There’s a sign in the cafe attached to the library I work at. It reads, “The UC is making us sick.” I work at the University of California, Santa Cruz research library; and as I write this, the graduate student assistants here are on strike. They refuse to release undergraduate grades from the last academic quarter until their demands have been met – namely, a cost of living adjustment to raise their meager wages to something livable in Santa Cruz, which is one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. This action has gained the strikers support from other UC graduate students, as well as state-wide media attention. They’ve been congregating in our cafe for weeks now, sharing food, making art, and speaking to anyone who will listen about why change is imperative for their work and well-being.
Around their sign, the strikers have written testimonials about how the horrendous overwork and lack of pay is making them physically and mentally ill. I support their cause, and I agree with the necessity of public demonstrations. However, as I read through Sharpie-d notes of pain and frustration, I can’t seem to keep one persistent question from floating through my mind: Why do I feel the same way?
I am not a UC Santa Cruz graduate student – I just work here. I don’t make very much money either, but I get by. I get paid time off, health care benefits, and retirement savings. I am offered opportunities for professional development and tools to help manage stress. I understand, as a new library professional, I am lucky – and I do love libraries, don’t get me wrong. I don’t attend UC Santa Cruz as a student, but I am an MLIS candidate at San Jose State University. I am thrilled at the prospect of working in libraries as a career. However, I don’t love my job. I don’t think I will ever truly love a job; and I don’t think I ever should.
One way we can describe what our UCSC graduate students are going through – this persistent un-wellness and exhaustion that I also feel – is burnout. Occupational burnout is defined by the World Health Organization as “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.” It is important to note, however, that many other researchers have different or more expansive definitions of burnout, ones that include physical and mental symptoms not mentioned by the WHO, more severe symptoms. There is not one consensus on what burnout actually is, other than it is very real, and very exhausting.
HLS has written about burnout before, too. This isn’t surprising to me. But all of this does beg an obvious question – why now? Workplace exhaustion is certainly not a new phenomenon, so why are we suddenly so obsessed being burnt out?
As Anne Helen Peterson describes in her essay How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, we’re obsessed because “[burnout is] not a temporary affliction: It’s the millennial condition. It’s our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives.” Media likes to cast millennials as whiny, lazy, and entitled children who don’t appreciate the value of hard work. I would argue that we aren’t any more whiny, lazy or entitled than any other generation, but one thing is for sure – we aren’t children anymore. The millennial generation spans from 1981 to 1996, meaning the youngest of us is 24, and the oldest is 39. We are solidly a part of the American workforce. We have families to support and retirements to stress into existence and, importantly, we are the generation who currently makes up the majority of the graduate student population in the U.S. Meaning, most of the UCSC graduate students on strike are millennials, as are most of us here, the new, aspiring generation of librarians.
Millennials have come of age in a time where systemic political and financial insecurity has permanently sculpted our environment and outlook. Our leaders have saddled us with outrageous amounts of student loan debt, and forced us to take work we are severely underpaid to do because our parents’ generation has been forced to compete with us for the same handful of positions. We take non-paying internships and write blog posts for free in hopes of bolstering our prospects to maybe, someday, find a job that not only pays well, but aligns with our “passions.” We take on one, two, or more side gigs at a time to make ends meet; and yet, we are promised that if we just work a bit harder, all of this will be worth it. Eventually our sweat and tears will pay off and we will land that job we’ve been waiting so patiently for. And if we don’t? Well, it’s because we’re lazy.
This isn’t a new argument. We’ve had a few things to say about the gross and obvious double standard that’s been set up for us. However, this culture of relentless workism coupled with the intrinsic complexity of library work makes burnout a particularly rampant problem among librarians, library staff, and MLIS students. This is because library work isn’t sold to us as just a job, or even a very cool job. Library work is a calling, a vocation, or so we are told. And therefore, the value we are expected to receive from our work lies not only in our paycheck, but in our hearts.
And sometimes, that almost checks out. I certainly find a ton of fulfillment when I know I have truly helped a patron solve a problem, and I am proud to be a warrior for literacy and independent thought. The issue begins when it is expected that these sort of rewards should make up for the mothballs in my savings account or the never-ending head cold I can’t seem to cure. And buying into the idea that emotional compensation is sufficient only serves to perpetuate the problem. In 2014, Miya Tokumitsu wrote In the Name of Love for Jacobin Magazine where she characterizes the underlying ethos of the “Do What You Love” philosophy that dominates our modern work landscape. In her piece, she argues that not only does this philosophy undermine the work of professionals in fashionable industries, like librarians and archivists, but it also completely erases the work of folks who do unglamorous jobs, like cleaning the library toilets. By placing value on love of work rather than compensation for work, we are claiming that compensation isn’t a sufficient or necessary goal. Additionally, by subscribing to the idea that we should love our work, we in turn consent to devaluing our actual labor and therefore help to sustain the oppression of workers everywhere. As Tokumitsu argues:
By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, [Do What You Love] distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it. It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient.
So no, I will proudly claim that I don’t love my job, and I won’t love whatever job I hope I land when I finish my MLIS program. And of course, some of my aims in that are selfish. I don’t want to have drippy sinuses forever and I would like to buy a house someday (despite my love of avocado toast). But I would be missing the point to think that this is an individual problem. If we choose to continue to devalue the labor of our colleagues and the communities we serve in the name of love, we do a disservice not only to ourselves, but to our institutions and our patrons as well. By failing to acknowledge and compensate labor fairly, we risk erasing how hard we actually do work to keep libraries running. We erase the passion we bring to these spaces each day.
As weeks amble on, and the UCSC graduate students continue to strike, I hope they find resolution. And equally, I hope they find love in their communities, where it belongs.
Mary Elizabeth Allen is an MLIS student at San Jose State University. She holds a B.A. in Literature with an emphasis in Fiction Writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She also works at the University Library at UC Santa Cruz as the Circulation Student Manager. Her professional interests include the intersections between critical librarianship and social justice, the history of information sharing, and radical feminist scholarship. Follow her on Twitter @marylizallen for a random collection of depressing thoughts and cat memes.