Burnout In Your Early 20s Is Real, No Matter What The Boomers Think
Krystal has been working full-time for less than two years, but she already knows how burnout feels. Her hands clench into claws and she gestures toward her neck as she describes the sensation. “Like a straitjacket,” the 23-year-old says. “I just… can’t. It’s no thoughts; it’s just blank.”
Since graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 2018, Krystal has been working internships and retail jobs, and she feels like she’s falling short. As a first-generation American, she explains, she’s supposed to be the success story who supports her family financially. “When I don’t reach those goals,” she tells Elite Daily, “it’s like, ‘Oh crap. Here’s the burnout.’”
In recent years, health experts have begun to warn of an epidemic of burnout, which the World Health Organization defines as exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficiency caused by chronic, unmanaged workplace stress. The phenomenon has been associated with millennials, but the American Psychological Association says Gen Z is on track to be the most stressed-out generation. Elite Daily polled 43 people ages 18 to 24, and found the majority were well acquainted with the dread and lack of motivation that comes from feeling overworked. After all, Gen Z takes more advanced placement classes and faces tougher odds in elite college acceptance than millennials. Now, they’re entering the post-school, pre-career adulting limbo memorialized in Girls and Reality Bites, only with more student debt and the very real possibility that they may never (ever) get to retire.
“In college, there was an immediate end date,” says Gabbie, 23, who works in advertising. “Being in the workforce, there is no end date.” She says that she would burn out in school — while studying for finals, for example — then relax once grades came in. Post-college, she feels like there are no opportunities to stop and catch her breath.
“Now, I’m just like, ‘Well, this is how my life’s going to be. Burnout for the next 40 years, let’s go,” Gabbie adds.
It’s common for people in their early 20s to approach work like a semester-long sprint, according to clinical psychologist and performance coach Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. “Anyone can hustle for a few days, a few weeks, a few months, maybe even a year or two,” Klapow says, but it’s not sustainable. At the same time, the absence of built-in rewards can be demoralizing. “If you pass your classes, you go on to the next year. In the business world, if you do X, Y, and Z tasks, you may not get a promotion,” he says.
Plus — let’s be honest — most first jobs are boring, especially compared to the intellectual explorations and experiments of school. “Going from learning about the world to, frankly, getting a paycheck” constitutes a major developmental transition, Klapow says. Many entry-level positions offer low pay and minimal autonomy — both of which just happen to be risk factors for burnout. “Even if it’s your dream job,” Klapow says, “what many [young people] find out is that dream job is still just a job.” Undergoing this professional adolescence amid the rise of the gig economy (where every job is an entry-level job) and “hustle culture” (where work is life) only adds to the looming dread.
For Krystal, who got a degree in media studies and now works at a boutique, the “straitjacket” feeling stems from “repetitiveness and not being challenged.” Busy times like the holiday shopping season feel like an accomplishment, but “what made me feel burned out was before and after,” she says. “Just having to do the same thing over again.”
What makes burnout different from run-of-the-mill stress is that it’s “all the time, every day, not just occasionally,” says Christina Maslach, Ph.D., a social psychologist and professor emerita at UC Berkeley. Unrelenting stress, she says, wears away at our ability to cope with the daily grind — which is now more like a 24/7 grind. According to Maslach, who has been studying burnout for over four decades, it’s become normal for employees to be “on” at all times. Your boss might not demand you come in on your day off, but if saying “no” will cost you a promotion or put you first in line for layoffs, do you really have a choice?
“At entry-level, because [higher-ups] know you’re so ambitious, they kind of take advantage of that,” says Gabbie. Older employees might have the professional clout to push back on employers’ expectations in a way Gen Z doesn’t feel they can yet.
“When you’re fresh [on the job] — first day, first year even — you want to do everything possible,” says Annie*, 24, who works in advertising. “I reached that [burned out] point very quickly because there were no boundaries.” Annie’s co-workers brag about working long hours on difficult client accounts, she says, but turnover on those accounts is high. Admitting you’re burned out, meanwhile, “kind of feels like you’re weak.”
It’s not unusual for burnout to be accompanied by shame, according to Maslach. But people in their early 20s — considered the most mental health-literate generation ever — say the stigma around burnout is surprisingly hard to shake. When Shayna, 22, was in high school, she would “get a little offended” when her mom suggested she might be burned out. Being called out made Shayna, who now works in digital media, want to work even harder, to push through. “I’d be like, ‘No, I can do it, leave me alone. I’ll get it done.’”
“There’s something in our society [that says] if you're not up to snuff, if you’re not as good as you should be ... then it’s your problem. And you need to fix it,” Maslach says. The multi-billion-dollar self-care industry offers Instagram-worthy bubble baths and meditation spaces that can make you feel better short-term but do nothing to address the causes of burnout. Self-care rituals also help people "cope better with higher and higher levels of stress and higher bars that are being imposed on you,” but Maslach warns, “at some point you have to say, ‘can we look at the bars and the stressors?’”
To that end, it’s worth remembering that health experts don’t define burnout as a mental disorder; it’s a dysfunctional relationship between a person and their job. Any solution must also address our working environment and culture — and will probably require legislation that protects workers from burnout-inducing practices. In the meantime, experts say, setting boundaries at work can help, though it’s a risky stand to take at the start of one’s career.
“What you may find is that you don’t advance very much,” Klapow says, “but at the same time, you may also find you have a much more fulfilled life.”
*Some names have been changed.
Designs by: Victoria Warnken and Kelsey Cadenas