become an overwhelming cloud over our daily existence. As Petersen explains, it’s the “psychological toll of realizing that something you’d been told, and came to believe yourself, would be ‘worth it’ — worth the [student] loans, worth the labor [in school and college], worth all that self-optimization — isn’t.”
In other words, the inability to mail a bill payment or review your tax return on time, isn’t due to laziness. It is the result of facing the depressing reality that all the effort and time put into studying, extracurricular activities, and getting into a “good college” from childhood onwards did not produce the desired result of a stable, satisfying career. The formula that may have worked for an earlier generation isn’t a match with the demands of the rapidly changing digital age.
Burnout Factors for Today’s Youth
Petersen characterizes the millennial burnout crisis as the result of a combination of factors – many of which are still actively at play in the lives of kids today. It all started when we were over-scheduled kids bouncing from school to one activity to the next, and then home for endless hours of homework. This pattern of busyness led us to the internalization that we should be “working all the time,” a mindset I am all too familiar with (especially as I sit here writing at 1:15pm on a Sunday afternoon!).
Social media then rolled in to sugarcoat our image of what adulthood should look like, emphasizing glitz and glam while overshadowing the more mundane side of effort and perseverance in overcoming setbacks.
Lack of guidance in high school and college on finding suitable and financially stable careers led us on degree paths that failed to align with our financial and lifestyle needs. So many millennials came out of college saddled with debt, meeting the reality of jobs that barely support their living expenses. Jobs that offered financial security came at the expense of having any real freedom or personal life, with the expectation to be available 24-7 on mobile devices.
Over-scheduled kids becoming adults with no real free time, feeling the pressure to live a life that reflects the pristine picture of life on social media, and lacking constructive guidance on charting a meaningful and financially sound career path…this is the recipe for burnout. And it is repeating itself, snowballing with greater and greater impact in the lives of kids, teens, and young adults today.
Action Steps for a Smoother Course
So how can we prevent the next generation from falling into this same stormy pattern? We have to address the causes of burnout and approach them with tools to counteract the negative results that are playing out.
Getting to the root of the problem starts with recognizing that we are approaching a feeling of burnout, and finding specific areas of our lives where we feel it the most. Students are thrown into a multitude of activities, sometimes without being asked which ones they are passionate about and could see themselves carrying into their future. Asking a student to stop and think about which activities they truly enjoy can spark thoughts about which ones are most important to prioritize. Then, it is more clear by contrast which ones are causing time management strains or bringing on unnecessary stress.
Preventing burnout from any starting point begins with clarifying goals and easing the burden of over-programmed schedules. The idea of visualizing and prioritizing time and beginning to develop a plan for one’s future using specific passions, is actually a major component of our Executive Functioning Program. We run this program with students anywhere between sixth grade and college-age. After identifying immediate areas for relief from overwhelming commitments – especially those that are irrelevant to a student’s goals – we use students’ learning styles and everyday schedules to help them set meaningful short and long term goals.
Next, we work with students to develop skills in time management, organization, planning and prioritization, and active studying to help them manage the commitments they maintain and work steadily towards those goals. These skills are essentially the answer to “how” to manage all of the varying and often times conflicting demands of school, work, social lives, family, etc. in an age where our “Smartphones” seem to add five hours of “To Do’s” to our days. Without these tools, goals are more like wishes with no clear plan to achieve them.
Building Pathways to Bright Futures
After setting students up for success in their high school years and increasingly complex everyday lives full of extracurriculars, the next step is to dive into college admissions and career planning! This is where things can get really exciting….or really overwhelming. Our hope is that with the executive functioning framework, students fall much closer to the exciting end of this spectrum.
College admissions is competitive, but it’s not a zero-sum game. There are endless options from community college and transfer opportunities, to online schooling, and small schools actively recruiting students with the right interests. These options abound for students of all levels and interests, including high achievers, students with learning differences, and the ones who fall somewhere in the middle. Goals need to make sense for the individual; maximizing your growth is the route for success throughout life, but it should not be a source of crippling anxiety in teen years. With a focus on personalized goal-setting, we can help your child put it all into perspective, so they have the skills to manage life after college.
This process actually starts even earlier than college admissions when done effectively. Before really knowing what kind of college experience we want, there needs to be a foundation of knowledge about what career options are available. As millennials, we observed our parents as doctors, teachers, and business people, careers which they often stuck with for their entire lives. We are then compelled to ask ourselves, “What if I don’t want to be one of those?” or “What if I don’t know what I want to do?” Honestly, how could you? The world is so big, and so many people end up in careers they didn’t even know existed when they were in high school.
By starting at a young age before heading out into the world, we have the opportunity to develop a clear sense of strengths while finding interests, leadership opportunities, and ideally a career field that can incorporate these established strengths. While this may sound like a Fairy Godmother wish, I assure you that is only because the tools for this kind of counseling have long been removed from our education system. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. Our Career Interest Coaching program does just that.
With Career Interest Coaching, our educational coaches walk students through a comprehensive survey of strengths and weaknesses to identify interests and develop a clear individual profile. Then, we guide students through an online curriculum that allows them to explore a wide array of career options that align in different ways with their strengths and interests.
Our students learn about the lifestyle and work environments that different jobs can provide, while hearing success stories from others in those fields and what steps they took to get there. Students then start to build their own set of criteria for what they want in their future as we open the doors to career fields they’ve never heard of, and may not otherwise find out about. With this information, they can select colleges and majors that serve their life aspirations.
With modern social media possessing such a significant portion of our daily lives, it’s easy to get lost in screen time and become disconnected from our long-term plans. Tim Urban discusses two kinds of procrastination in his Ted Talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arj7oStGLkU): One that involves waiting until right before a deadline to finish something, and the other that involves no deadlines at all, making it really easy for our minds to want to say, “I’ll start tomorrow”. When we don’t have a clear plan towards goal-achievement, we more easily lose track of time scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, binging shows on Netflix, or playing games on our phones, rather than taking those concrete steps towards our goals.
Setting up a personal game plan for the long-term requires deciding what steps you can take right now to get you there. This means actually committing to small things you can do today, this week, and next month so that those long-term dreams don’t remain “dreams” forever.
Deciding you want to get in shape means going to the gym today, planning a hike for this weekend, and making a conscious decision to eat dinner at home tonight instead of getting fast food. Grades, colleges, career paths, and emotional maturity require the same type of continual habits, and sometimes asking for support can be the best way to get started and stay on track. Students with strong foundations in executive functioning can stay focused on a goal and plan their time out so they know when it’s okay to pause and take a break without letting technology decide for them.
Without a plan to remedy the causes of millennial burnout, today’s generation of young people face an even greater set of personal challenges. With more limiting social, emotional, and financial burdens, children need even more focused time to develop their tools for combating these life pressures. And magically, if we focus on the right combination of personal attention in career interest coaching, executive functioning skills, and mental wellness, we can actually get at the root cause of burnout.
By eliminating the pressure to be “everything”, and instead narrowing the focus down to what really matters, we are arming children with the tools to execute daily tasks, and the emotional well-being to navigate through inevitable challenges. We hope our contributions may just lead to a brighter future for generations to come.