Everyone hates millennials. To Baby Boomers, millennials are lazy, entitled, spoiled, narcissistic, simultaneously stuck in our parents’ basements and wielding enough economic clout to “kill” entire industries—from diamonds, paper napkins, and bar soap to department stores, golf, and Applebee’s. To Generation Z, millennials are wine-guzzling solipsists, obsessed with “’90s culture,” constantly complaining about the difficulties of “adulting,” endlessly striving for a stability that will never materialize. Or, as one Gen Z-er put it pithily on TikTok not long ago, “they be 34 talking about ‘i’m a hufflepuff’ like grow up and do a line of coke already.”
Not even meriting a capitalization, we millennials—the generation born between 1981 and 1996, give or take—are unmoored, disoriented “to not be the youngest kind of adult anymore,” as the novelist Lily King recently wrote of her 31-year-old protagonist, but also dismayed to find that we lack the social and economic security our parents had attained by the time they were our age. Once we were seen as the vanguard of technological savvy, multicultural inclusion, and entrepreneurial pluck; now we are the precariat: sad, lonely, and saddled with debt. The olds are cruelly hoarding all the wealth; the youths are leading the uprisingsgun violence and for the future of the planet; and so many millennials are just exhausted.
This is the context for Anne Helen Petersen’s trenchant new book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, based on her ultraviral BuzzFeed article from last year. Petersen—a culture journalist and scholar of media studies—argues that millennials, as a generation, are suffering from “burnout,” a psychological condition characterized by the collapse that follows overwork. “Exhaustion means going to the point where you can’t go further,” Petersen writes, while “burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years.” “Burnout” is what Petersen realized she felt when, in the fall of 2018, her editor at BuzzFeed suggested she take a few days off after a hard few months of reporting. Petersen initially insisted she was fine, that she was just looking for her next project, but then she noticed that her to-do list never got any shorter.
The concept is a usefully flexible one. It can describe the fry cook, late on his rent, forced to drive Uber during his off-hours to just maybe pay the bills. It can describe the medical student, barely surviving on four hours of sleep a night even as she aces every test. Burnout can describe the single mother, trying desperately to monetize a hobby in between her thankless job and caring for her aging parents and managing the constant demands of modern parenthood. But it can also describe the overeducated New York literary agent, possessing immense cultural capital but unable to find time to see their friends and trying not to think about the six figures of student loan debt threatening to destroy their carefully cultivated life. Burnout is a one-word descriptor that Petersen argues is capacious enough to encapsulate an entire generation’s crisis—even if it affects individuals and groups in wildly different ways.
Over the course of nine bleak chapters, Petersen seeks to show, basically, how much worse things are for millennials than even they might realize. While earlier generations have been similarly dismissed as ungrateful and spoiled, they enjoyed many societal safeguards that simply don’t exist anymore. When the Baby Boomers came of age, they could go to college for a few hundred dollars a semester, more easily join a union, expect to earn a living wage, and join a pension plan—something available to 46 percent of workers in 1980 but just 16 percent in 2019. Yet Boomers went on to pull the ladder up after themselves, electing politicians who would “protect” the middle class with (bipartisan) tax cuts, welfare reform, “right to work” legislation, and a general decimation of public services. By the time millennials were born, so many of the supposed guarantees that made up the mythic, midcentury “American dream” were gone.
Millennials entered a world that was beginning to embrace the notion that children had to work really hard in order to “make it.” If the childhoods of many of their parents were marked by play and independence, many millennial childhoods were carefully structured with playdates, music lessons, organized sports leagues, and constant academic striving. “Millennials became the first generation to fully conceptualize themselves as walking college resumes,” Petersen writes. With more and more jobs demanding college (and even graduate) degrees, and colleges becoming harder to get into, many millennial childhoods became stress-filled slogs. In 1940, just 4 percent of women and 6 percent of men over the age of 25 had earned college degrees; by 2018, that number had passed 45 percent. For many jobs, it started to matter not just if you went to college, but where. Millennial children sought the much-maligned “gold stars,” in other words, not because they were entitled, but because they justifiably feared falling into, or remaining in, poverty if they didn’t secure adequate educational credentials.
But for the majority of millennials, college has not led to “the middle-class stability that was promised to both us and our parents.” In part, this is because college has become so expensive. According to one analysis from 2017, the average Boomer had to work 306 hours at the minimum wage to pay for four years of public college; the average millennial would have had to work 4,459 hours. Because this isn’t, you know, at all practical, millennials have taken on truly astounding amounts of student loan debt—at least 300 percent more than Boomers, permanently affecting their ability to buy homes (something millennials have only been able to do at half the rate of their parents).
The absence of stability is also attributable to the jobs themselves. Older millennials graduated directly into the 2008 financial crisis, an economic cataclysm of their parents’ making that fundamentally upended—or rather, devastated—the labor market. Attractive jobs disappeared—total employment dropped by 8.6 million, and the millennial unemployment rate doubled—and then reemerged a few years later, transformed into “gig” positions, such as freelance writing or driving for Lyft. Marketed aggressively as flexible and modern—work from your own laptop, or your own car, when you have time—these jobs were, in fact, contract labor, with few of the protections or benefits of boring, old, stable employment.
Petersen blames the venal conniving of management consultants for encouraging countless companies to turn to temps, and the vampiric profit pursuits of private equity firms for destroying so many storied institutions—from The Denver Post to Toys “R” Us—and eliminating some 1.3 million jobs in the process. Temps and subcontractors now outnumber full-time employees at many name-brand companies, including Google. Petersen cites one study showing that “nearly all of the jobs ‘added’ to the economy between 2005 and 2015 were ‘contingent’ or ‘alternative’ in some way.” Meanwhile, mainstream publications blamed millennials themselves for this shift: “The 9 to 5 job may soon be a relic of the past,” reported Forbes, “if millennials have their way.”
In lieu of job security or benefits or annual raises, companies began trying to make their jobs seem “cool.” Petersen cites one study showing a 2,505 percent increase between 2006 and 2013 in jobs described with the word “ninja” and an 810 percent increase in “rock star.” This terminological shift meshed well with the generational ethos—millennials had long been told to “do what you love” or “follow your passion”—but it also, perversely, made it much harder to advocate for improved labor conditions. “When a group of ‘passionate’ workers do advocate for better pay and working conditions,” Petersen writes, “their devotion to their vocation is often called into question.” In large part because of the influence of Wall Street banks and management consulting firms, bosses began to equate good work with overwork. And with fewer jobs paying a living wage or offering health care or retirement benefits, workers were incentivized to work more and more and more, constantly adding a new gig or side-hustle in a desperate bid for financial solvency.
Often tracked by Orwellian surveillance technology, workers are now under constant pressure to prove that they’re being productive, literally every second of the workday. Because of email, the line between on and off the clock has been blurred out of existence; because of addictive social media platforms—and the concomitant pressure so many workers face to promote or perform on social media in order to survive—work hours truly never end, and even leisure has come to resemble work. “For millennials,” Petersen writes, “‘leisure time is often fraught and rarely restful.” After all, time spent resting is time that could more profitably be spent working.
Millennial workers now work all the time. They have to. Petersen argues that they seek refuge in nostalgia for childhood things (like Harry Potter and ’90s culture) because these remind them of a time when there was hope for a stable future; they talk about “adulting” because it’s fundamentally disorienting to operate in the adult world with few of the lodestars—home ownership, a good nine-to-five job, a plausible retirement—that popular culture and parental wisdom assured them were part and parcel of adulthood.
Although Petersen’s synthesis of the existing literature is cogent and clear, and although her anecdotal reporting nicely complements the studies she cites, little of what she writes is new or surprising. What is new is her argument that all of this—the need to work constantly, which began for millennials in childhood and never stopped—can be summed up with a diagnosis of “burnout.” Our generational affliction is more than poverty or precarity; it is endless fatigue. Can’t Even is convincingly argued, but it raises a question: Is a psychological diagnosis really appropriate for such a varied, and fundamentally economic, affliction?
When Petersen’s original “burnout” essay appeared in the first days of 2019, a number of writers of color chimed in to note that burnout operates differently for them than it does for Petersen, who identifies as white. “For millennials of color, not only do we have to combat endless emails and Slack notifications,” wrote Tiana Clark in a widely publicized response, “but we also get strapped with having to prove our humanity inside and outside of the workplace and classroom.” To her credit, Petersen clearly strove to include voices from a wide array of backgrounds in her book, often noting the racially and economically disparate impacts of current and historical drivers of burnout. “Decentering the white middle-class millennial experience as the millennial experience is an ongoing and essential aspect of this project,” she writes in the book’s introduction. She also periodically notes how burnout is experienced differently by undocumented millennials, disabled millennials, poor and working-class millennials, and queer millennials. Especially in her chapter on “The Exhausted Millennial Parent,” she delves into how burnout is experienced differently (and more intensely) by women than by men.
Still, I wonder if “burnout” is too broad a concept to explicate our generation’s dilemma. Does the pressure a BuzzFeed writer feels to constantly post on social media and Slack really stem from the same condition that makes so many fast-food workers so tired and harried that 79 percent literally burn themselves, according to one 2015 study cited by Petersen? Is “burnout” really sufficient to capture both of their experiences, and millions of others? And if so, is “burnout” even the right diagnosis? Is “burnout” just a more approachable synonym for words that scholars and activists on the left have been using for years: neoliberalism, precarity, impoverishment, immiseration?
“Burnout Is a Capitalism Problem, Not a Millennial One,” was the title of another response to Petersen’s original essay. Possibly in anticipation of that critique, Petersen has admirably zoomed out in her book to locate the structural forces behind so much of the personal suffering. Still, her analysis occasionally betrays a rather ahistorical interpretation of class struggle. She writes that under “the current iteration of capitalism”—focused only on short-term profits and driven to sociopathy by Wall Street—“profits are often contingent upon workers suffering.” But under capitalism, profits have always been contingent on workers’ suffering. From Indigenous extermination to chattel slavery to prison labor to immigrant exclusion to carbon extraction, capitalism has inexorably depended on the suffering of most of its subjects.
In spite of these critiques, Can’t Even is a powerful book. Petersen ably blends scholarship and reportage, but her most important intervention is her relentless empathy. She interrogates every generational caricature; constantly seeks to contextualize; attempts to capture the experiences of every caste and class; and even brings in her own experiences and perspective a useful but not excessive amount. Perhaps the most unexpected example of this comes in the book’s conclusion, when she candidly discusses her decision not to have children. “I don’t have kids for multiple reasons,” she writes, “all of which can ultimately be traced back to burnout and the culture it promotes.”
Is there anything to be done about burnout? Is there any way to stem the tide of endless work, to halt or even reverse the destruction of state support and an ethic of care? Petersen believes there is. Not with another app or another toothless reform. Not with “self-care”—“a concept originated by Audre Lord to describe how to give oneself space to recover from the exhausting battle of fighting systemic oppression, then co-opted by privileged white women to grant permission to escape many of the standards and schedules they’ve (wittingly or not) helped perpetuate.” Instead, she argues, our power lies in our anger.
“I had been a pile of embers, smoldering for months,” Petersen writes of herself in the book’s introduction, describing her “100 percent burnt out” state in the fall of 2018—the circumstances that prompted her to begin the research that led to her original “burnout” article. “We’re a pile of ashes, smoldering, a bad memory of our best selves,” she writes of her generation, a few hundred pages later, in the book’s conclusion. “Millennials have been denigrated and mischaracterized, blamed for struggling in situations that set us up to fail.… We have little savings and less stability.… Underestimate us at your peril: We have so little left to lose.”
This is a threat, but it is also an aspiration. Petersen pointedly does not provide a list of policy takeaways for her readers, but she does recommend one tactic to end the burnout, using an old word with a profound modern resonance: “solidarity.” Solidarity is more than mere togetherness; it is about uniting across difference in order to oppose a common foe and achieve a good that benefits the whole. Solidarity is what union organizers sang when unions were illegal; solidarity is what bus boycotters practiced in Montgomery in spite of the daily indignities of white supremacy; solidarity is queer rioters throwing bricks outside the Stonewall Inn, and incarcerated queer women rioting alongside them from behind the bars of a jail a few hundred feet away; solidarity is those rising up for justice today, from Minneapolis to Portland to Chicago to Kenosha.
Burnout is so debilitating because it is fundamentally isolating—it exhausts us, demoralizes us, convinces us that our failures are our fault alone. Only by uniting in solidarity against the forces of capital and oppression can we reclaim our futures from the burned-out present.