Sometimes, while in the supermarket, Anne Helen Petersen likes to test herself: she purposefully stands in the biggest checkout queue, to observe how long she can live in her own head without distraction and frustration. “I’m addicted to stimulation,” she admits in Can’t Even, her meticulously researched study of burnout among millennials. “I’ve forgotten not just how to wait, but even how to let my mind wander and play.” Some readers may see this as a horrifying indictment of modern life, but to others, it will be completely understandable. When was the last time you simply stood in silence, rather than putting on a podcast or scrolling endlessly through Instagram or responding to an email or notification?
Burnout is a symptom of feeling overworked and undervalued, resulting in what Petersen calls “alienation from the self, and from desire”. Some might recognise it in themselves: an underlying anxiety, an inability to relax, a general fuzziness in the brain. Petersen’s book, born from a BuzzFeed essay that went viral in 2019, has a slightly misleading subtitle: “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation”. It is really focused on American millennials, and doesn’t argue that only those born between 1981 and 1996 suffer burnout. Rather, millennials are the generation to bear the brunt of economic, social and political decisions made by their parents and grandparents, or generation X and the baby boomers; everyone is feeling the strain.
Petersen is at her best when drawing a line through history, showing how previous generations thrived within a framework of protections in the workplace and wider society, then dismantled them all while pushing the myth of the self-made man: hard work means success. The older generations didn’t spoil us, Petersen writes, “so much as destroy the likelihood of our ever obtaining what they had promised all that hard work was for”.
The sections on leisure and social media, and why millennials can feel exhausted by rest, are astutely observed. In the 1980s and 90s, their parents steered them towards “concerted cultivation” – extracurricular “enrichment” activities such as tennis, debating and singing in choirs – that would hopefully get them into prestigious schools, which would later land them white-collar work, then success, stability and happiness. Regardless of whether or not they went to Harvard, many millennial children developed a warped attitude towards leisure, as play became work and work became constant.
American millennials graduated into the worst job market in 80 years, after the financial crisis, while boomers and generation X continued to hold most of the power, first as their parents and teachers, now as their policymakers and bosses. The equation they had internalised at home and in schools (hard work equals success) meant that millennials settled for unpaid internships, or what Petersen calls “shitty” work, for corporations whose profits are now contingent on their workers suffering – and therefore devalued their own work even more. As it stands, millennials will be the first generation since the Great Depression to be worse off than their parents. Yet, frequently characterised in the media as fickle and lazy, they have internalised their precarity as a personal failure, rather than recognising that the problem is capitalism. It is what Petersen calls the “millennial way”: “If the system is rigged against you, just try harder.”
Social media is “uniquely aggravating”; the more it feels compulsory – or like work – the more social media becomes “frustratingly unrestorative”. Similarly, the 24-hour news cycle has created a continual sense of needing to “catch up” on both serious news and inane chatter, which are afforded the same significance; a couple of weeks ago, it seemed that the Georgia runoff elections and “Bean Dad” were equally important, given the noise around both. “We’re desperately, continuously confused,” Petersen writes, “and each click promises something approximating meaning.” Her interviewees, who come from a variety of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, report debilitating anxiety when they are not working, or posting, or reading news – simply, not doing anything.
For many, myself included, Petersen’s book will lead to excoriating self-reflection. I am a millennial child of gen X parents and boomer grandparents, all of whom worry that I will not be better off than they are. I found my last holiday exhausting because I felt nervous without tasks; I did attend university and saddle myself with debt because I assumed it was necessary for my success; I am still always anxious about money, years after making myself destitute as an intern; for me, too, checking email has become like a nervous tic – I’ll even do it while brushing my teeth or preparing for sleep.
Petersen has added a foreword acknowledging the impact of the pandemic, calling Covid-19 “the great clarifier”. Work was “shitty and precarious before; now it’s more shitty and precarious. Parenting felt exhausting and impossible; now it’s more exhausting and impossible. Same for the feeling that work never ends, that the news cycle suffocates our inner lives, and that we’re too tired to access anything resembling true leisure or rest.” She predicts the pandemic will not change anything about millennial burnout, but make it even “more ingrained in our generational identity”: “Millennials don’t stand a chance … but the same dire prediction holds true for large swaths of gen X and boomers, and will only get worse for gen Z. The overarching clarity offered by this pandemic is that it’s not any single generation that’s broken, or fucked, or failed. It’s the system itself.”
Petersen is reluctant to recommend actions to the reader – other books have, she says, and they were useless. “Actual substantive change has to come from the public sector – and we must vote en masse to elect politicians who will agitate for it tirelessly,” she argues. But who are they? And what of all the other countries where voter turnouts are higher, even compulsory, where millennials remain overworked, overeducated and still largely without power?
Petersen says she has tried to expand beyond the common understanding of both millennials and burnout; namely, the experiences of white, middle-class people. But her concerns are overwhelmingly American. Yes, an Uber driver with three jobs is likely to feel precarious the world over – but not all Uber drivers will be worrying about healthcare or student debt in the way many Americans do. The epilogue contains some fascinating details on Japan, where they have a word, karoshi, for literally dying from burnout, but it is only really there to provide contrast. There are some perceptive observations here, but much of the book is not so much about millennials as being American. Regardless, Can’t Even is extremely enlightening – I can only hope that millennials, and Americans, won’t be the only ones to read it.
• Can’t Even is published by Vintage (RRP £14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.