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'We Are Screwed in a Way That Other Generations Have Not Been Screwed'

Author Anne Helen Petersen on 'How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation'

by Gretchen Brown
September 17, 2020 | Work
a person is suffering from burnout. rewire pbs our future burnout generation
Credit: Antonio Rodriguez // Adobe

Millennials are burned out. No self-care app or lifestyle fad is going to change that. 

Anne Helen Petersen makes that clear in Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, a book that begins with her own burnout story, and amalgamates the experiences of thousands of other millennials (folks generally born between 1981 and 1996).

It's an expansion and follow-up to her viral Buzzfeed piece from January 2019.

"Our relationship to digital technologies is really messed up. We have so much more student debt than previous generations," said Petersen, a writer, journalist and former academic.

"And then the placement of our generation in relation to the Great Recession, even now to COVID. We are screwed in a way that other generations have not been screwed."

Her book tells the story of how we got here: the economic downturn that caused class anxiety for a generation of baby boomers. The shift in political thinking from collectivism to individualism. 

The way millennials were raised as mini-adults with structured childhoods, and taught that hard work always equals fulfillment.

And now, we're approaching our late 20s to late 30s, searching for fulfillment in a gig economy, robbed of leisure time due to our own workaholism and trying to be parents amid all that.

Burnout generation? Yeah, that makes sense.

The burnout Petersen writes about is more than just being tired or not wanting to go to work. If exhaustion is working to the point where you can't push any further, she writes, then burnout is reaching that point and not stopping.

This is the state that this country's millennial generation is in.

Rewire talked with Petersen about it.

As a millennial it felt validating to read that what I've been feeling isn't just in my head. What was it like investigating something so personal?

It really started as me trying to figure out what was wrong with me. I couldn't get things done. I was really struggling to write things that my editors liked. I was responding poorly to any critiques they had. All of these were not normal behaviors for me. And I was also very resistant to any suggestion that I was burning out. 

As an academic, my first impulse is to try to analyze what's going on. And so I started with the personal and then expanded out from there.

And then I had remapped that idea into my life. How did I adopt some of these behaviors? How did I start internalizing this compulsion to work all the time, to evacuate leisure from my life? 

And then for the book, it really just meant expanding that in a really historical way, both in terms of economic history, but also in terms of history of education and child-rearing and leisure as well, just trying to connect all of those different dots. It allowed me to really decenter myself eventually. 

It was interesting to read that burnout isn't unique to millennials. Boomers experienced their own sort of burnout in the form of class anxiety.

The most interesting thing about researching my book was just how boomers really were dealing with their own sort of precarity and class anxiety and instability. And a lot of that turned into coping mechanisms that led us to be burned out. 

Some of those coping strategies, I don't blame them for them. They seem kind of natural. But some of them, to be like, 'We're scared about our position, we don't feel like we're that stable in our businesses. Why don't we lower taxes? And then take away some of those safety nets.' They seem counterintuitive. 

And so some boomer and greatest generation voting patterns took away the very safety nets that had stabilized their lives.

You focus on millennials as the burnout generation, but do you think Gen Z are susceptible to this same kind of burnout?

I think it can go two ways. Maybe these are just the voices I'm seeing elevated on social media, but a lot of Gen Z people are like, 'This is messed up. Let's fix our world.' 

Whether that's to do with climate change or politics or racial injustice, there's an intolerance for the way things are. But that's something that a lot of young people feel no matter what generation they are. 

At the same time, there was a meme and this set of interviews about all of these Gen Zers kind of ragging on millennials about, 'Oh, millennials are just lazy. They just complain all the time. If we were given their opportunities, we would be fine.'

And what that does is reproduces this understanding that any failures we see in other people, it's because they didn't work hard enough. And we can work hard enough, we'll show them how that's done. 

So my fear is that some of the same mistakes that we made as a generation will be reproduced.

As you write, burnout can be attributed to a complex set of issues. Do you think we commonly misattribute or simplify what leads to burnout?

I think that people think that it's, 'Oh, you worked too hard this week or this month.' It's just so focused on hours worked. And obviously that's a huge component of it. But I think that the real thing to look at is to think more in terms of a 360 situation. 

book cover for can't even: how millennials became the burnout generation

It's not just how much you're working, it's also the duties you feel outside of your work, as a parent or as a citizen, as a partner and then more broadly, it's the fact that those times when you're not working or at least officially working, you either feel the need to hustle or package those moments of leisure in a way that would make them available for public consumption. 

So thinking about everything that you do on and off work as something that you could Instagram, which I think sucks a lot of energy out of every experience and takes you away from it. 

A lot of times social media is blamed as the singular reason for everything that's wrong with millennials. But you write that social media robs us of the moments that could counterbalance our burnout; that it makes the burnout worse, but is not necessarily a sole cause.

Yeah, I think people often are just like, 'Oh, you're obsessed with other people.' There's just this really facile way of understanding our relationship with social media.

And I think that it's much more to do with, we are so exhausted that we don't have energy to do other things. That is where the endless couch scroll comes from. 

And thinking about it in those terms helps me think about how part of the reason I don't have hobbies is because all of this time, I'm so exhausted. And then instead of reading the fiction book that I really actually want to read, I'm just looking at these influencer twins from Baylor on Instagram. 

Your last chapter is titled "Burn It Down." And you write that things don't have to be this way. Is a backlash to these conditions inevitable? Are you optimistic that change is possible?

For sure. Millennial support for unions is very high. Unions became so strong that they were taken for granted and they were undercut in all of these meaningful ways. And now millennials are like, 'Oh, that thing that our grandparents had, that was great. Oh, it's an organization that can advocate for you when you're exploited? Amazing.'

Right now, I'm reporting on the graduate student strike that's going on at the University of Michigan. And I've talked to a couple of the graduate students who are involved in it and they are just so clear-eyed about how we don't have any power against this administration unless we act together. And we can actually disrupt the university by not working. So that is how we advocate, not for ludicrous pay or anything like that, but just for basic protections. 

You wrote this book before COVID, which wasn't that long ago, but it seems like a lifetime ago. What, if anything, has changed?

Everything I talk about in the book has just gotten worse. Work, especially for those people who are working at home, has become even more slippery. It's easier for it to go into all of those crevices of our lives if you are working from home. 

And I think for people whose jobs were incredibly precarious, people who were contingent workers, it's just become more precarious and more dangerous for them on a daily basis and without any sort of recourse. A lot of the people who we deem essential are the ones with the least protections. 

If you are told every day you are essential, you must go to work, and then you go into work, where you feel at risk all the time — that is going to lead to burnout, if it's not there already. 

And then, things like parenting burnout. Add in trying to homeschool, supervise your kids while they're on zoom or trying to figure out if you still have to go into work, trying to figure out some sort of hodgepodge care schedule while also not exposing more people to COVID. All of that, even more burnout.

The part of the book where I talk about the news cycle, that's even worse. If everything was at 9.5 before, now it's like up to an eleven.

I'm curious whether writing the book has illuminated things for you personally.

I think that my big revelation was when I wrote the first article. I could really see myself clearly. And then I'm hoping the book allows even more people to see their own lives and their own place in society even more clearly. 

I just feel more ardent about the fact that it doesn't have to be this way. We need change in our lifetime. We need regulation of capitalism and regime change in order for that to happen. 

Is that the takeaway that you want people to have? 

Probably my takeaway is just to vote, but also it can't just be personal fixes. You cannot fix any of this with small tinkers to your daily life. 

Because this is a societal problem, we have to think of societal solutions, things that will affect everyone. 

And so any solution that really focuses on the individual, your individual self-care schedule or your individual family situation, none of that is actually going to meaningfully change things for you. Because it's not meaningfully changing things for society.

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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