Fast Company published an insightful article this week by Kelly Clay entitled “Why Millennial Women Are Burning Out.” The subhead referred to the fact that it wasn’t because they were becoming mothers. Shocking! In this time of endless conversations about work-life balance, that’s what we’re conditioned to assume. So why are these young women burning out?
Clay wrote that it’s mainly because of high expectations — both self-imposed as well as from their employers who demand 24/7 connectivity.
And there’s research behind the numbers. As Clay reports:
The trend of young women burning out by the age of 30 is very real and unfortunately common. A study by McKinsey shows that women account for 53% of corporate entry-level jobs, but women only hold 37% of mid-management roles. That number drops to 26% for vice presidents and senior managers, indicating a major gender disparity higher up the corporate ladder. As only 11% of women choose to leave the workplace permanently to have children, the other reason for this gap can be traced to high expectations that companies place on their employees in always-connected work environments.
This isn’t really news to anyone who’s been paying attention. And it certainly isn’t news to millennial women who are experiencing it first hand. And while I don’t doubt that the expectations from corporate America and its global counterparts are overwhelming for young women, I would argue that there are additional culprits worth mentioning.
Millennial women had to deal with two things growing up that my generation did not, which thrust these young women into adulthood and forced them to deal with a unique form of stress that started the burn-out process before they even set foot in those cool open-plan loft offices they all get to work in:
1. Transformation of high school from “the end of childhood” to “the beginning of adulthood.”
When I was in high school in the 80s, we were still kids. It is well-documented (and there are countless articles about it in The Huffington Post) that kids today are having an entirely different high school experience due to the unprecedented pressure they feel to make everything they do “college worthy.” And to figure out how the hell their college education will be paid for and what kind of suffocating debt they’re going to graduate with. The game has changed drastically, and because the rules — at least the ones that are clear — favor the extreme overachievers who consider down-time a waste of time, the result is stress levels that my peers and I could only imagine when all we really had to worry about was being “well-rounded” and making sure we didn’t skip our Princeton Review class to get stoned or go to our jobs at the record store. Sure, my peers and I wanted to get into college. And sure, we worked hard in school and collected extracurriculars like so many Benetton sweaters. But, please, don’t argue about it. It was different.
2. Proliferation of and obsession with social media.
True, there are a lot of wonderful things about social media. In fact, as soon as this article is published you can bet your mother’s BlackBerry I’m going to share it on Facebook (yes, I’m old), Twitter, and Instagram. But the downside of the Snapchat culture is clear. The constant social pressure to share, like, be liked, be validated, be followed, and create a life worth sharing is exhausting. Sure, it’s how Millennials grew up. It’s how they breathe. But still, it’s exhausting.
So now you have a young woman in her 20s. She has busted her ass to be the perfect college candidate/do well in college/get a good job. Throughout, she’s been dealing with the societal pressures of creating a social media presence among countless platforms/of keeping up with the Kardashians/of styling her dinner plate, all the time being socialized with the ideas (ideals?) that not only does she have to be a “good” mother (if she chooses to become a mother, and if she doesn’t she better come up with a good reason to tell the countless nosies who will ask), but she also has to “lean in” and have work-life balance and find a partner who will share the load and make sure she has enough “me” time so she doesn’t burn out.
It’s too late. She’s already burned out. When your path to burnout begins around the same time you get your period, do you ever really have a chance of hanging in for the long run? Until we rein in the pressure that’s going on in high school and until we rein in the pressure going on in those blinking/beeping/buzzing squares of joy/misery in our pockets, our young female workplace is screwed.
No wonder they’re leaving the workplace. But isn’t there the chance that by doing so they’ll create a new work culture? That their exodus doesn’t necessarily have to be described as shocking or disappointing because of the void it leaves in our unsustainable corporate framework? That perhaps it could be described as exciting and welcome because of the new normal it could lead to?
Just as long as that doesn’t put more pressure on them.
Susie Orman Schnall is a writer and author who lives in New York with her husband and three young boys. Her award-winning debut novel On Grace (SparkPress 2014) is about fidelity, friendship, and finding yourself at 40. Her second novel, The Balance Project: A Novel (SparkPress 2015), is about work-life balance and is inspired by her popular interview series The Balance Project. Visit Susie’s website for more information.
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