We Are All the Burnout Generation

Fueled by uncertainty and envy, burnout is a condition that is both uniquely human and profoundly misunderstood

Zander Nethercutt
Forge
Published in
10 min readMay 22, 2020

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Photo: Jon Feingersh Photography Inc/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Approximately 11,000 years ago, the Irish elk roamed the land we now call Siberia. I like to think of their story as a parable for understanding the burnout epidemic.

The male elk, or bulls, who were born with a mutation that gave them slightly larger antlers than the rest would win fights with other bulls over mates and could more easily fend off predators. Eventually, these bulls developed a selective advantage and were more likely to pass along their genetic material to the larger population. And so with each generation, the species’ antlers grew.

But then the problems began.

At their peak, bulls’ antlers measured up to 12 feet across. They became a hindrance, especially when trying to evade predators in densely-wooded areas. Unable to shrink in size to adjust, the species went extinct.

That’s one scientific theory, anyway. In my story “The Darwinian Science Behind the Burnout Generation,” I likened the Irish elk’s antlers to status symbols, such as college degrees and homes. The period between when the size of the Irish elk’s antlers became an existential threat and when the species went extinct would be akin to what we know as “burnout,” because it was the time during which bulls were battling over status that wasn’t worth attaining. For many young people, that period is now: Jobless and mired in debt, they’re realizing that the years they spent in school weren’t worth it.

As I defined it in my piece, burnout meant expending effort on a pyrrhic pursuit. This definition, though, is too simple to be valuable. To understand why, we need to understand that the mechanism responsible for the Irish elk’s extinction — the drive to reproduce — isn’t what drives human behavior.

Understanding what does will help us properly define and diagnose burnout.

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Zander Nethercutt
Forge
Writer for

mistaking correlation for causation since '94; IYI, probably | 🧓Chicago, IL | ✍️. @ zandercutt.com | GET IN TOUCH: zander [at] zandercutt [dot] com