Millennial burnout

We had dinner with friends this week. These friends are younger than our children. They are well educated and energetic and fun to be with. We never run out of topics for discussion. One of the topics was millennials and religion and how patterns of participation in religious institutions are very different for young adults than it was for us when we were their age. Towards the end of the evening the topic shifted to health and the woman of the couple with whom we were visiting said, “I think it is pretty unusual for someone my age to have chronic back problems.” We didn’t dwell on her comment, but discussed the physical therapy she was receiving. My wife shared a bit of information about our son’s experience with an injury and physical therapy. I commented on how physical therapy had really helped me when I experienced muscle spasms in my lower back.

Later, however, I thought to myself that I think she is wrong. I don’t think chronic health problems are that rare for millennials. I started to go through the young adults I know and to think of the problems they face and it seems to me that the young adults I know have many more problems and challenges than was the case for young adults when I was that age. This isn’t a scientific study, it is just based on the people that I know.

Once a week I visit a man who is less than 30 years old in a rehabilitation hospital. He was struck by Guillain-Barre syndrome. The nerve disease is very rare and most people make a full recovery, but recovery can take a year in some cases. This young man has been in the hospital since just after Christmas. At one point he was in the Intensive Care Unit for a week. His therapists expect that he will be in rehab until the end of April. He will be on restricted work for the rest of the year and can probably resume his regular work schedule at the end of this year or early next year. His rehab is hard work and he is often exhausted by mid afternoon. A year is a long time in his life. His daughter had her first birthday when he was in the hospital. A year is a long time in her life.

We know another young couple with one partner who is taking medication for chronic pain and experiencing near panic attacks due to stress.

Yesterday, I exchanged text messages with another friend in his thirties who is just beginning what will likely be a year-long job search. His current employment will end in the spring of 2020. He is a university professor with multiple advanced degrees and significant post-doctoral work under his belt. He is beloved by his students and is an excellent teacher. He is well published. But his field of research is highly dependent upon grants and the federal government in the US has been deeply cutting investments in scientific research. He is not the only PhD under 40 that I know who is facing possible unemployment or a major career change.

When I completed my graduate education, I had a job waiting. I have never been unemployed, even for a single week since. There has always been a job for me. I can’t imagine what it feels like to face a life that will likely involve multiple major changes in career. Statisticians say that most students graduating from college today will experience periods of unemployment and be forced to make major changes int heir careers.

Both of our adult children have had major career changes in their thirties.

We have a millennial in our congregation who is experiencing advanced cancer and the prognosis isn’t good. Her life is dominated by medical treatments and hospital stays. It isn’t at all what she expected just a few years ago.

When the topic of “millennial burnout” began to get press, I was skeptical. From one perspective, millennials have it much easier than was the case for us. In general they have had more disposable income, been able to purchase their first home earlier, earn higher salaries and have things pretty good in comparison to the way it seemed to us. When I look at the people that I know, however, I think that the challenges faced by millennials is significant.

Some of the pressures upon millennials are self-imposed. They have high expectations in terms of income and purchase. I know several young couples who have remodeled their kitchens to include high end appliances and custom cabinets and other features that go well beyond anything we’ve ever had. I see young adults with new vehicles at an age where we shared a vehicle and it was neither new nor reliable. Their homes are filled with the latest computer and multi-media entertainment systems.

They have incredibly high expectations of their work. They have all read or listened to podcasts about the financial independence movement. FIRE stands for “financial independence, retire early.” The goal is to accumulate assets that are 25 times your annual expenses by your mid thirties and then stop working at a regular job. Those who have achieved this goal spend their time working at the things they enjoy, managing their assets, and are able to travel and enjoy life without being bound by a normal work week. It works for some people, but it will never bee the lifestyle of the majority. Some young people see others who are able to accumulate such wealth and are saddened by the realities of their own lives. No one ever made me feel the need to retire in my thirties. I would have found the notion laughable.

Millennial burnout is real. Again, I don’t know the statistics, but I suspect that major mental health issues are at least as common if not more so than was the case for our generation. Life is tough and it is tough for young adults. And when you are young, there is no end in sight. Things are tough in different ways than they were for us, but they are still tough. Being a millennial is harder than it looks.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!