An anonymous Manhattan lawyer tells us in Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener of a perplexing turning point in the short story, where Bartleby one day stops following orders and instead responds: “I would prefer not to.” The action is unconscionable, both disobeying orders but also having no clear prompt or reasoning for the sudden change of heart. The phrase has become famous and, in the modern way, sloganised. A friend of mine has it on a tote bag and T-shirt. It can be found in many saleable formats for millennials.
In many ways it characterises the millennial condition, as a viral Buzzfeed essay set out this week: those born between the early 1980s and 2000s are beset by “errand paralysis”, its author Anne Helen Petersen claims. The line between work and life is so blurred that for millennials, the idea of a work-life balance has never been an aspiration, let alone a reality.
Your entire life is an extension of you as a brand, a marketable concept that extends far beyond the quality of the work you put in at the office, or what you write in emails and on the page. Your Instagram photos must show you as fun and cultured enough to maintain interest but not drunk enough to appear a lout; your Twitter should show your connection to current affairs but not alienate people of a slightly different political persuasion, and show your pithy sayings have garnered enough of a following to show you’re a somebody.
Our emails follow us home and our social media footprint is with us 24/7, and yet still millennials are struggling with basic chores. The term “adulting” is common parlance – personally I find it loathsome, conjuring up deliberate infantilisation. It is also a particularly middle-class preoccupation; safety nets are there for some and not others.
But the essay hit a nerve because work has filled all corners of millennial life, and there is no hope for your own life outside of work because social media has become another arm of the surveillance state. Any job you apply for, your employer will look at your Twitter, Instagram, Facebook presence if they can, and anything they can trawl through on Google. Even if you do get hired, you’ll be monitored outside work too. As Malcolm Harris writes in his book, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, young people have been primed to be employable almost from birth – not just in the classroom, but in the playground, social clubs and even friendship circles at schools.
You can characterise it as a generational issue, when really it is one of capitalism. With each shift in technology, employers and big corporations swiftly worked out how each new website, app, or function could serve them. If it makes you depressed, they can monetise that too: Instagram, Facebook and public transport are full of adverts for new apps that let you see a doctor privately, or book online therapy courses and virtual doctors’ appointments if you’re too busy to see your family doctor, or can’t get the time off work.
Our governments help them too: with increasingly lax rules on employment, and trade unions finding hostile laws passed to try to defang workers’ rights, it’s harder than ever to fight back. If you’re paid very little, and don’t know when you’ll be paid, it makes it very difficult to subscribe to your monthly union subscription rates. Our labour is carved up into ever smaller units, leaving us with little emotional connection to our work and no control over our working lives. We pay more for our rent than in living memory and, without family help, have no hope of ever owning a home. My father died in debt; I struggle to pay the billsand recently had to carry on working through two days in hospital after a life-threatening seizure. My family at least had sick pay and permanent contracts, even though I’ve apparently risen several social classes above them. For my generation, we’re working harder than ever, for less and less.
What’s the outcome? A generation that absolutely detests the status quo and fails to see how the financial industry works for more than a small handful. Solutions tend to focus on individual wellbeing: therapy through nutrition, diet, “sleep hygiene” and organisation. The success of Jordan Peterson and Marie Kondo speaks to this: theirs are self-help books essentially, that promise greater happiness by focusing inwards rather than accepting that widespread unhappiness is down to a society which prizes economic success and consumerism. You can fold your clothes however you like, but that won’t spark as much joy as knowing you have a pension and can afford your rent.
There is often a feeling that our current political moment is temporary and unstable – that Brexit, the election of Trump, the rise of Momentum and Corbynism, and the collapse in faith of the British establishment are fleeting and unexplained phenomena, rather than clear symptoms of an old order limping to an inevitable death. But millennial unhappiness and exhaustion spur on political unrest in all our lives. Any political settlement that seeks more security and less volatility has to promise a more equitable life for all and job security, affordable homes and decent living standards for all; not just for one generation. Burnout is more than an individual malaise: it’s a symptom of a crisis of capitalism that upsets the whole order, and the answer is collective, not individual change.
• Dawn Foster is a Guardian columnist