I’ve Been a Full-Time Journalist for Just a Year: I’m Already Burned Out
High stress and low pay are taking out a generation of young journalists like me.
I became a full-time freelance journalist in 2021, having graduated with my master’s degree in journalism the year before. I had gotten a content writing job right after graduating, but it wasn’t working. The job had a lot of faults, but I specifically couldn’t contend with the poor work culture, in addition to not being able to write pieces that I was proud of or enjoyed. I wanted to go into journalism to make a difference and write pieces that I myself would want to read, but I wasn’t able to do that there, so I left. I got a job in a pub for a while to pay the bills and slowly began to build my freelance career, with help from many freelancers I had become friends with over social media during the pandemic.
It’s been nearly a year since I went freelance full-time, doing shift work where I would write 300-word pieces and pitching out reported pieces or personal essays to be published online. I would consider myself successful. I’m making enough money each month to cover my rent and bills, save a small amount and have extra to buy coffee, go to the theater and even to book a holiday for later this year. I work five or six days a week and have my evenings free. All of these jobs are remote, so I get to sit in my living room, listening to music or playing Kitchen Nightmares in the background while I write. For many people, I am living the dream, and in my moments of self-doubt, my friends and therapist remind me that I am doing very well—considering the many systemic issues in society and the effect of the pandemic, in addition to the specific difficulty of “making it” in the journalism industry.
I May Look Like I’ve Got It Figured Out, but I Don’t
Even though it sounds like everything is fine, I am not. It’s only been a year, and I’m already burning out from the hustle and the constant pressure to produce content and compete with my fellow journalists. Dealing with the comparison on social media is very demoralizing, and the addition of constant lockdowns and restrictions due to COVID-19, plus seeing the news of racism and homophobia across the world as a bisexual woman of color, is burning me out. It feels more impossible than ever to make it in the industry, even if it seems from the outside that I’ve already made it.
The pandemic has made the already precarious and difficult industry even harder. More and more experienced journalists are going freelance amid layoffs and media companies slashing staff jobs. The freelance market is now oversaturated with writers of all ages and experience, but especially young people who spent thousands on a journalism degree or training and can’t find a job when they emerge into the world of work. The only way to get published is to go freelance, either as a supplement to a day job so you can build your portfolio and hopefully get a job in the future, or to go freelance full-time and work as hard as you can to make a life for yourself.
Despite many people advocating for “working for yourself” and not submitting to a boss or a CEO or a massive conglomerate, going freelance full-time while still living a somewhat sustainable and normal life is very hard. Freelance rates in the U.K. are notoriously low in comparison to the U.S., especially for smaller, independent publications that are either politically independent or left-wing. Right-wing publications like the Daily Mail and The Sun have jobs on offer regularly and pretty substantial rates, but my politics are left-leaning and I refuse to work for certain publications, so I have to do twice as much work to make the same amount as others who’ll write for them.
It’s also so hard to see others who are my age, or even younger, constantly producing and publishing pieces online, finding the time and creative energy to come up with great ideas and write these wonderful pieces for a range of exciting publications. I hate to admit that I am envious of them, but I am. While I’m happy for my peers—and happy to promote their work—I often question how they are able to get out so many pieces in a week, when I feel like I can barely manage one in addition to doing household chores, seeing friends, spending time with my partner, reading a book or even just watching Netflix.
The Media Industry Is Set Up to Burn Us Out
There is also this common, and possibly true, perception in freelancing that because there are so many freelancers out there, you have to accept every assignment and every shift that comes your way, and you have to go above and beyond for every piece, even if it’s only paying £40, or else you won’t get any work in the future from that editor or their fellow editor friends. This is not an entirely unfounded fear.
The media industry is small, and there are many people who are in exactly the same position as me who might have similar skills and ideas. We need editors more than they need us, which creates an inherent power imbalance. I’m always afraid that I will lose a regular shift or that I won’t get a pitch commissioned for several months, which would seriously eat into my income and savings. The financial anxiety over not being able to pay my rent or bills and letting my partner down is crippling.
Burnout has become a popular topic of discussion in recent years, usually pertaining to people in their late 20s and older, who’ve been in a particular career for years. Burnout was classified by the World Health Organization in 2019 as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” and states that the symptoms are “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.”
As Anne Helen Petersen writes for BuzzFeed, burnout was previously considered to be something that people in “acutely high-stress environments” suffer from, something “that could be treated with a week on the beach.” Her piece focuses primarily on millennials, people who entered the job market during the 2008 financial crisis and have dealt with years and years of stagnant wages, austerity and rising costs of living.
I don’t fit into these categories. I’m only 23, and I’ve only been doing this for a year, and I’m burned out too. I am constantly and consistently exhausted, both physically and emotionally, by this rat race to simply live a normal life while doing my chosen career. Having enough money and time to spend my evenings and weekends with the people I love and doing fun things is only getting harder. I’m starting to wonder if staying within journalism is really worth it—and I’m not the only one.
Other people in their early 20s and new to their careers are also experiencing burnout and also wondering if they might be happier and more content elsewhere. This is being amplified by the lack of jobs, poor salaries in the jobs that are available, low freelance rates and the expectation of writing 30 articles a week and a book by the time we’re 25. This is leaving us too emotionally and physically drained to even grab a drink with a friend or read a good book in the bath.
We are expected to accept this, and we are told that's just the way the media industry is, but it shouldn't be. Many of us are leaving the journalism industry entirely to pursue other better-paying jobs in the marketing, digital and charity sectors because journalism is untenable for our mental health. If this is what it's like just one year out of university, what will the rest of our lives look like?
What’s Going to Happen to Media When All the Young Journalists Quit?
Journalism as an industry needs a complete overhaul, particularly in regard to freelancers from marginalized backgrounds, who are finding all of this even harder. Many young journalists of color are unable to get published until they agree to write a personal essay about their trauma. But more than that, the world of work needs a complete overhaul. The constant pressure to succeed and regularly produce excellent work isn’t working for any of us. This is part of what’s driving the so-called “Great Resignation;” we’re trying to set better boundaries and stop letting late capitalism take advantage of us. However, none of this is going to happen overnight, and there is no short-term cure for burnout. As a result, we are going to lose many excellent journalists who just can’t stand the conditions they’re expected to work in.
I can’t take it anymore either. I’m still writing—as demonstrated by this essay—but I wouldn’t count on me staying in journalism for long. Journalists play an important role in our society, and young, early-career journalists have unique perspectives to offer, but we’re unable to get them out there without sacrificing time, money, energy and our self-worth to do so.
The effect of continued burnout among young journalists, made more acute by the industry’s lack of financial and emotional support, will be pronounced. I’m sure some people will say that we just need to work harder, put our heads down and deal with the poor standards until we get to a point where we’re in charge, but that’s not sustainable or healthy. If we continue to treat young journalists so poorly, pushing them to this breaking point, we will lose countless amazing ideas and views. We have to ask ourselves, if this burnout continues to push talented young people out of journalism, what will the future of journalism look like? I believe it would ensure a homogenized group of journalists, mainly white and middle-class, the people who can afford to deal with the crap journalists are put through, and therefore would not be representative of large swathes of the population—currently in the U.K., at least 94 percent of the industry is white and 55 percent male. It would also mean fewer creative stories and ideas being presented to us, and eventually, younger audiences will no longer rely on mainstream publications because they’re not engaging enough. As technologies develop, we need younger people in every industry to keep up-to-date with trends and popular formats, such as TikTok, to engage their peers. We won’t be able to do that if young journalists quit because they simply can’t take it anymore.