Feel the burn(out): Millennials are aging from bright-eyed 'hustle culture' workers into exhausted middle managers

Burnt out millennials are by no means the new kid on the block. Even before the pandemic, nonr other than beloved millennial outlet BuzzFeed spoke out about the beleaguered generation. In 2019, reporter Anne Helen Petersen noted that her cohort of young adults was going though a period of intense burnout, in part a reaction to being misled by the hustle culture they grew into. Some five years later, millennials are holding the crown as the generation most dissatisfied at their jobs, still dealing with the same malaise and not enough resources to reshape the workforce they’re operating within.

Next time you’re in the office, take a look to your left and a look to your right— chances are everyone around you feels just as lukewarm about working there. Most workers find their experience at their company… well, fine. On average, employees rate their job satisfaction a cool 5.5 out of 10, per a Forbes Advisor survey of 1,000 U.S. workers. While America’s malaise is pervasive, it’s more concentrated among younger generations. But surprisingly, our most junior employees aren’t reporting the greatest discontent. In fact, it’s the mid-30-something, Blink-182 loving, Warby Parker-bespectaled millennials feeling the most miserable.

Millennials, who became the icon for “hustle culture” in their 20s, are now aging into a new phase marked by cynicism as they found that their companies more or less led them astray.

Now, many have become managers with more responsibility but not that much more power. They’re unsurprisingly miserable, having recently found out that their hustle can’t overcome economic fatigue. And regardless of what the data says—that they’re managing to get on the housing ladder and are actually making high salaries despite holding far less wealth than boomers did at their age—it’s left many feeling understandably jaded. 

It’s no secret that millennials have been dealt an especially rough hand of cards. Once stereotyped as 2010s go-getters that had dream jobs, many of these young(ish) adults have found that their employers don’t deliver on their promises as they work extra to make ends meet and (in the white-collar sectors) face rounds of layoffs. It’s not just the dissolution of an old way of work that millennials are reeling from, it’s the stress of getting to more senior positions without true power.

“One of the major drivers behind millennial unhappiness at work is the fact that millennials make up a large portion of the manager level in many organizations,” Jen Fisher, Deloitte’s human sustainability leader, explains to Fortune via email, adding, “Managers are stuck in a particularly difficult place right now.”

From hustle to disillusionment culture

Millennials are responding by giving their workplaces a review often saved for restaurants that accidentally place a long blonde long hair (that isn’t yours) in the lasagna. In other words, they’ve rated their job satisfaction a poor 4.6 out of 10 on average. While millennials are the least satisfied out of all generations, Gen Z follows at 5.2, boomers at 5.6, and Gen X at 6.6.  

Americans have seemingly become increasingly disillusioned by their jobs over the past couple of years. While economic discontent and skepticism of the nation’s institutions brews, many have reported a loss of faith in almost every profession. COVID-19 and socioeconomic turmoil likely fuel this disenchantment, as many question the purpose of their jobs and watch the evaporation of the promise suggested in the early years of the pandemic. 

“After collectively facing our mortality for such an enduring length of time, it’s changed the workforce – perhaps permanently,” workplace expert and author of Unlocking Happiness at Work, Jennifer Moss, tells Fortune. Pointing to Gallup data that shows a slide in employment engagement over the last decade, Moss notes people are simply less happy in their lives outside of work as reports of social anxiety have increased and a loneliness epidemic persists. Saying you love your job has become much like saying you like the taste of Shredded Wheat or find traffic jams refreshing. It’s at the point where only 16.2% of employees have a job satisfaction of 8 (out of 10) or higher, per Forbes’ survey.

But what’s wrong with the former kids of today? Millennials make up the biggest share of the workforce and have risen up the ranks despite some ill-timed recessions that hampered their wealth-building and career growth. They seem to be facing some growing pains now, as millennials have reached the point of greater seniority but are still living in a corporate world where older generations make the rules. That’s all to say, millennial managers aren’t having fun.

Many middle managers are experiencing increased burnout right now as they’re caught between the whims of CEOs often trying to maintain the ways of tradition and employees who are looking to maintain their newly-earned autonomy. It’s not a simple job given the “increasingly fraught” relationship between employees and their companies, as workers feel the burn of layoffs, the paranoia of AI, and the sting of waning flexibility, says Deloitte’s Fisher. Companies provided extra support during the early stages of the pandemic, and now the rollback has left employees more unhappy, she explains. 

No wonder they’re feeling especially strung out. “Millennials have gone through several financial crises, some are still paying off school debt, while many are juggling young families, which was an enormous challenge in the pandemic,” adds Wolf.

But not all is lost for employees and millennials alike. Perhaps the discontent will finally create change within the workforce, as young adults age into more senior roles. “As millennials rise through the ranks, it gives me hope that their dissatisfaction will drive greater innovation and change in the ways we work,” says Fisher. “I’m hopeful that through their experiences and struggles, they will look to address the systemic issues in the workplace and move the mindset from extractive, transactional thinking to a human sustainability approach that focuses on creating greater value for each person connected to the organization.”

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