COMMENT: The generation that normalized burnout

·6 min read
Aerial top view of people walking on a street while using their smartphones. (Photo: Getty Images)
Aerial top view of people walking on a street while using their smartphones. (Photo: Getty Images)

I was at my most workaholic stage when I was working as a TV producer and writer in my mid-20s, or from 24 to 27. The work itself was hard as it is already, but I was also naturally a go-getter, a hard-grinder, a career-obsessed millennial, so, just like everybody else around me, I made the work a lot harder for me. If it felt easy, I would press “2,” like what we do in an electric fan. If it were still easy, I would press “3” this time. That is what feels right – when we are on “3.”

For instance, I would write my script in the early mornings until, say, 4:00 a.m., then I would take a nap, wake up at 5:00 a.m., and leave for a shoot at 6:00 a.m. Embarrassingly – although I am certain that many other people my age are also guilty – I would take pride in it by sharing it on Instagram Stories, with the caption “Sleep is for the weak,” or something to that effect.

I was proud to be sleepless, like it was my brand or my lifestyle. Like, WTH?

But I am not alone, and I got to prove this when I noticed a similar trend in the stories shared on the Filipino Facebook group page “Home Buddies,” a social community of home enthusiasts that has rapidly grown during the pandemic (the page now has 2.4 million members). One member shared about how she juggled her full-time job and her online business to be able to buy her dream home. Another member said that all his restless days and sleepless nights and all the tears and sweats that he shed were worth it – and why wouldn’t they be when he’s finally gotten his dream studio unit in a posh, high-rise condo?

Rear view of young woman exploring city streets at night. (Photo: Getty Images)
Rear view of young woman exploring city streets at night. (Photo: Getty Images)

While it was all inspiring, I could not help but ask: I juggled multiple jobs, too, and I had my fair share of restless days and sleepless nights and of the shedding of tears and sweats that they were talking about as well, but how come I still have not gotten my dream house yet? This is the same question that many people in the comments section also raised. Aren’t we working hard enough? The millennials know for sure that this question is a trigger for us to reflect on our very existence; if we are not working hard enough, then why are we here at all?

So, we work, and work, and work, and work even more, work like there is no tomorrow, work like what we do is crucial to world peace, work like everybody’s life depended on it. Work, work, work. That is all we must do: work.

This is the result of the hustle culture in which, according to a report by the New York Times in 2019, several businesses and enterprises had rebranded a person's career or work to become their identity or lifestyle. "In the new work culture, enduring or even merely liking one’s job is not enough. Workers should love what they do, and then promote that love on social media, thus fusing their identities to that of their employers," says Times writer Erin Griffith. After all, why else would big brands like Nike keep reminding us to “Just do it”, or why else would Ford always say “Go further”?

But obviously, this “rebranding” benefited nobody but the business leaders, who were all probably sitting comfortably in their air-conditioned offices while watching their people working their asses off and thinking that they were “living the dream” when, in reality, they were manipulated to work harder than they’re supposed to. Griffith also pointed out that businesses’ profit gains have skyrocketed and numbers have been achieved because of this hustle culture, but employees’ wage growth has remained stagnant for years.

High angle view of person wearing canvas shoes against rusty weathered street. (Photo: Getty Images)
High angle view of person wearing canvas shoes against rusty weathered street. (Photo: Getty Images)

In short, we, the hustling poor people, haven’t really gained that much.

Working hard is not even the hard part – it is not working hard enough that is the hard part. For the overworked millennials, doing nonwork-related activities can feel like we are getting sidetracked, or we are not being fully committed to our career goals – and we are not even talking yet about the low-effort and low-reward tasks that we should be doing but we refuse to, simply because they are nonwork-related. For instance, I have long been meaning to apply for a driver’s license and for the national ID, to buy new highlighters, to have my complete vaccination card laminated, to order new bedsheets, and to buy my dog a new collar, among others, but I have not yet. In my mind, nonwork-related activities are filed under “DO LATER, OR SOON, OR WHENEVER POSSIBLE,” because picking them up from the file would also mean lost time for work. How did we come to the point when we would feel guilty if we are getting out of work?

I am now 29. I may not be as career-obsessed as I was a few years back (I have realized that overworking does not always result in success – and “success” in toxic Filipino mindset means “getting rich, finance-wise” – although it certainly helps me get through the day, at the very least), but I am not yet fully relaxed, either. I admit I feel disoriented every time my weekends become do-nothing days, so I took freelance writing jobs so that I would still have work to do in my supposedly free time (“What free time? I can’t have free time! I have to ‘Just do it’ and ‘Go further!’”).

That’s what felt normal, and that’s the result of how businesses and enterprises have been glorifying the hustle culture. I simply became one of the victims.

I try to think of this phenomenon and assess how it has affected the millennial generation. Can we say that it has given us burnout? Maybe. But as I dive even deeper, I also realize that, no, burnout is not the endpoint of our hustle culture, but our normal, our standard, our base point.

Everybody is burned out because everybody right from the start has been programmed to be overworking, to be striving hard, to be grinding-now-shining-later – burnout has simply become normal. A Gallup report in 2020 showed that the percentage of engaged workers (or "those who are highly involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace") reached 38%, which is the highest it has been since Gallup began tracking the metric in 2000. But 76% of employees also experience burnout on the job "sometimes," while 28% say they are burned out "very often" or "always" at work.

So, we must take a step back and reassess how we’ll continue moving forward. Are we going to continue admiring this hustle culture, just like how the corporate overlords are manipulating us to do so? Or are we going to slow down a bit — or just enough work that our mind and body are physically designed to handle?

After all, an electric fan that is on “2” has lesser risks of overheating than that is always on “3.” At the end of the day, it still gets the job done just as is expected of it, right?

Juju Z. Baluyot is a Manila-based writer who has written mostly news features, in-depth special reports, and opinion-editorial pieces for a wide range of publications in the Philippines. The views expressed are his own.

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