jill lepore on “burnout”

One of the enduring perks to reading The New Yorker in hardcopy rather than digital is getting to underline and annotate the shit out of Jill Lepore’s reporting, hers and Gopnick’s being my two favorite in-house bylines of a given issue, and while I mostly got to know Lepore’s voice from her “Talk of the Town” pieces, brief topical 500-word articles at the front of the magazine, she wrote an article last week that ran about twenty pages into the issue, called “It’s Just Too Much,” about the phenomenon of professional burnout.

“Around the world,” Lepore writes, “three out of five workers say they’re burned out. A 2020 U.S. study put that figure at three in four.”

She then invokes how millennials (my generation) have adopted the label of Burnout Generation–and I get a sense that, among the millennials who say it of themselves, it’s being invoked as a kind of badge, like the reason we’re so tired is because we’re wizened and weary of Boomer iniquities and failures, whereas when Boomers and Gen Xers refer to us as the Burnout Generation they’re being condescending or they’ve got their tongue in their cheek. 

“If burnout is universal and eternal,” Lepore says, “it’s meaningless. If everyone is burned out, and always has been, burnout is just…the hell of life.”

The term “burnout,” which is described by the International Classification of Diseases as an “occupational phenomenon” rather than a medical ailment, popped up in the 1970s, and appears to’ve been invoked largely in reference to Vietnam veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Reminds me: Franz Kafka worked for an insurance agency and there was an interesting passage, in the first of his three-volume biography by Reiner Stach, about how PTSD was manifesting in soldiers coming back from the first World War. The ailment had no name at the time and so nobody knew quite how to handle these emotionally shattered men who came back talking about a war with machines (this being their first encounter with tanks, machineguns, airplanes) and poison gas and horrible illnesses in the trenches. I’m no student of history just yet but, from what I’ve gleaned, I’m guessing a close inventory of 20th century conflicts would find WWI right near the top in terms of horror.


In the middle of Lepore’s article she quotes a philosopher named Byung-Chul Han about how burnout is largely the product of a capitalist society that tells everyone they can accomplish everything and that work, on a job and on oneself, is a virtue

It is, he says, “The sickness of a society that suffers from excessive positivity.”

Sounds about right. 

The personal note:

Most of my own stress comes from a dread of how little I’m getting done in terms of writing and reading even though, when I level with myself and take an even halfway sympathetic stance, I can admit that I do get a pretty good deal of it done.

I’m lucky enough to have the time. The resources to walk fifteen minutes to a coffee shop each morning and buy a coffee and write for two hours and walk home and work.

But I also look with despair at the condition of my bedroom and car, neither of which do I ever seem to have the time to clean, and also I wonder at my bartending job, which I like very much, but about which I feel some deep-rooted sense of lacking. Like I’m wasting away there, albeit blissfully. 

I feel, you could say, a bit like I’m rottening.

“Rottening.” I recorded a podcast last year about a former colleague, named Reggie, who thought very highly of himself and was always voicing his bitterness at the fact that, in some way or other, the world was constantly refusing to acknowledge his greatness. There was always a villain keeping him down. The biggest villain of them all, as he was prone to tell us and tell us, was the high school baseball coach who sabotaged his all-but-guaranteed future as an MLB superstar when he (the coach) neglected to fill out some scholarship form. 

From “I Would Like to Introduce You to My Burnout,” a remarkable exhibit and written piece by Vendula Knopová

Reggie would rock back and forth in his swivel chair with a tense contemplative look, like a man of 80 on a porch with his life mostly behind him, and every now and then he’d glance at me across the room and say, “I feel like I’m rottening in this job.”

Reggie’s a pastor so I figure there’s a chance the word “rottening” appears in the Bible and he wasn’t just mispronouncing it. 

Lepore points out in her article that burnout is felt most pointedly in caretaking professions. Teaching and nursing and social work specifically. “Taking care of vulnerable people and witnessing their anguish exacts an enormous toll and produces its own suffering.”

And that, I think, is the most vivid idea I’ll carry away from the article. Especially cuz I know it’s part of President Biden’s agenda to funnel $700 billion into the caretaking workforce, offering benefits for the people who hold such positions; also, it calls to mind a lot of what Elizabeth Warren was saying in a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show about the cost of child care.

When I worked at The Big Easy last year, a steakhouse in Brickel City Centre that closed its doors during the pandemic, I had a colleague named Amanda who was in her forties, a struggling painter, one of these people who’s so incredibly kind you wonder if it’s a huge prank. But it’s not.

Amanda was a single mom with two kids who occasionally sold a nature-themed painting for fifty or sixty bucks but mostly subsisted on her $70-250/day job as a server. Her childcare, on weekends, cost $20 per hour, per kid. 

So she was paying $40/hr for childcare. 

During a six-hour shift, plus an hour commute, she was paying about $300 so that she could go to work and lose money. 

Amanda was burned out. 

But, as Warren illustrates, the woman taking care of her two kids was probably burned out too.

That life is rough, is I guess the take-away here, and that I feel weird ever citing my own burnout, if ever I should feel it, when I know that, by comparison with seemingly everyone, I’ve got it pretty easy. 

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