Several years ago, instead of getting up to go to my well-paid, secure job as a tenured college professor, I would lie in bed for hours, repeatedly watching the video to “Don’t Give Up,” Peter Gabriel’s duet with Kate Bush. “I am a man whose dreams have all deserted,” Gabriel sings, echoing my inner monologue. I tried to believe Bush’s compassionate refrain, “Don’t give up, ’cause you have friends,” but I just couldn’t. My first class was at 2 p.m.; I’d make it there barely on time and barely prepared, then go right back home. At night, I ate ice cream and drank malty, high-alcohol beer—often together, as a float. I gained 30 pounds.
The antidepressants my doctor prescribed didn’t help. My psychotherapist told me I didn’t have clinical depression. Eventually, I realized something different had happened, something that lacks an official diagnosis. I had burned out.
In a recent BuzzFeed essay, “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” Anne Helen Petersen gives a thorough account of how our society, especially in the past few decades, has ensured mass burnout by demanding more education, more debt, and more willingness to put work ahead of everything else. Petersen—who, full disclosure, is a friend who has cited my writing on burnout—coins the terms “errand paralysis” to describe her inability to perform the small, ordinary tasks we associate with functional adulthood. She makes a convincing case that, despite our society’s moralistic view of work, burnout is not the worker’s fault.
Petersen’s essay, which went viral, clearly resonated with young Americans. But by focusing on millennial burnout, Petersen understates the scope of the problem. About a quarter of all U.S. workers, of all ages, exhibit key