For years, narratives about members of Gen Z – born from the late-90s to the early 2010s – centered on how they’re politically active, socially conscious and far more “together” and financially responsible than the Millennials before them. But we’re starting to hear another story: Gen Z are reportedly feeling intense fatigue and spiritual exhaustion, even as they just begin to take on careers and adult responsibilities. So what does it say if the youngest adults are feeling burnt out already – and will the kids be alright?
Gen Z is just getting started with adult life. So why are they already burnt out?
For years, narratives about members of Gen Z – born from the late-90s to the early 2010s – centered on how they’re politically active, socially conscious and far more “together” and financially responsible than the Millennials before them. But we’re starting to hear another story: Gen Z are reportedly feeling intense fatigue and spiritual exhaustion, even as they just begin to take on careers and adult responsibilities.
Amber Flowers: “Why do I feel so burnt out all the time when I also feel like I’m doing absolutely f—— nothing with my life?”
These days it seems like people of all ages are exhausted and demoralized by years of the COVID-19 pandemic, staggering inflation and cost of living rises, the isolation of work from home culture, an ever more polarized and angry political environment, escalating violence, and an endless stream of bad news. And some stats suggest Gen Z’s burnout is particularly bad. So what does it say if the youngest adults are feeling burnt out already – and will the kids be alright?
Alyssa (@earthangel3344): “My mental health shouldn’t have to plummet in order to just…survive and pay bills.”
Burnt Out at Work - Starting Your Career in the “Anti-Work” Era
Anti-work sentiment is rising, especially among Gen Z. Whether the problem is the long hours and poor conditions of blue-collar jobs, or the disconnect of remote white-collar jobs that lack community and purpose, more and more young people are unenthused about the future of work.
Jarek Lewis: “98% of the United States population has been brainwashed into believing that it’s normal to give up 5 out of every 7 days of your week just to make someone else rich for 40, 50 years doing something you don’t actually enjoy.”
A Deloitte survey found that 40% of Gen Z respondents “said they’d like to leave their jobs in two years” and “Nearly half… — 46% of those surveyed — said that they’re stressed all or most of the time.” According to the BBC, a 2022 Asana survey also found “more Gen Z workers were reporting feelings of burnout than other age groups.”
Gen Z are definitely the loudest about work burnout, especially online. Anti-work sentiment is inspiring a lot of online venting and viral humor, like TikToker Mia Dio’s “Russian sugar baby” series.
Mia Dio: “My life is so difficult sometimes. When sugar daddy is at work, he expects me to walk the dogs.”
It’s not just about wanting to work less; Gen Z aren’t necessarily happy with the way workplace culture is evolving. According to Business Insider, less than a quarter of Gen Z want to work from home full-time (the lowest of any working generation). More than 40% worry they’ll miss out on networking and community.
So with the fading of hustle culture and the rise of the anti-work movement, what is actually motivating Gen Zers as they select long-term careers? There is a financially conservative streak in many Gen Zers, borne from the desire to save money and attain the stability they saw many Millennials fail to achieve. As USC junior Maya Tribitt told Business Insider, “A lot of the fear people my age have about getting jobs right out of college have come from the horror stories of people 10 years older than us.” And over the course of the pandemic, we saw how these fears encouraged Gen Z to be more frugal, start saving early, and seek jobs with good benefits.
Mary Esposito: “Adulting is already gonna be a hard job, so go ahead and set future-you up for success with these tips to build your credit score.”
But Gen Z’s fiscal pragmatism isn’t enough to save them from a financially uncertain future. The World Bank estimates that Gen Z could lose $10 trillion in life-cycle earnings because of the pandemic. And despite investing earlier, they’re set to earn less on their returns. In many ways, the pandemic is affecting Gen Z similarly to how the 2008 housing crisis affected Millennials. And the skyrocketing cost of homes – up 34% over the pandemic, while wages are not rising at the same level – might make homeownership at least as unattainable for Gen Z as it’s been for Millenials, if not more.
Moreover, for most, fiscal pragmatism isn’t going to be enough to sustain deeper career motivation over decades. Another big part of the Gen Z identity is supposedly that they’re more idealistic and authentic – less willing to compromise than millennials were. So how is that panning out for them?
Actually, evidence suggests Gen Z is demanding more from corporations than previous generations have, setting new expectations for diversity, company culture, wellness and mental health, and corporate ethos. According to Deloitte, Gen Z wants to see that the companies they’re working for are demonstrating a commitment to social change, so this might push companies to act more meaningfully on their broadcasted values as Gen Z becomes an increasingly larger portion of the workforce.
Alyssa (@earthangel3344): “We don’t want to do work that exploits us or destroys the planet. The work we want to do is community building.”
And for all their financial woes breeding feelings of hopelessness, there are some positive shifts in the way we view work that could change this whole picture for Gen Z. The pandemic has made many companies more open to a variety of more flexible work arrangements, and the 5 day workweek or 9-5 workday are starting to be questioned even in the hustle-obsessed US. Gen Zers increasingly want to pursue non-traditional career paths.
While influencing isn’t the most stable career choice, earning a living as a social media creator is an appealing, and viable, possibility for many people today. According to Advertising Week, “A 2018 study showed that becoming a social media star was the fourth most popular career aspiration for Gen Z, ranking well above actor or pop star…many young people learn how to develop and edit content and amass large followings before they even think about applying to college.”
Emma Chamberlain: “They’ll do online school, they’ll do other options because they want to spend more time doing youtube.”
Many young people are re-evaluating if the exponentially rising price tag of college is worth it for career payoffs.
Overall, since the pandemic hit, the US economy saw a huge increase in freelance workers and entrepreneurs. And Gen Z are the most entrepreneurially minded generation ever; 54% want to start their own company. So Gen Z’s superpower in shaping the future of their work may be continuing to not compromise, and finding the agency to determine their own paths.
Callum Church: “It’s okay to get burned out. You know, it is what it is. It’s just a signal to you that maybe you need to switch it up a bit.”
Burnt Out About Politics
Gen Z isn’t only burnt out because of work and finances – they’re also starting to feel burnt out politically. Gen Z are known as a politically empowered, activist generation who stand up for causes like climate change and gun control, and tend to have an open-minded approach to issues of identity, race, and sexuality. Famous figures like Greta Thunberg and Amanda Gorman have helped cement Gen Z’s place as role models for activism and social change.
Amanda Gorman: “When day comes we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid.”
But burnout is coming from the fact that Gen Z activism and protests aren’t noticeably impacting the political decisions of the much older people in charge. Despite countless protests, demonstrations, and online campaigns, it still seems like nothing is changing.
Or worse, we’re moving backwards – like with the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and its rulings on gun control and climate change. And for young people, climate change doesn’t feel like some distant worry but a looming, urgent threat; in the Deloitte survey, “climate change was the second top concern among … Gen Zers”
Jerome Foster II: “Myself and my generation has really been-felt like a sense of urgency because we have not had actions seen to stop the climate crisis.”
In Gen Z’s case, their very youth can be a barrier to effecting change. While young people are protesting, advocating, and spreading awareness, not many actually have the formal institutional power to make their goals a reality. Many Gen Zers aren’t legally eligible to hold political office yet: on the federal level, state senators must be over 35, and representatives must be older than 25. With conservative agendas ever-more overrepresented in Congress compared to their population of voters, and democratic politicians slow-moving or seemingly unable to drive progressive change, Gen Z’s voices aren’t being heard.
How to Beat the Burnout
As daunting as it feels, burnout isn’t permanent – and there are ways to counter it.
One big way is to take a break from your screens.
Michelle Gia: “Taking time away from these socials has really made me less accustomed to feeling a certain way because someone else says so, and overall it’s just made me a lot more happy and content with who I am.”
Besides the fact that we know social media negatively affects mental health, constantly being on your phone also makes it more difficult to disconnect from work during non-working hours. Spending more time offline and setting clear work/life boundaries can help mitigate the burnout of feeling like you’re always on-call. Devoting attention to exercise, sleep, and mindfulness are important antidotes and ways of taking care of yourself for the long-term.
Zahra Imtiaz: ”Picking up a book first thing in the morning not only helps me wake up inspired and excited to start my day but it also stimulates my mind enough for me not to be tempted to go on social media.”
Similarly, it’s crucial to prioritize in-person activities, both personally and professionally. While remote work has certain benefits, it can also make it hard to form deep relationships with coworkers, which make work more enjoyable and socially fulfilling.
In the next few years, Gen Z is also going to gain workplace capital – and as they do so, can do more to change the way we view and practice work. By continuing to demand more from the companies they work for, both in terms of social commitments and work-life balance, Gen Z can help create new standards for work which are better for our mental health and wellbeing. Already, Gen Z is showing greater willingness to pivot careers or change jobs. While it’s riskier for individual stability, Gen Z is less willing to settle – and this will push companies to do better.
Kelsey McFarland: “60% of Gen Z says mental health support is a key factor in deciding to choose an employer or stay with an employer.”
Finally, while burnout from lack of political change and the seemingly hopeless state of the world is more than understandable, it’s important to remember that our society can change. But it will require Gen Z’ers to take an active role in politics, run for office when they come of age, and remain committed in as many concrete ways as possible to protecting and ensuring change for everyone.
Burnout is a wake-up call, announcing to us that change is needed. Gen Z is still at the beginning of the road, so if you are feeling burnt out now, it’s vital to take stock, evaluate, and change course. This is the time to set yourself up for the long-term, to find a purpose that can motivate you over years –or if that sounds too daunting, to start by making sure that where you are at least feels right for right now.
It’s important to frequently unplug, read critically, know when you’re being bombarded with fear-mongering, and focus on leading fulfilling lives with friends, family and careers you enjoy. Gen Z has already shown a lot of potential to effect change, so it’s crucial to hold onto that vision and drive, even as the so-called “real world” tries to tell you it’s impossible.
Ziad Ahmed: “With the click of a button we could start a movement… Any of us can have a voice and speak up and take action”
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