Anne Helen Petersen, the author of the famous “Millennial burnout” essay, has released the book Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. Petersen critiques what she sees as an all-consuming work culture, with young people feeling pressured to work around the clock and to monetize their free time. (NPR)
NH: Up until recently, the lion’s share of books about Millennials weren’t written by Millennials. But now that the first wave of this generation is in its mid- to late 30s, the floodgates have opened.
Can’t Even joins a growing literature that includes OK Boomer, Let’s Talk by Jill Filipovic (see “In a New Book, A Millennial Writer Appeals to Boomers for Change”), Kids These Days by Malcolm Harris, and The Theft of a Decade by Joseph Sternberg. There’s also now a handful of early-wave Millennial journalists who have become known for their generational commentary, including The Atlantic’s Annie Lowrey and The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino.
Their books and essays hit many of the same themes. In fact, you could say that they all tell the same basic story--about bright-eyed young people who grew up believing that they could achieve anything they wanted, only to find that this wasn’t the case.
They can’t find stable jobs with benefits, let alone their dream jobs. They can’t save money. They feel pressured to work all the time and always to be upbeat.
Petersen’s book zeroes in on the last point. It’s not an upbeat read. Out of all the “Millennial” books, it’s the most relentlessly bleak. Millennials are burned out, she argues, because too many companies prioritize short-term profits over worker satisfaction and security.
Their coming-of-age dovetailed with the rise of the gig economy, which helped sell the dream of independence while creating a “permanent digital underclass” with no protections or benefits.
Their biggest expenses--housing, health care, education--have become astronomically more expensive at the same time that wages have stalled and two major recessions have set them back.
In short, Millennials work all the time because they feel like they have no other choice. They’re plagued by the sense that if they’re not hustling, they’re falling behind. She joins many other Millennials in castigating Xers for exploiting young people with "hustle porn." (See "For Millennials, Reality Bites... Harder" and "Millennial Podcaster Seeks Advice from Older Entrepreneurs.") After reading her book, it's easier to understand not only why burnout it such a Millennial preoccupation, but also why it's an even bigger problem for young women than young men. (See "Would Better Jobs Solve Millennial Burnout?")
Petersen rebuts the myth that young people all want to be freelancers: Sure, some do, but more are doing it out of necessity than preference. She writes that “we robotize ourselves willingly in hopes of gaining that elusive stability we so desperately crave.”
Some might find Petersen’s tone overly apocalyptic. At times it feels like she doesn’t believe there are any fairly paying jobs or non-workaholic employers left. But again, she’s mostly echoing what her peers have written as well. The through line that unites all of these books is “Millennials are being crushed by the system and are at a loss for solutions.”
Petersen states at the end of the book that her goal isn’t to encourage anarchy. She simply hopes that readers come away understanding that things don’t have to be this way.
Work didn’t always feel this all-consuming and life this precarious, and it’s OK to get angry about it.
It’s a uniquely Millennial message to end on: Yes, we’re in need of a revolution--and if it comes we should unite behind it, but we're waiting for somebody to start it.