Reading Anne Helen Petersen’s viral essay “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation” in early 2019 felt simultaneously like having a mild panic attack and a religious epiphany. Petersen described behaviors that felt deeply relatable to me, a hilariously underpaid and overworked twentysomething woman suffering from extremely dumb errand paralysis and a bone-deep exhaustion that left me unable to do much more on weekends besides melt my brain by binge-watching Buffy. Petersen named the condition that burdened her, me, and a ton of young people I knew: Put simply, we were fucking burned out. She went a step further by declaring that this was not a temporary affliction for our generation. “It’s the millennial condition,” she wrote.
In her new book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, out September 22, Petersen runs with her essay’s conclusions and expands on why exactly millennials found themselves pushed past the point of exhaustion. Our generation — born from 1981 to 1996, currently ages 24 to 39 — has been the butt of the joke for years. It’s easy to see why: We were perceived as self-centered, coddled, lazy, and snowflaky. But Petersen pulls back the curtain on how many of our behaviors are rooted in the messaging we received from our baby boomer parents and caretakers, and how their generation dismantled the very same economic and work conditions that would have allowed us to succeed.
Petersen spoke with GEN about how she disentangled the causes of our burnout, why Can’t Even is not exactly a self-help book, and whether she cured herself.
GEN: Why are millennials the burnout generation?
Anne Helen Petersen: People have been burnt out for decades, maybe centuries, because it’s so related to capitalism. At the same time, the characteristics of burnout have really consolidated around the millennial generation in a way that they have not quite with previous generations, in part because of some of the economic shifts that have happened — taking away safety nets broadly, but then also adding in things like huge amounts of student debt that make it harder to negotiate everyday life — and also the rise of digital technologies.
The way I like to think about burnout is that you hit the wall, and then you scale the wall, and you keep going. You’re exhausted, but there’s no other choice but to just keep going. It’s the backdrop of your life, and you have to figure out a way to continue to negotiate that.
Why did you detangle all the causes for millennial burnout in the way you did?
When I wrote the initial piece, I was really trying to focus on my experience. I asked myself, “Why do I feel this way? Why, at this moment in my thirties, am I feeling this?” When I decided to write the book, I wanted to go back and unravel more than just the current moment. How did this start when I was a kid? Why were my parents acting this way? How were they raised? Looking into the history of parenting practices and how they developed that way, but also looking into how did working for a company change so profoundly? How is that responsible for a lot of our burnout?
Part of the project was also really trying to decenter myself as a white, bourgeois person from this narrative, because millennials are all sorts of people. When we talk about millennials, oftentimes, we are talking about white, middle-class millennials. How do we broaden to incorporate a broader experience? Whether that means people who grew up in rural places, people who are first- or second-generation immigrants, people who are disabled, people who are not white.
Your chapter around the millennial childhood made me think a lot of my own. You talk about concerted cultivation — the way parents incorporated a ton of organized activities in our childhoods with the hope they’d help us land in a good college and then a good job — and I thought about all the ballet classes I took. You mentioned the case of Etan Patz and how it eventually propelled this extreme parental supervision. We had our own version of him in Puerto Rico: Rolandito Salas Jusino. I realized many parts of my childhood explain why I’m burned out.
Can I ask, what year were you born?
I think of you as a prime millennial. A lot of the different currents that I talk about had really become strong by the time that you were growing up in the ’90s. I was at the beginning of that wave, because I’m an elder millennial. I didn’t live in a super-rural place, but a town of 30,000. There were some opportunities for that sort of concerted cultivation, but they were always interwoven with the fact that I lived in this town where the kids just ran wild in the weeds all the time.
Some of that freedom that accompanied our childhood — the experimentation, figuring out what boredom was, having to hang out with your own mind and figure out what to do with that time — cultivated imagination and also was restorative. We don’t think about how boredom is the opposite of burnout. There’s a difference from what we experience now, when you’re so tired that you’re laying on the couch and can’t do anything except scroll Instagram. You’re exhausted. You’re not necessarily bored. There’s no space for you to play within your own mind—or hang out with anyone else, either.
The people who were interviewed for the book loved thinking back on that time. I think it’s really regenerative to think about “What was going on in my childhood that has made me the way that I am today?” Those moments where you start to behave or are treated like a mini adult. For a lot of us, when we started building ourselves for burnout is when we started to conceive of ourselves as building yourself for a résumé.
Much of the burnout we feel is directly related to building ourselves as walking résumés and how that doesn’t work in the context of our changed workplace. We’re often underpaid, told to be grateful, and supposed to believe that doing what you love for pennies is normal. You argue that instead you should do what you “like just fine.” Many millennials agree. Why do you think that shift is happening?
A lot of us have pursued that passion and found that doing something you love really does expose you to a lot of exploitation — to getting paid very little, instability, and constantly grappling with how to separate your life from your work. Your work, because it’s what you love, becomes your entire life. How difficult, how mentally exhausting that is!
What I found was a lot of people who had tried to pursue that route of trying to find work they are passionate about and can do for the rest of their lives. Then they burned out on that and settled into a different sort of job that they like just fine, that allows them to really create a space between the job and the rest of the self.
The rest of the self came up when you write about leisure. There were times pre-Covid-19 where I couldn’t do anything during my weekend. Even the idea of getting dressed, leaving my house, and crossing the street to the neighborhood bar was just crushing. Why is it so hard for millennials to actually relax?
It totally feels like work, doesn’t it? Meeting a friend for drinks in the pre-Covid world felt like, “I’ve worked all day. I have to do this other thing,” instead of conceiving of it as leisure, as something restorative. Part of it is that leisure does take energy, whether that’s doing a hobby, or going to a restaurant, or just doing something that isn’t laying on your couch. It takes planning. It takes just having something left in yourself.
It becomes a self-perpetuation process. You stop doing your hobby, then it seems really hard to start doing it again, right? You can’t get the energy to start a new hobby, or make new friends, or research a new restaurant. People in New York really experience this. When I lived there, people were always like, “The restaurants are so amazing. There’s so much culture. So many museums.” I was like, “Yeah, but I never go there.”
You wrote the essay and then researched the book as you grappled with your own burnout. Has it gotten better?
I have not cured my burnout. For me, it is an ongoing process. What I try to do is recognize burnout behaviors. For example: I have a great fiction book that I really, really want to read. It’s on my nightstand. Every day, when I get into bed, I play a dumb Candy Crush game instead.
That is my brain signaling to me that you do not have the energy to do the thing you actually want to do. It sucks when you cannot choose the choice that you want to make because you have been exhausting yourself so thoroughly by your work. It is a constant battle. As you know, in our particular type of work, because we’re reporting on the world around us, everything is our work in a lot of ways. It’s really difficult to maintain boundaries and not have that slippage.
Our line of work is part of why I have a conflicting view of burnout. We are pretty privileged! You really stressed that throughout the book — the way we as steadily employed, middle-class knowledge workers experience burnout is very different than other workers.
The incredible economic disparities, which only continue to get bigger and bigger, are at the heart of much of the profound unhappiness and burnout that we see in our country. People who are falling out of the middle class, who are barely making ends meet, they are constantly struggling just to keep their heads above water. All around them are these examples of what they should be achieving. You need to be working harder so you can consume this way and look this way. You can send your kids to college so they can have a better life for you. There’s just always this striving.
How can we try to counteract that economic inequality? What are the small things we can put in place that make it feel like people aren’t drowning in their own despair of instability all the time? That’s hard, but I do think we can look back on our pretty recent past and see a time where, not for everyone, but for a lot of people, there was more stability. What are the small things we can do? Whether it’s more workers’ rights or allowing the legal system to catch up to providing workers’ rights for contract workers, there are things that would actually offer profound changes.
What challenges do you think millennial parents face?
They are in this weird space, because they’re dealing with the consequences of the way they were raised to become these optimizing machines. Maybe they don’t want to reproduce that on their own kids, but they are. There are all these standards of what good parenting should look like that are impossible to fulfill. Going back to that theme of striving — you always feel like you are not being good enough. The standards are so high, even though there’s all this research that shows you do not have to be parenting the ways millennials are parenting.
That is compounded by these incredible inequities in the home, in terms of heterosexual couples and how the labor is divided. Again and again, the labor is falling disproportionately on women. It just underlines that our society still has not caught up to the fact that women work.
Do you think the pandemic has exacerbated millennials’ burnout?
Oh, absolutely. It would be laughable just how much the pandemic has clarified the need to grapple with our burnout if it wasn’t so infuriating and deeply sad. You can look at pretty much any section of the book — the sections on the impossible weight of the news cycle, or the chapter on the equally impossible responsibilities of millennial parenting — and see how it’s only become more intense and untenable during the pandemic.
Why did you make the choice of introducing a framework for us to think about the reasons we’re burned out without saying, “Here are the top 10 steps to cure yourself”?
It comes back to my training as an academic. I’m never going to tell you exactly what something means, but maybe I can give you the tools to try to think about it in a different way.
Much of the conversation about burnout, or whatever people call it — multitasking, productivity — it’s always based on “Here are solutions that will make it work for you.” You can probably slightly ameliorate your own burnout, but it’s not going to last, because burnout is a societal problem. We have to fix society if we want to fix burnout.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.