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Anne Helen Petersen's new book, "Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation" is out September 22. Photo courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Millennials ‘Can’t Even’ get ahead — they’re already too far behind

This story was originally published by The 19th on Sept. 18, 2020.

In the middle of writing her new book, “Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” Anne Helen Petersen spent a week camping in the Swan Valley in her native Idaho. She had no internet, a blip of a phone signal and a solar panel to power her laptop. Petersen developed a routine: walk her dogs, work, run, then read, walk her dogs again, work some more, break for beer, swim with the dogs, get in the tent with her novel and sleep for nine hours.

In just six days, she wrote over 20,000 words. She was producing more, and working so much less than usual. The difference? She didn’t have distractions of the internet, digital technologies that make work bleed into all other aspects of life. When Petersen returned from the woods and back to reliable internet, she found herself paying credit card bills, reading breaking news stories, figuring out how to transfer her dog’s microchip to her name, all while she was supposed to be writing. Everything was taking longer than it should, and it didn’t feel good.

Petersen, 39, who describes herself as an “elder millennial,” is burnt out.

In the fall of 2018, her editor at BuzzFeed suggested as much, which Petersen took as an insult. She’d worked pretty much nonstop through school, as a professor, a book author and a journalist.

But Petersen engaged with the idea, and in January 2019, she published “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation” for Buzzfeed. The story hit a nerve: her piece reached over 8 million views. In a follow-up piece, Petersen shared some more anecdotes about various types of burnt out people. Author Tiana Clark expanded on the idea later that month and penned “This Is What Black Burnout Feels Like.”

Burnout differs from exhaustion, which involves going to the point until you can’t go any further. The phenomenon at the center of Petersen’s book involves no dramatic flameout, no collapse, just pushing yourself to keep going, striving to complete an impossible to-do list for days, weeks or years.

Certainly, other generations have felt overworked and tired, but Petersen argues that contemporary burnout is more intense and more prevalent than what millennials’ parents and grandparents felt. With the eradication of social safety nets like labor unions and pensions, pressures from baby boomer parents to become upwardly mobile, the college debt crisis, right-to-work legislation, and the failure to support child care for working parents, millennials are the first generation since the Great Depression that will be mostly worse off than their parents.

“Millennials live with the reality that we’re going to work forever, die before we pay off our student loans, possibly bankrupt our children with our care, or get wiped out in a global apocalypse,” Petersen writes. “That might sound like hyperbole — but that’s the new normal, and the weight of living amidst that sort of emotional, physical and financial precarity is staggering.”

Everything is work, and work is everything.

It is certainly true, as Petersen articulates frequently throughout the book, available on September 22, that burnout worsens for various swaths of the population by virtue of gender, race, socioeconomic status or sexual orientation. The pandemic has made this ever more obvious, especially when it comes to child care. “Poor parents don’t ‘arrive’ at burnout,’ Petersen writes in the book. “They’ve never left it.” “Can’t Even” opens with an author’s note asking readers to consider how the pandemic has amplified and underscored every argument in her book.

In conversation with The 19th, Petersen elaborates on her own burnout, attempts to avoid it, and what we as a society can do about the patriarchal capitalism that raised, or perhaps razed, a generation.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

One of the things I recently reread is Tiana Clark’s response to yours, and she has this question about whether or not focusing on millennial burnout comes from the fact that now White people feel burnt out, and so now people want to figure it out, while other groups have already been burned out for centuries.

Yes, absolutely. Even dealing with education and child care right now during the pandemic, a whole bunch of White bourgeois people are like, “This is impossible.” And people who’ve been trying to juggle that for a long time are like, “Yeah, it’s totally impossible, but you expected us to deal with it.”

The thing that I’ve learned from this more than anything is we can’t just be worried when it’s something that the majority of people are dealing with. It’s still a broken society when it’s a portion of society that’s grappling with these things.

I’m wondering if you’ve gotten any responses from the boomer generation about this work around millennial burnout?

I got a ton of responses to the original article, I think so much of it just depends on the positionality of the boomer. I think some boomers are really trying to understand why their millennial children are unsatisfied or unhappy and are trying to be empathetic, and also reflective about what are some of the choices that they made that contributed to this. And then there’s a lot of people who are like, “It was hard for me, it should be hard for you.”

It can be hard to facilitate those conversations. My mom is a boomer, at the tail end of that generation. I had to put the book down for a little while when you were talking about watching your mom work and work, especially after divorce, and what we learn from watching our parents endure that. My mom is a pediatrician, and growing up, people would ask if I wanted to be one too, and I was like, “Oh, absolutely not,” because my mom is taken away from me all the time when she’s on call, and I’m always at daycare. But she made good money. Can you talk a little bit about how your mom’s own burnout contributed to yours?

Well, first of all, I had a very similar experience. My dad is a family physician. So people would also say, “Do you want to be a doctor?” And I was like, “No, my dad doesn’t get to hang out on weekends.” I think a lot of doctors’ kids reject that because they see what it does to families.

Depending on when and how long you deal with that, as a child, you really internalize a lot of lessons about what sort of work balance you need, or what sort of work balance you crave, or what sort of work balance is necessary.

My mom and I have a lot of conversations about that. I think she thinks she’s responsible for a lot of these habits that I have. And I’m like, “Well, Mom, you’re also responsible for some of my success. But yes, I work all the time because you modeled that.”

I want to ask about how the pressure to go to college at any cost specifically impacts women. Women make up the majority of college students, which means like we’re taking on the majority of the debt and not graduating into a society that pays us equally. Can you talk about that cycle?

If you’re growing up in our sexist, racist society, you know that there are some things, if you’re not a White dude, that are stacked against you. So you’re like, “How can I have the stability of a White middle class guy in my life?” And one of the ways that seems to be an option is to be a really, really good student and get into a really good college. And, I think oftentimes we embrace that opportunity instead of thinking about these systemic problems with racism, sexism.

And then the problem is that once you graduate from college, then you’re still back into that system, right? It’s still harder to get those jobs. Oftentimes women dominate nonprofits, women dominate social work, women dominate nursing. A lot of these careers are just devalued and not paid as much, so it’s harder to pay off that debt even though you took out as much as someone else.

There’s a lot of pressure in the workplace — especially for women, gender nonconforming people, trans people — and that’s if you can get the job in the first place, right? Through outsourcing, companies have figured out this way to shirk responsibility, especially for sexual harassment. I’d like to hear you talk about how pressure to keep or get a job by any means necessary pairs with harassment in the workplace.

I read a great piece a couple weeks ago about how difficult it is for trans workers in restaurants because of the way that our economy is set up with the tip system. If you are a gender nonconforming person in any capacity, it’s harder for you to get a tips, your income goes down. People don’t pay you as much because you don’t conform with ideas of heteronormative hotness. That’s a systemic way in which we make it harder for people who are different in any way to have the same sort of stability that’s afforded heteronormative people. So that’s one example, I think, of how if you are a person who is gender nonconforming, that added aspect of burnout onto your life is every day wondering, not only is someone going to harass me in my workplace, but am I going to get fewer tips because of who I am?

So just having the ability to seek recourse because of harassment or mistreatment or inequitable conditions, that is one of the safety nets that alleviates burnout, right? Knowing that you’re safe in your job and all of these different ways. And so if you don’t have that, that is another stress, another source of precarity in your everyday life.

Can we talk about downward mobility, and why, especially the boomer generation, raised millennials with such emphasis on being upwardly mobile, raising “mini adults,” as you say, and what that did to us?

My dad was the first person in his family to go to college and was the first person to really be middle class.

And I think that is a lot of the stress: How can I make it so that I have the stability that my parents had, if they were part of that big generation of boomers who grew up amidst the post-war period? If they were in the middle class, in that expanding middle class, you get into your 20s, and you’re like, “Well, crap, I don’t want to, like do worse than my parents.” And then you have kids, and you’re like, “Well, I don’t want my kids to do worse than me.”

I think a lot of the decisions that millennials might say — not in earshot of their parents — kind of screwed them up, those decisions were almost always made in the hopes of making that path stable moving forward: voting decisions, educational decisions, ideological decisions. But sometimes they’re shitty, right? Sometimes they’re things like defunding state education — they have ramifications that actually make it harder to find stability. But they thought: “Oh, by lowering taxes this will help. Oh, by tightening the budget, this will mean stability.” They tell themselves stories for what stability will look like. And everyone’s story is different.

And then there’s the added stress of social media, which you talked about in the book. Not only is there this pressure from our parents, but there is this added pressure to perform. What has social media done to exacerbate our fatigue, because it turns into work, like you say, not fun?

Every corner of our life is open to surveillance, but also self surveillance. There’s that compulsion to package everything in a way that demonstrates that we have it all, that we’re living that balanced life. And that is so exhausting.

I actually think in the pandemic we’ve seen some of the cracks really open up. Some people are trying to still like to perform cute balance during the pandemic. But I think most people have given up the farce.

Your author’s note in the beginning addresses that you wrote this book in the middle of the pandemic, and how COVID makes all of the pressures that already exist for burnout worse. We talk a lot about essential workers, and who’s actually essential became very clear. But I also think millennials have this idea that work is essential to who they are, a lot of people internalize their profession. Can you talk about this?

One thing that we’re realizing with our lives flattened into quarantine life is that work cannot be everything. It can’t be our only identity, and if you take it away, is there anything left of me? Are there other parts of my personality, of my life, that are not work related?

I’ve talked to a fair amount of people who I think are realizing just how inessential their work is. They’re like, “Wow, I had a chip on my shoulder about how important my job was.” But seeing the clarity of who the essential workers are makes them reconsider how they’ve positioned work in their life. Like if it’s not essential work, why are we doing it all the time?

But I do think that work has expanded to fill all these spaces in our lives, and now people in this moment six, seven months in don’t want that to be the case moving forward. How do I make work less essential to my life and myself?

You and I share deciding not to have children because of how much they contribute to burnout, and the lack of control that you have in your life. I think it’s a very unpopular discussion topic to be a woman not interested in having children, because there’s so much pressure. Can you talk a little bit about that, and your decision to include that, especially right after the chapter that talks about all the pressures of being a millennial parent?

I think there’s this lie that a lot of women tell ourselves that there’s never a perfect time, and you’ll make it work when it happens. I’ve heard that so many times, and then it happens. And it’s so hard, right? Being a mom has always been hard in some capacity. But it is just so hard to be a mom in our current situation, and so much of it has to do with society has not caught up to the way that women actually are in the world today.

And then we have this idea that, at least in a lot of families, that “Oh, yeah, we’re a modern family, the labor is split.” And I love that line from one of my interviewees, “I didn’t know my progressive husband was not progressive until it came to the actual division of parenting tasks.”

Hopefully you could sense this, but there was so much rage in that chapter. The responses from moms, they’re just so mad.

I’m mad that society can’t fix itself so that we don’t have to make this decision that if I want to have a kid, I’m gonna have to deal with that anger and frustration and fear moving forward.

I think that a better word than mad is resentful, right? I don’t want to resent my partner. I don’t want to resent my kid. I don’t want to resent the choices that I’ve made. I don’t want to resent my career. I’m trying to build a healthy life in all of these different ways and it makes me mad that a kid can’t be part of that with our current scenario. And that society has not figured out how to provide the safety nets and the social infrastructure on all levels that make it possible.

Another thing that you had mentioned was that a lot of the reasons we don’t have solutions for child care is because men are mostly the ones in power, and they don’t see this as a crisis in the same way. Even in the pandemic when so many families are struggling with what to do with their children, we don’t have a fix.

Look at the makeup of Congress, too, just in terms of people, how old they are. There are a select few legislators who are grappling with what it’s like to have their kids at their house all the time right now. But also given the wealth of people in Congress, they can be at their summer compound all together in a pod, their nanny with them. They are not dealing with the day-to-day of what most people are dealing with. I think that’s why someone like [Sen.] Tammy Duckworth, [the first woman to have a baby while serving in Congress], has been so compelling through all of this because she is living the experience of being a mom who’s trying to also do her freakin’ job right now.

In the last chapter, which is called, “Burn it Down,” you said you didn’t want to give out advice, leaning into this journalistic principle of showing not telling. But when I hear “burn it down,” I hear it as an anti-capitalist rallying cry. Is there an element of that without telling people what to do?

I think that I’m trying to kind of reference to that. At the same time, I think oftentimes, because of the society we live in, if you do gesture towards those big ideas like get rid of capitalism, then people are going to shut off because they’re like, that’s not possible. And I do think it’s possible.

We are a deeply ingrained capitalist nation, but who knows what our future is? I think for right now, the perhaps slightly more moderate suggestion is that capitalism and burnout are incredibly intertwined. When you moderate capitalism and make it work more for the worker, the levels of burnout go down. When you let capitalism run wild, as I would argue we are doing right now, the levels of burnout go up.

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