Is There Any Solution To Millennial Burnout?

Photo: Courtesy of Ingalls Photo.
In a recent New York Times piece titled “A Toxic Workplace,” writer and New America Foundation president Anne-Marie Slaughter outlines just how bad things are for U.S. workers. Over the course of 2,000 words, the author of Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family writes about how employees at all levels — from “hotel housekeepers to surgeons” — are struggling with stress and exhaustion and anxiety attacks. She explains how women, even the most ambitious, are being forced out of jobs because of an antiquated work structure. She suggests that only the young and healthy and relatively wealthy can succeed. The result of this cutthroat, unfeeling environment, she concludes, is that “we hemorrhage talent and hollow out our society.”

The takeaway from Slaughter’s article could easily be: “We’re all doomed.” But it isn’t. It’s a call to arms. In 2015, millennials became the largest generation in the U.S. workforce. It’s time to make our presence known.

We’ve grown up in an entirely different world from our parents. Many of us don’t come from traditional, Mad Men-esque families, with a father who worked and a mother who kept house. We were latchkey kids who rode the bus, stayed home alone on sick days with cans of Campbell’s soup and Judge Judy to care for us. Both our parents contributed to the household income and struggled to juggle it all with varying degrees of success. We understood from an early age the near impossibility of achieving a work-life balance, and that is one of the many reasons we look at work very differently than our parents.

The other reason is the Great Recession. So many of us graduated from college and entered the working world during a time of great economic instability. But when we couldn’t find jobs in traditional industries, we created our own companies. And look at what we’ve built: Facebook, Airbnb, Instagram, and Theranos.

We understood from an early age the near impossibility of achieving a work-life balance.

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These experiences make us unique from other generations. And they make us formidable agents of change. Think about the success we’ve already had making a difference in our world. As a teenager, I remember giving a speech arguing in favor of gay marriage. This summer, I sat at my desk and cried tears of joy when the U.S. Supreme Court made it legal across all 50 states. Millennials helped make that sea change a reality in less than 20 years.

Now it’s time to turn that energy to another crucial issue: the workplace. Slaughter outlines the many things that need to change in order for employees to have better lives. “We need some combination of the following,” she writes:

[H]igh-quality and affordable child care and elder care; paid family and medical leave for women and men; a right to request part-time or flexible work; investment in early education comparable to our investment in elementary and secondary education; comprehensive job protection for pregnant workers; higher wages and training for paid caregivers; community support structures to allow elders to live at home longer; and reform of elementary and secondary school schedules to meet the needs of a digital rather than an agricultural economy.

It seems like a daunting list, but Slaughter points out that all of this is achievable. There are policy makers and corporations alike already supporting new programs that will make this a reality.

President Obama’s administration is working to expand access to high-quality, affordable child care. Paid-family leave is certain to be a high-profile issue for 2016 presidential candidates, with New Jersey, California, and Rhode Island already offering some form of paid-family leave. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced this week a plan to teach computer science to all public school students at all levels. And the city of Los Angeles will raise minimum wage to $15 per hour over the next five years.

But there is also desperate need for improvement. Many low-income workers still struggle with unpredictable work schedules, which makes it nearly impossible for them to plan their lives. In 2013, 5,342 pregnancy discrimination suits were filed in the U.S., up considerably since the late 1990s. Marissa Mayer made headlines when she ended Yahoo’s work-from-home policy, and even in the digital age when telecommuting is so easy, many corporations still don’t encourage this flexibility. One in four new mothers has to return to work just two weeks after giving birth. Only 13% of men have access to paid-paternity leave, and similarly only 12% of private sector workers have access to paid-family leave should they need to care for a sick parent, or spouse, or sibling.

This isn’t a women’s issue, either, Slaughter argues:

Bad work culture is everyone’s problem, for men just as much as for women. It’s a problem for working parents, not just working mothers. For working children who need time to take care of their own parents, not just working daughters. For anyone who does not have the luxury of a full-time lead parent or caregiver at home.

This isn’t a women’s issue.

It’s daunting, but it’s up to millennials to fix this. We are an incredibly philanthropic and motivated generation. Study after study argues we care more about work-life balance than our parents did; it’s less about money and more about having fulfilling careers. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could have these dream jobs and not make the same sacrifices as the Boomers and Generation X?

So where do we even begin? Pick a topic and start talking about it. Below is a list of organizations working to making seismic changes in our workplace culture. You can also make a difference just by advocating change at your own office. Educate yourself about the paid-leave benefits your company offers well before you need them. Join office committees that focus on employee wellness and make the argument for instituting more flexible policies. Make your voice heard.

Slaughter is right: The working world is toxic. But never have we been in a better place to fix that. Millennials are 75-million strong. We are here to disrupt the working world— not so it’s better for our children, but so it’s better for us, right now.

Motivated to make a difference? The following organizations are working to make a difference in the areas that Slaughter argues are essential improving our working lives:

Family Values @ Work

National Advocates For Pregnant Women

Code.org

XQ: The Super School Project

Girls Who Code

Forward Together

MomsRising

ThirdPath Institute

FlexWork Global

American Health Care Association
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