The Origins of Generation Burnout: Meet the insecure overachievers.
Coronavirus may be changing the defining traits of millennials. While they may not be the generation most severely hit by the epidemiology of the virus, that does not mean they are not significantly unchanged by its presence. This time is having a butterfly effect on all facets of life: but the millennial lens is an interesting one to consider given their spending power in consumer culture. We often mention the toll that the recession took on them, but this takes on new relevance now. Sure, there are well-trodden areas like financial disadvantages, however there are also a lesser explored attitudinal hangover that is well worth a recap. The unstable economy in which millennials entered the workforce, as well as bitter lessons shared from older generations, left them with a deep seeded anxiety about how hard they would need to work in life. This has been coined ‘work martyrdom’. An example of it is seen as the average paid holiday days taken in the US, which has gradually fallen from 19.6 in 1978, to 16.1 in 2016. In a study conducted on the topic, this fall was attributed to millennials’ fear of taking leave, in case it made them seem replaceable or cost them a promotion. 20% even feared it may cost them a job.
Last year, a widely circulated Buzzfeed article by Dr. Anne Helen Petersen posited that many millennials have internalized an unhealthy belief they should be working all the time, leading them to become anecdotally known as ‘generation burnout’. This characteristic is further aggravated by the rise of smartphones, robbing them of the opportunity to truly switch off. However, beyond their professional lives, it has been widely suggested that even their designated leisure time has become contaminated by this productivity-frenzy. Pastimes become more stressful as they are increasingly expected to be commoditized or widely circulated on social media. For example, you shouldn’t just like knitting, you should be knitting to sell on Etsy or populate Instagram. Even the World Health Organisation recognised burnout in 2019 as a new cultural phenomenon. It is important to remember that prior to our current lockdown situation, this mental health crisis was the epidemic at the epicentre of their lives. And it hasn’t gone away.
Life post-Covid: Is this a pivot point for Millennial productivity?
So, what happens to this productivity in the face of coronavirus? It is not only being impacted by the government sanctioned hibernation, or the economic U-bend that is being forecast for life after it but equally the collective devastation of countries as many lives will be tragically lost in the ongoing fight against the virus. The world as we knew it will be very different post-Covid19, both operationally and emotionally. While this impacts everyone, it holds interesting implications for the generation who struggle to stand still – despite being told thay they have to.
Last week, The New York Times published an article, ‘Stop trying to be productive’, aiming to help in this transition period as they decelerate back down to survival mode. However, this productivity is written into their biology and will not depart easily, but arguably it may begin to pivot and instead focus on the need for radical self care. Behind the world’s closed doors, this is manifesting in a myriad of ways. The amount of time people are spending sleeping is soaring. Famed for having less sex than their parents, millennials are now rediscovering and redefining intimacy as sex toys sales surge in affected areas. PornHub has even provided free access to premium services across affected areas.
Mindfulness is being collectively prioritised as downloads of apps like ‘Headspace’ are soaring, especially as they are providing free subscriptions in affected areas. Mindfulness also is appearing in different forms as #coronavirusbaking trends on Twitter. Pre-Covid, 68% of Americans said they are looking for more opportunities to have more playful pastimes to soothe their burnout. This need seems more prevalent now more than ever. Their burning quest for productive outputs may not be gone, but it may be focused instead on more basic, self-preserving inputs. This looks to be the case for the foreseeable future of isolation and into the new, and uncertain, world beyond it.
What are the take-outs for brands?
1. As radical self care changes what is utilitarian to the millennial mindset, content or services that previously might have been perceived as indulgent or frivolous may have a new found importance. Brands should ask themselves, how can they provide restorative or calming content in order to stay relevant with millennials at this time?
2. Calming and restorative should be principles not only applied to brand messages, but also their media. According to GWI, podcasts (20%) and live streams (30%) are most popular with millennials during the crisis as interest in longer formats rises. Social isolation has presented unconstrained millennials with a new and novel context to content consumption: empty time. Brands will benefit leveraging these mediums to help audiences fill these new pockets of time.