I finally clicked on my free November audible listen this last week, The Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Peterson. It’s only an hour and forty-seven minutes—basically a longer form of viral BuzzFeed article she wrote at the beginning of the year. Millennial Burnout, she says, is “a chronic state of stress and exhaustion that’s become the base temperature for young people today.”
She briefly interviews five different people in different kinds of jobs in different parts of the country because burnout manifests itself differently based on where you live. I say five different jobs, but they sounded similar—a pastor, a social worker, an editor for Bitch magazine, an aspiring media person, and a non-profit working person who explained, without irony, that she began her educational life as a women’s study major which she financed with a personal, private loan, but then course corrected to a major in media or communication or something. There were no contractors or anything like that, which, one of them remarked, is not the solution. His grandma wanted him to go into trade, “because there are so many untapped jobs,” but how is social work not his trade, he wanted to know.
All five of them were drowning student loan debt, exhausted by the technologies that make them available to their places of work all the time, worn out by guilt, and depressed that they can expect never to make the financial gains their parents did.
The pastor, of course, was particularly interesting. He went in for an expensive Duke divinity degree, hoping to become the next Rob Bell, and burnt out trying to work in a more traditional kind of church, frustrated that his older congregation, who desperately wanted “younger people” to come in, were nevertheless unwilling to take any of his suggestions and advice seriously. If you want to reach the millennial generation, he said, you have to radically reorient how you think of church. He went on to found what he is calling Jubilee Church, or, the anti-burnout church, where they address head on the exhaustion of millennials.
At the very end, Peterson asked them each what they do about their burnout. What do you do to survive your life? she asked. The social worker plays music which lets him lose himself for a couple of hours a day. The non-profit person has been trying to pay attention to her body. When she’s hungry and tired, she stops and realizes that the work day is over and so goes home instead of working into the night. The editor of Bitch magazine goes for a walk with her mom as often as she can. The pastor has realized that in his church, the last thing millennials want to do is the kind of work they’re already doing to survive. It’s not fair to ask them to build a church website for free, or update the church’s social media presence. They’d rather fold bulletins or sweep the floor—anything to get away from the slow burn gig economy that is ruining their lives.
All of them, no doubt, would not be comforted by church this morning, if they happened to go there—probably especially not the pastor. “But know this,” admonishes Jesus in this morning’s gospel, “that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” – Mat 24:43-44 In this way the new church year slips into the old, dying, secular year almost unnoticed. Black Friday gives way to Cyber Monday and the worries and stresses of the holiday season are on full display. If ever there was a moment to burn out, this would be it.
But instead of burning out, wandering away to another job and a less stressful kind of life, Jesus thinks that we all ought to pry open our eyes another inch, staying awake past the point when other people would be climbing into bed, as if danger is lurking, as if some malign force was threatening at the door. “Because you don’t know the day or the hour,” he says, as if to increase the stress of the moment. Judgment surely looms. You should pay attention and not fall asleep.
The trouble with every generation is that our expectations are so misaligned. The burnout generation is a study in the expectation of one kind of life—of being expensively prepared for a society that doesn’t exist anymore, if it ever did—and the horrible disappointment of seeing it slip out of your fingers. The American expectation that hard work will get you ahead worked for a hundred years or so. Get an education, work hard, keep your head down, buy a house. American parenting centered around this expectation. If I work hard, I will spare my child my own pain and suffering. I just want my child to be able to go to college and settle down, sure of a 401k and two cars in the garage. Instead, the global market place and shifting cultural values meant that people who thought they would enjoy one set of circumstances are living very differently, are beset by uncertainty—financial and otherwise—and are stressed as a result.
It is a human problem. We want to know that we’re going to be ok here and now, that there won’t be coal in the stocking this year, that hard work always pay off. We expectantly hope to avoid suffering, to experience happiness. Whereas, Jesus walks down the hard dusty road to the cross and says, you should be expecting judgement, you should sit up at night worried about your immortal soul.
Not surprisingly, this isn’t a very appealing message—for any age, his nor ours. Where the church has really grown and thrived on cultural acceptance, this part of the gospel has never been on full display. Chapter 24 of Matthew’s gospel ends with the charming words, “weeping and gnashing of teeth”–always a crowd pleasing kind of message.
The people who walked in darkness in Jesus’ day wanted a societal fix. They wanted Jesus to come and defeat their temporal enemies. They wanted their taxes to be less and the money in the bank to be more. They hated the uncertainty, the terror of Rome looming over them every single day. They easily saw everything that was wrong about their economy and politics.
What they didn’t see—and we never do—is that God isn’t in the business of fixing our social structures until we’re perfectly satisfied with them. He isn’t prepared to relieve our burnout, or make the money go up and the stress go down. What he wants us to do is take a gander at the dark bitterness inside the heart and mind. It’s not that the gig-economy is such a disappointment, it’s that you and I are sinners, that we are going to die.
Blessed is the servant, says Jesus, who is ready when the Master comes, who has set the household in order, who has looked at the truth in the face and been willing to properly align his expectations with those of reality. It’s painful in the short term—which might be a whole lifetime of suffering and disappointment—but the pay off is eternity with a God who is not aloof, who knows whereof we are made, who took onto himself our disappointments and failures.
That God is there, reaching out his hands for anyone who will come and lay down his burdens, her phone, his hopes, her mindfulness. He has always been there, for every generation. But watch, because he is coming back. It could be any moment.