Ziemann: Internalized capitalism: burnout’s dirty little secret

Columnist Megan Ziemann uncovers the true cause of burnout and why it’s so toxic to young people.

Megan Ziemann

I’m graduating this semester. It’s exhilarating — I’m going off on my own, achieving my dreams and finally becoming a real adult. I’m excited for and optimistic about the future, and I hope other grads share that sentiment. We’ve worked so hard. It’s time to reap the benefits.

But how many of those benefits are related to our productivity?

Internalized capitalism happens when a person puts productivity above all else, writes Sean Illing for Vox. Illing interviewed Malcolm Harris, author of “Kids These Days,” a book about human capital and how our emphasis on it has shaped millennials.

According to Harris, today’s social system puts too much emphasis on work. Schools are meant to aid students in finding a job after graduation, workers are at the job longer with stagnant wages and the self is forgotten so the “greater good,” or the company, can thrive.

At first glance, it doesn’t seem that bad. Of course I want a job after graduation — I need to pay my rent and my student loans after all. But there’s more to it than that.

When we internalize hyperproductive traits, we develop toxic behaviors, according to Neil Smith for the New Political Economy Journal. These behaviors can look like intentionally working longer hours, neglecting self-care to do something “productive” instead and looking down on people who seem less successful than we are. I know I’ve done all of these in the past. I bet most of us have.

These behaviors perpetuate the idea that we are worth less than the money we make, which is incredibly wrong. Yes, money is nice — we need it to survive. But money is not alive. It does not breathe. It does not have a personality nor does it emote. 

Realizing you don’t have to be at work all the time is really difficult. I’ve been trying to realize it since I turned 16 and was able to legally enter the workforce.

I felt like I wasn’t accomplishing enough if I wasn’t working the maximum hours, excelling in academics and spending time at extracurriculars. Now, as a college student, I have two jobs while balancing a full-time credit load. 

It’s important to realize we are living, breathing people. Yes, we have occupations and likely will until we cannot physically work anymore. But those occupations do not define us. 

You’re worth more than your job. You’re worth it, period.

It’s normal to be busy at this time in our lives, it’s even expected. I know I wouldn’t be able to live comfortably without the money from my jobs and the degree I’m getting in a few weeks’ time. 

But it’s not normal to lose yourself in your work. 

The next time you feel like you’re pushing yourself to the limits for the sake of work (looking at you, Finals Week), take a step back and reevaluate. Yes, studying for tests and doing well on them is important. But you’re important too. 

Studying for hours and losing sleep over a class is not productive, no matter how productive you may think it is. While it may feel like you’re checking boxes on Canvas and getting things done, you’re unchecking your own boxes at the same time. 

It’s OK to take a break once in a while. It’s OK to miss a couple unimportant deadlines so you stay healthy. You’ll feel better when you take care of yourself. 

A five or 10 point quiz will not make or break your graduation status. You have a life outside of school and work.

Take time to live it.