After Anne Helen Petersen’s 2019 Buzzfeed article, “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation”, went mega-viral, racking up 7 million views since publication, she continued to research how so many of us became so obsessed with work. She explores why millennials have fallen into crisis by accepting a human capital-driven workforce and conflating self-worth and identity with how well we can optimize every second of every day. And why, when pushed to the brink of exhaustion, does the dutiful “snowflake” continue to trudge along, chasing our gold star, while simultaneously failing to “adult.” (#tragic)
Her new book, “Can’t Even,” out Tuesday from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is the fruition of Petersen’s effective blend of scholarly vigor and years of experience as a cultural critic. As in her Buzzfeed article, Petersen dissects a wealth of anecdotal, historical, and academic explanations for how millennials got so burned out in the first place. And, she wonders, what can we do to break this cycle — and in related news: Who’s really to blame? (Boomers, you don’t get off that easily.)
Petersen chats about her new book, how burnout will continue to smolder through Covid, and what we can do to combat perpetuating the catalysts for “can’t even” in our children.
I always considered burnout to be when you just stop and you can’t go on. But you describe it more as a state of being, where you know you’ve reached capacity but you keep going anyway.
I think that’s the historical understanding of burnout — the more clinical definition is that it stops you. But the way I understand it in my own life and the way more people are coming to understand it is that it’s something that becomes the background of your life. You scale the wall and you just keep going. Part of the reason I didn’t recognize it [in myself] was that it didn’t meet that narrow description.
So everyone feels burnout differently, but it tends to stick with you?
Yeah, I think people cycle through greater burnout depending on things, like their job or childcare. People often come up to me and ask, ‘So, did you cure your burnout?’ And I’m like, ‘Of course not,’ but now I feel I can identify burnout behaviors and try to create boundaries with work. I seek out things I consider burnout anecdotes like spending time outside and being with my mind. Gardening has been a great way for me to take a break.
And you moved to Montana, which seems like a great place to get away from it all.
I moved to Missoula in 2017, when we were working remotely, which means we were working more. We were like, ‘we have so much more time because we aren’t spending time commuting every day!’ And, like a lot of people working from home now, you’re trying to prove you’re working really hard. It resulted in working so much more and struggling. There’s always space for more work. I think about when I was back in college and that feeling of, ‘Oh, I’ll study so hard, and then I’ll take the final, and then I’ll be done.’ It felt like if you work really hard, then you’ll have a break — an actual break — and that’s something you don’t get in modern workplace culture.
You write about millennials being the first generation to consider themselves “walking college resumes,” which I assume has turned into “walking professional resumes.”
I was talking to a friend who was applying for a lawyer job and there’s a place on the application that asked for hobbies. But the thing is, he doesn’t have any hobbies! When you’re on a career path like law, you don’t have space or time for hobbies. But you often have to pretend to have hobbies because you need to put on a performance as a well-rounded, balanced individual. Now, in lieu of a traditional resume, oftentimes, our Instagram accounts feel like a resume. Everything we do is positioned to perform for other people about how balanced our lives are when they usually aren’t.
And you mention leisure time is something that millennials tend to struggle with — one woman you spoke with says she doesn’t have any hobbies she hasn’t monetized. Or you write about wondering whether you’ve read a book because you want to read the book, or so you can tell people you’ve read the book. That hit me hard.
I think a hobby has to be something where you don’t care how good you are at it and don’t care if anyone ever sees it. It might benefit people in your family, like gardening or knitting, but it’s not about being the best or monetizing it or competing. That’s so hard for us to let go of, especially for certain types of millennials, because [while growing up] every activity is directed toward that larger goal of college. So as an adult, how can you conceivably use your time for something not for a goal?
Do you think there’s any way around that?
I think cultivating a self outside of work helps, whether that’s a robust spiritual practice or being around kids or your community. I don’t want to be prescriptive because everyone has different things they want to explore that make them feel alive.
I thought it was interesting that you open the book by talking about how many boomer parents instilled values of “being the best” or aggressively optimizing for the future in their millennial children, but then close with how millennial parenting is perpetuating that cycle in a lot of ways.
It’s those amplified practices that kind of messed us up. Parenting practices are reactions to scarcity — you want to provide stability for your kids, help them reproduce the same class status or better. Unless you have some assurance in your life, those parenting practices will get more absurd.
One solution you offer to ending the cycle — for us and future generations — is finding burnout awareness and finding solidarity. Can you explain that?
If we are reading stories and recognizing how many people are feeling this way, it creates empathy. And true empathy means we’re not alone, and that’s how we get to solidarity. It’s acknowledging that the texture of other people’s burnout is different than yours, but it’s all valid. If you’re a knowledge worker, struggling with burnout, it’s very different than a single mother struggling with burnout. It’s all related to our current capitalist system. We have to use those societal ideas to describe these issues if we are going to be honest about what the problem is. We can fix small things on an individual level, but until the system is better, you’ll never be able to fix it for yourself.
Interview was edited and condensed. Rachel Raczka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @rachelraczka.