Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen

5/5 stars

Are you feeling… tired? Have you felt tired for basically your entire adult life? Does it always have to be this way? Where the hell is the fun post-grad life and giant apartment all those mid-2000s rom-coms promised?

In Can’t Even, Anne Helen Petersen, one of the biggest names in pop academia these days, explores the sensation of “millennial burnout”–the endless feeling that we’re not doing enough, and falling behind, and it started way before coronavirus.

Petersen first illuminated the concept in this Buzzfeed article in 2019, pushing back against the common screed that millennials are lazy and entitled, mad when the world won’t give them a trophy for showing up, you know how it goes. Petersen’s work might finally be the catch-all explainer that those hand-wringers need–proof that millennials do work hard, really effin’ hard, but the system, over generations, has been stacked against us.

And despite the title, this is not a “blame it on boomers” book. Petersen in fact starts with that generation, and how their break from their parents helped to shape capitalism in a new direction. As boomers entered college in far higher numbers and the economy shifted away from the “lifer” jobs in factories or trades, they experienced a new form of burnout in a rapidly changing economy. They experienced the economic downturn of the 1970s and the push to create “agile” (read: cut down to the bone) companies in the 1980s and 1990s. They went from an economy where you could start as a packer and advance up to a factory inspector, or start as a receptionist and advance to an office manager, to an economy where employers no longer took on the cost of training–that was on the employee, with more and more jobs requiring college degrees and other training with the onus on the candidate to fund. And boomer parents faced more pressure than ever to prepare their children for college degrees–with entire industries lapping up the easy marketing of an activity that “looks good on college applications”.

And now, after a generation, millennials are in a precarious position, with many weathering the second economic crisis of their working life. We’re told that if we do what we love, we’ll never work a day in our life–but for an increasingly large amount of professions, doing what you love might mean working for “experience”, or working as a contractor without any insurance or collective bargaining rights, or living off meagre grad school stipends and putting in free labour teaching undergrads, or piecing together multiple jobs across the gig economy to make ends meet. And get flayed in the media for not being able to afford a house or diamonds, for delaying expensive life choices like getting married or having kids, and for (horror of horrors!) moving back in with our parents after college.

This was an interesting read now that I live in the UK, where 20 days paid vacation (plus 8 bank holidays) is the bare legal minimum, parental leave is standard, and–while certainly not a perfect system–healthcare is granted by the state, not your employer. There are slightly better systems in place here to support different ways to enter the workforce, such as apprenticeships and work experience programmes. I’d like to think it’s marginally better here, but among my millennial British friends, burnout seems to be creeping in, and fast. With my work experience in my short professional life already including startups, traditional offices, service/front-of-house work, and freelancing, Can’t Even felt like I was finally seen.

Petersen explores the economic choices that led to this burnout culture–the rise of the temp worker (she includes quotes from an old Kelly Girl ad that seems all too real in today’s reality–“A Kelly Girl never asks for a holiday or a sick day!”) and the push for businesses to cut corners wherever they could creating a pressure for employees to overwork to “prove” their worthiness whenever layoff time came around. And the “disruptive” model that dominates so many businesses today creates pressure to be working all the time–as a taxi driver or a delivery boy or a B&B hostess–without giving ourselves any leisure time. And it feels all the more relevant in the year when our workplaces and our homes became one and the same, and when more and more of us are turning to “side hustles” to stay afloat.

Petersen also acknowledges that burnout manifests itself differently across intersections of race, gender, and class, and her interview subjects cross a wide demographic–while addressing that the typical complaints about millennials (avocado toast & too much time on Instagram!) tend to be representative only of the white middle-class members of the generation.

This book will make you want to scream sometimes, just at realising how screwed up everything has become, and how the pressure to always be working and improving and looking for leads and proving our worth is destroying us, mentally and physically. And hopefully it will lead to some change–as the common Twitter screed goes, f**k passion, pay me!

Petersen’s writing is snappy and fun to read–even as an extremely well-researched work, this doesn’t read like an academic work, and even if you’re not in the title generation, if you’ve had a job in the 21st century, this will probably feel relevant.



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