by Jill Lepore published in The New Yorker
Read original on The New Yorker's website
Today, burnout is associated with the modern profe...Show description
Posted 670 days ago
Around the world, three out of five workers say they’re burned out. A 2020 U.S. study put that figure at three in four
Those are really high numbers, but not surprising when I look at my coworkers and friends and how they think about their jobs. On one side, we want to blame the modern era and our professional jobs for this phenomena, but on the other side, it's hard to believe we are somehow in a unique moment in human history. As Lepore writes, "people who write about burnout tend to argue that it exists everywhere and has existed forever, even if, somehow, it's always getting worse."
Part of me thinks that the burnout we feel is a replacement for the real problems that people faced in the past. In our comfy, cozy, white professional lives in the US, our worst problems are typically mental ones. I say this not to infantalize people's real problems, but those that are associated with burnout. Those struggling with violence, domestic abuse, poverty, etc. are not likely to categorize their problems as burnout, but simply real problems.
This complacency, without huge problems that interrupt the shorter lives of the past, I think leads us to focus on fake issues. Writers like Teju Cole hate the label "first-world problems" because it makes it seem that those in developing countries don't have these same trivial issues in their life, that their problems are always more serious. But I would label burnout in that category; people burn themselves out because they have no context for what true despair and sadness really is to contextualize their problems. This is not targeted at doctors, nurses, firefighters, etc. as Lepore mentions, they have an entirely different view into life. But they are not the people who are the most vocal about burnout (cough cough "yuppies" as Lepore writes).
But weirdly, if you don't go through burnout, the modern professional would probably scoff at you. As Lepore cites:
Sure, there were skeptics. “The new IN thing is ‘burnout,’ ” a Times-Picayune columnist wrote. “And if you don’t come down with it, possibly you’re a bum.”
That is very, very true. People are building this hold for themselves and labelling it as burnout to try and justify the fragility of their own lives. Their lives are difficult because they work so hard they "burned-out." That's how important they are in their job. As Lepore seems to indicate, this is all kind of ridiculous, and it really has to do with the meaninfulness of our jobs and lives. Reduced unions, less bargaining power, menial jobs seeking merely profit, are elements of "late stage capitalism" that highten our awareness of burnout. She rejects technocratic solutions to it like making "a list of coping strategies." The issue is a much deeper, cultural one that we need to solve by building a better government, economy, and society.