The instability of an axisymmetric viscous liquid jet in a gas or in a vacuum is examined using the interface formation theory. This model allows for variable surface tension at constant temperature, generalising the classical continuum formulation by using irreversible thermodynamics. Steady-state solutions are determined and found to be unstable to a travelling wave that propagates down the liquid jet, causing the jet to break-up into drops. The linear instability results are compared to those of the classical formulation. These are especially found to differ when the jets are on the micron scale. This will give rise to significantly revised predictions in some parameter ranges for the break-up length and droplet sizes produced by microjets. Comparisons with molecular dynamics simulations are also presented, with encouraging results. Finally, the dependence of the results on the initial conditions is discussed.