The word’s out: Millennials are screwed. (The Huffington Post, New York magazine, The Atlantic, and NPR all agree.) Those unlucky 83 million Americans born over 15 years in the ’80s and ’90s have now weathered two recessions, multiple never-ending wars, and the swift erosion of American hegemony. They’re also, apparently, staring down a new scourge that infects every hour of their work and home lives. Writer Anne Helen Petersen calls it “burnout.”
The term resonated with the millions of people who read and shared her massively viral BuzzFeed essay on the phenomenon in January of 2019. Out of that work comes her third book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. Petersen defines burnout as the resting state of millions of millennials who are more than just tired of the responsibilities of work, parenting, friendships, and the pressure to document it all on the internet—they’re fundamentally soul-weary and incapable of enjoying the fruits of their labors. “Exhaustion means going to the point where you can’t go any further,” she explains. “Burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years.” (This is a fuzzy metaphor, since burnout implies literally running out of fuel or breaking down.) If you’re a millennial situated in precarity, or you know one, you’ll recognize the feeling, Petersen says.
She’s describing the now-broken promises we were made about how the world worked (hard work pays off, going to college will put you in a better financial position, the workplace is getting more and more equal every day, you will be better off than your parents—all debunked in the book). Petersen spends a lot of time detailing those broken promises and not enough reflecting on how we weren’t all promised the same things. Her original essay was followed by another in BuzzFeed, “This Is What Black Burnout Feels Like,” where poet Tiana Clark corrected the record: “No matter the movement or era, being burned out has been the steady state of Black people in this country for hundreds of years.” That perspective informs Can’t Even, and that same quote appears in the book. Petersen took the note and expanded her reporting, including the voices of multiple Black millennials and millennials of color among her dozens of burnout anecdotes. But gesturing at other experiences—or just noting that other people have different ones, then moving on—doesn’t undo the fact that her ambitious, generational framing is fundamentally informed by her Whiteness and class.
Petersen is reluctant to do more than describe the problem. She’s an advocate for unionization, corporate responsibility, and work-life balance to combat burnout, but she’s quick to reassure her audience that those reforms are good for corporations, too. “It’s not that profits in and of themselves are morally bad. But the logic of the current market is that a refusal to increase profits, year after year, is a failure,” she writes. She’s navigating choppy waters here. Her research has led her dangerously close to the conclusions of a well-known school of thought that does think profits are morally bad—that they’re stolen wages, in fact. Petersen is free to disagree with those thinkers, but she doesn’t, not substantively. She just adopts many of their positions while shying away from their diagnosis; she offers no compelling theory of her own in its place.
“This isn’t a knock against capitalism so much as this particular type of capitalism,” she writes. In that type of capitalism, though, she says that “profits are often contingent upon workers suffering.” One is left to wonder about the type of capitalism that could exist where this is not true—the answer isn’t found in this book. Neither are solutions: “I don’t have a specific list of action items for you,” she writes in her conclusion. That’s fine. It’s not Petersen’s job to fix the problems of contemporary global capitalism. But you’d be forgiven for wondering why, then, she titled the conclusion “Burn it Down.” Burn what down? Then what?
When you recognize who Can’t Even is really for, though, Petersen’s reassurances that she’s not a scary Marxist make perfect sense. This book isn’t for the burned-out millennials who testify to their shitty conditions between its covers. It’s a response to her (and our) boomer parents, the ones who say “millennials are lazy” or “millennials are all special snowflakes,” hoping to convince them that things are as bad as we’ve been saying. On this front, it’s a triumph. It’s impossible to refute that things are dire for millennials after Petersen confronts the ills of modern life through empathetic reporting, personal anecdotes, and well-sourced research. She explains in detail just how much has been stripped out of our companies (unions, pensions, privacy, and balance, to name a few) and of our expectations of American life (upward class mobility, having both a career and a child, and a life free of student debt are impossible dreams for most of her interviewees). The book is adamant that no amount of personal grit, hustle, or hard work is enough to come out on top of a fundamentally rigged system, and it’s right. It’s just curious that after all this research, Petersen still ends up thinking small.