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.