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Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation Kindle Edition
An incendiary examination of burnout - what got us here, the pressures that sustain it and the need for drastic change
Are you tired, stressed and trying your best but somehow it's never enough?
Does your job seep into your evenings and your home life creep into your work?
Does the bottom half of your To Do list feel unreachable?
This is burnout and it is affecting how we work, parent, socialise and live.
Through her own experience, original interviews and detailed analysis, Anne Helen Petersen traces the institutional and generational causes of burnout. And, in doing so, she helps us to let go of our guilt and imagine a possible future.
'Genuinely enlightening... Can't Even is a reminder to the burned out generation that things can be different' Observer
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
"I think you're dealing with some burnout," my editor at BuzzFeed very kindly suggested over Skype. "You could use a few days off."
It was November 2018, and frankly, I was insulted by the idea. "I'm not burnt out," I replied. "I'm just trying to figure out what I want to write about next."
For as long as I could remember, I'd been working pretty much nonstop: first as a grad student, then as a professor, now as a journalist. Throughout 2016 and 2017, I had been following political candidates around the country, chasing stories, often writing thousands of words a day. One week in November, I went straight from interviewing the survivors of a mass shooting in Texas to spending a week in a tiny Utah town, hearing the stories of dozens of women who'd fled a polygamous sect. The work was vital and exhilarating'which was exactly why it felt so hard to stop. Plus, I'd had rest after the election. I was supposed to be refreshed. The fact that I'd found myself fighting tears every time I talked to my editors? Totally unrelated.
Still, I agreed to take a few days off, right before Thanksgiving. And do you know what I did with them? Tried to write a book proposal. Not for this book, but a far worse, more forced one. Obviously, that didn't make me feel better, because I was just working even more. But by that point, I wasn't really feeling anything at all. Sleep didn't help; neither did exercise. I got a massage and a facial and they were nice, but the effects were incredibly temporary. Reading sort of helped, but the reading that interested me most was politics-related, which just circled me back to the issues that had exhausted me.
What I was feeling in November wasn't anything new, either. For months, whenever I thought about going to bed, I felt overwhelmed by the steps I'd have to take to responsibly get from the couch to the bed. I felt underwhelmed by vacations'or, more precisely, like vacation was just another thing to get through on my to-do list. I at once resented and craved time with friends, but after I relocated from New York to Montana, I refused to devote time to actually make new ones. I felt numb, impervious, just totally . . . flat.
In hindsight, I was absolutely, ridiculously, 100 percent burnt out'but I didn't recognize it as such, because the way I felt didn't match the way burnout had ever been depicted or described to me. There was no dramatic flameout, no collapse, no recovery on a beach or in an isolated cabin. I thought burnout was like a cold you catch and recover from'which is why I missed the diagnosis altogether. I had been a pile of embers, smoldering for months.
When my editor suggested I was burning out, I balked: Like other type-A overachievers, I didn't hit walls, I worked around them. Burning out ran counter to everything that I had thus far understood about my ability to work, and my identity as a journalist. Yet even as I refused to call it burnout, there was evidence that something inside me was, well, broken: My to-do list, specifically the bottom half of it, just kept recycling itself from one week to the next, a neat little stack of shame.
None of these tasks was essential, not really. They were just the humdrum maintenance of everyday life. But no matter what I did, I couldn't bring myself to take the knives to get sharpened, or drop off my favorite boots to get resoled, or complete the paperwork and make the phone call and find the stamp so that my dog could be properly registered. There was a box in the corner of my room with a gift for a friend I'd been meaning to send for months, and a contact lens rebate for a not-insignificant amount of money sitting on my counter. All of these high-effort, low-gratification tasks seemed equally impossible.
And I knew I wasn't the only one with this sort of to-do list resistance: The internet overflowed with stories of people who couldn't bring themselves to figure out how to register to vote, or submit insurance claims, or return an online clothes order. If I couldn't figure out what I wanted to write for my job, at least I could write about what I jokingly termed 'errand paralysis.' I started by sorting through a vast array of articles, mostly written by millennials, and mostly published on millennial-oriented websites, on the everyday stresses of 'adulting''a word adopted to describe the fear of doing or pride in completing tasks associated with our parents. As one piece put it, 'the modern Millennial, for the most part, views adulthood as a series of actions, as opposed to a state of being. Adulting therefore becomes a verb.' And part of adulting is getting the things done on the bottom half of your to-do list, even if they're hard.
As I read, it became clear that there are actually three types of adulting tasks: 1) the kind that are annoying because you've never done them before (taxes, making friends outside the framework of school); 2) the kind that are annoying because they underline that being an adult means spending money on things that are no fun at all (vacuums, lawnmowers, razors); 3) the kind that are more than just annoying'they're time-consuming and unnecessarily labyrinthian (finding a therapist, submitting medical reimbursement bills, canceling cable service, quitting your gym, consolidating your student loans, figuring out if and how to access state support programs).
Adulting'and, by extension, completing your to-do list'is hard, then, because living in the modern world is somehow both easier than it's ever been and yet unfathomably complicated. Within this framework, it was clear why I was avoiding each task loitering on my to-do list. Every day, we all have a list of things that need to get done, places where our mental energy must be allocated first. But that energy is finite, and when you keep trying to pretend that it isn't'that's when burnout arrives.
But my burnout was more than the accumulation of undone errands. If I was honest with myself'actually honest, in the sort of way that makes you feel uncomfortable'the errands were just the most tangible indication of a much larger affliction. Something wasn't just wrong in my day-to-day. Something had been increasingly wrong for most of my adult life.
The truth was, all of those tasks would take away from what had become my ultimate task, and the task of so many other millennials: working all the time. Where had I learned to work all the time? School. Why did I work all the time? Because I was terrified of not getting a job. Why have I worked all the time since actually finding one? Because I'm terrified of losing it, and because my value as a worker and my value as a person have become intractably intertwined. I couldn't shake the feeling of precariousness'that all that I'd worked for could just disappear'or reconcile it with an idea that had surrounded me since I was a child: that if I just worked hard enough, everything would pan out.
So I made a reading list. I read about how poverty and economic instability affects our decision-making abilities. I explored specific trends in student debt and home ownership. I saw how 'concerted cultivation' parenting trends in the '80s and '90s connected to the shift from free, unstructured play to organized activities and sports leagues. A framework started to emerge'and I put that framework squarely on top of my own life, forcing me to reconsider my own history, and the way I've narrativized it. I went on a long walk with my partner, who, unlike my 'old millennial' self, grew up right in the peak of millennial-ness, in an even more academically and financially competitive environment. We compared notes: What changed in the handful of years between my childhood and his? How did our parents model and promote an idea of work as wholly devouring? What did we internalize as the purpose of 'leisure'? What happened in grad school that exacerbated my workaholic tendencies? Why did I feel great about writing my dissertation on Christmas?
I started writing, trying to answer these questions, and couldn't stop. The draft ballooned: 3,000 words, 7,000, 11,000. I wrote 4,000 words in one day and felt like I'd written nothing at all. I was giving shape to the condition that had become so familiar, so omnipresent, that I'd ceased to recognize it as a condition. It was just my life. But now I was amassing language to describe it.
This wasn't just about my individual experience of work or errand paralysis or burnout. It was about a work ethic and anxiety and exhaustion particular to the world I grew up in, the context in which I applied to college and tried to get a job, the reality of living through the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression, and the rapid spread and ubiquity of digital technologies and social media. In short: It was about being a millennial.
"Burnout' was first recognized as a psychological diagnosis in 1974, applied by the psychologist Herbert Freudenberger to cases of physical or mental collapse as the result of overwork. Burnout is of a substantively different category than 'exhaustion," although the two conditions are related. Exhaustion means going to the point where you can't go any further; burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years.
When you're in the midst of burnout, the feeling of accomplishment that follows an exhausting task'passing the final! finishing the massive work project!'never comes. 'the exhaustion experienced in burnout combines an intense yearning for this state of completion with the tormenting sense that it cannot be attained, that there is always some demand or anxiety or distraction which can't be silenced," Josh Cohen, a psychoanalyst specializing in burnout, writes. "You feel burnout when you've exhausted all your internal resources, yet cannot free yourself of the nervous compulsion to go on regardless.' It's the sensation of dull exhaustion that, even with sleep and vacation, never really leaves. It's the knowledge that you're just barely keeping your head above water, and even the slightest shift'a sickness, a busted car, a broken water heater'could sink you and your family. It's the flattening of life into one never-ending to-do list, and the feeling that you've optimized yourself into a work robot that happens to have bodily functions, which you do your very best to ignore. It's the feeling that your mind, as Cohen puts it, has turned to ash.
In his writing about burnout, Cohen is careful to note its antecedents: 'melancholic world-weariness," as he puts it, is noted in the book of Ecclesiastes, diagnosed by Hippocrates, and endemic to the Renaissance, a symptom of bewilderment with the feeling of 'relentless change.' In the late 1800s, 'neurasthenia," or nervous exhaustion, afflicted patients run down by the 'pace and strain of modern industrial life.' Burnout as a generalized condition is nothing (entirely) new.
But contemporary burnout differs in its intensity and its prevalence. People patching together a retail job with unpredictable scheduling while driving Uber and arranging childcare have burnout. Startup workers with fancy catered lunches, free laundry service, and seventy-minute commutes have burnout. Academics teaching four adjunct classes and surviving on food stamps while trying to publish research to snag a tenure-track job have burnout. Freelance graphic artists operating on their own schedule without healthcare or paid time off have burnout. Burnout has become so pervasive that in May 2019, the World Health Organization officially recognized it as an 'occupational phenomenon," resulting from 'chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.' Increasingly'and increasingly among millennials'burnout isn't just a temporary affliction. It's our contemporary condition.
In a way, it makes sense that millennials are feeling this phenomenon most acutely: Despite the fact that this generation is often portrayed as a bunch of underachieving college students, in actuality, we are currently living through some of the most erratic, anxiety-filled years of adulthood. According to Pew Research Center, the youngest millennials, born in 1996, will turn twenty-four in 2020. The oldest, born in 1981, will turn thirty-nine. And population projections suggest there are now more of us in the United States'73 million'than any other generation. We're not seeking our first jobs, but trying to take the next steps, and confronting pay ceilings in the ones we have. We're not just paying off our own student debt, but figuring out how to start saving for our young children. We're balancing skyrocketing housing prices and childcare costs and health insurance premiums. And the promised security of adulthood never seems to arrive, no matter how hard we try to organize our lives, or tighten our already tight budgets.
Until the term 'millennial' coalesced around our generation, there were other names vying to label the millions of people born after Generation X. Each gives you a sense of how we were defined in the popular imagination: There was 'Generation Me," which put a fine point on our perceived self-centeredness, and 'Echo Boomers," a reference to the fact that the vast majority of our parents are members of the single largest (and most influential) generation in American history.
The name 'millennial''and much of the anxiety that still surrounds it'emerged in the mid-2000s, when the first wave of us were entering the workforce. Our expectations were too high, we were scolded, and our work ethic too low. We were sheltered and naive, unschooled in the ways of the world'understandings that have ossified around our generation, with little regard to the ways we confronted and weathered the Great Recession, how much student debt we're shouldering, and how inaccessible so many milestones of adulthood have become.
Ironically, the most famous characterization of millennials is that we believe that everyone should get a medal, no matter how poorly they did in the race. And while we do, as a generation, struggle to shed the idea that we're each unique and worthy in some way, talk to most millennials and the thing they'll tell you about growing up isn't that they conceived of themselves as special, but that 'success," broadly defined, was the most important thing in their world. You work hard to get into college, you work hard in college, you work hard in your job, and you'll be a success. It's a different sort of work ethic than 'work the fields from dawn to dusk," but that doesn't mean it's not work ethic.
Still, the millennial reputation lingers. Part of its resilience, as will soon become clear, can be attributed to long germinating anxieties about '80s and '90s parenting practices, as boomers translated residual anxieties about the way they raised us into critiques of the generation at large. But part of it, too, stems from the fact that many of us did have high expectations and incongruous ideas about how the world works'expectations and ideas we'd internalized from a complicated, self-reinforcing nexus of parents, teachers, friends, and the media that surrounded us. For millennials, the predominant message of our upbringing was deceptively simple: All roads should lead to college, and from there, with more work, we'd find the American Dream, which might no longer include a picket fence, but certainly had a family, and financial security, and something like happiness as a result.
We were raised to believe that if we worked hard enough, we could win the system'of American capitalism and meritocracy'or at least live comfortably within it. But something happened in the late 2010s. We looked up from our work and realized, there's no winning the system when the system itself is broken. We're the first generation since the Great Depression where many of us will find ourselves worse off than our parents. The overarching trend of upward mobility has finally reversed itself, smack dab into the prime earning years of our lives. We're drowning in student debt'an estimated $37,000 per debtor'that's permanently stunted our financial lives. We're moving in greater numbers to some of the most expensive zip codes in the country, in search of the intense, high-profile job of our dreams. We're saving far less and devoting far more of our monthly income to paying for childcare, rent or, if we're lucky enough to somehow get the money for a down payment, a mortgage. The poorest among us are getting poorer, and those in the middle class are struggling to remain there.
And that's just the financial baseline. We're also more anxious and more depressed. Most of us would rather read a book than stare at our phones, but we're so tired that mindless scrolling is all we have energy to do. We're more likely to have bad insurance, if we have it all, and little by means of a retirement plan. Our parents are inching toward the age at which they're going to need more and more of our help, financial and otherwise.
The only way to make it all work is to employ relentless focus'to never, ever stop moving. But at some point, something's going to give. It's the student debt, but it's more. It's the economic downturn, but it's more. It's the lack of good jobs, but it's more. It's the overarching feeling that you're trying to build a solid foundation on quicksand. It's the feeling, as the sociologist Eric Klinenberg puts it, that 'vulnerability is in the air.' Millennials live with the reality that we're going to work forever, die before we pay off our student loans, potentially bankrupt our children with our care, or get wiped out in a global apocalypse. 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, especially when so many of the societal institutions that have previously provided guidance and stability, from the church to democracy, seem to be failing us.
It feels like it's harder than ever to keep our lives'and our family's lives'in order, financially solvent, and prepared for the future, especially as we're asked to adhere to exacting, and often contradictory expectations. We should work hard but exude 'work/life balance.' We should be incredibly attentive mothers, but not helicopter ones. We should engage in equal partnerships with our wives, but still maintain our masculinity. We should build our brands on social media, but live our lives authentically. We should be current, conversant, and opinionated about the breakneck news cycle, but somehow not let the reality of it affect our ability to do any of the above tasks.
Trying to do all of that at once, with little support or safety net'that's what makes millennials the burnout generation. People from other generations have been burnt out; that's not a question. Burnout, after all, is a symptom of living in our modern capitalist society. And in many ways, our hardships pale in comparison. We did not weather a Great Depression, or the catastrophic loss of life that accompanied a world war. Scientific advances and modern medicine have increased our standard of living in many meaningful ways, but our financial calamity has nonetheless changed the economic trajectory of our lives; our wars are not 'great' ones, but they are deeply unpopular forever wars that drain our trust in government, fought by those in economic situations where the military is the only route to stability. And then there's climate change, which requires a global effort and systemic rewiring so massive that no generation or even nation can address it alone.
There's a pervasive feeling that despite some of the legitimate wonders of modern society, our potential has been capped. And yet we strive, because we know nothing else. For millennials, burnout is foundational: the best way to describe who we've been raised to be, how we interact with and think about the world, and our everyday experience thereof. And it isn't an isolated experience. It's our base temperature.
The millennial burnout piece that finally made its way online, attracting more than seven million readers, was a personal essay stretched to try to encompass the experience of a generation. The response suggested that, in some crucial ways, it had. One woman told me she'd worn herself so thin in her prestigious grad school program that she had to quit, then spent the last year working at a dog kennel, scooping poop and cleaning. An elementary school teacher in Alabama kept getting told that she was a 'saint' for the work that she was doing, even though she has fewer and fewer resources to do her job. She quit this spring. A mother of two wrote me: 'I recently described myself to my therapist as a 'walking to-do list' who 'only exists from the neck up.'' There were thousands of impassioned emails, many several pages long, and more come in every day. It gradually became clear to me that I'd simply articulated what to that point had been largely unspeakable. We didn't have a common vocabulary across our generation'and thus struggled to articulate the specifics of what was happening to those outside our generation.
But that was just the beginning. What you'll find over the next couple hundred pages is an attempt to expand and elaborate on that original piece, drawing on extensive academic and historical research, over three thousand responses to surveys I created, and countless interviews and conversations. You can't understand the way we live now without looking deeply at the economic and cultural forces that shaped our childhoods'and the pressures our parents faced as they raised us. So we'll examine them. We'll look at the massive, macro-level shifts in the way that labor is organized and valued, as well as the way 'risk''on the job, in finances'is distributed between companies and those who make them run. We explore what it is about social media that's so exhausting, how leisure disappeared, why parenting has become 'all joy and no fun," and how work got so shitty'and has stayed that way'for so many of us.
This is still a book informed by my own experience of burnout, but I've attempted to expand the understanding of what burnout feels like beyond the presumed bourgeois experience. Because the way that the word millennial has typically been deployed'to talk about our high expectations, laziness, and tendency to 'destroy' entire industries, like napkins or wedding rings'has been to describe the stereotypical behaviors of a particular subset of the millennial population: one that is almost always middle class, and often white.
And that's simply not the reality for millions of millennials. Of the 73 million millennials living in the US in 2018, 21 percent, over a fifth of the population, identify as Hispanic. Twenty-five percent speak a language other than English at home. Only 39 percent of millennials have a college degree. Just because burnout has become a defining millennial experience doesn't mean that every millennial experience of it is the same. If a white middle-class person feels exhausted reading the news, what does an undocumented person navigating the world endure? If it's tedious to deal with implicit sexism in the workplace, how about adding in some not-so-implicit racism? How does burnout work differently when you don't have access to generational wealth? How does student debt sting more when you're the first in your family to go to college?
Decentering the white middle-class millennial experience as the millennial experience is an ongoing and essential aspect of this project. I find myself returning to the words of Tiana Clark, who wrote a piece on the specifics of Black burnout in response to my own: 'No matter the movement or era," she wrote, 'being burned out has been the steady state of black people in this country for hundreds of years.' And while many white Americans are attempting to reclaim economic security, that sort of security has always been elusive for Black Americans. As the sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom makes clear, in today's economy, 'achieving upward mobility, even in thriving cities that compete for tech jobs, private capital, and national recognition, is as complicated as it was in 1962," during the March on Washington. "In that economy," Cottom explains, 'black Americans hustled in the face of legal racial segregation and social stigma that cordoned us off from opportunities reserved for white Americans. In 2020, Black Americans can legally access the major on-ramps to opportunity'college, workplaces, public schools, neighborhoods, transportation, electoral politics'but despite hustling like everyone else, they do not have much to show for it."
I remember the first-generation Chinese immigrant who messaged me after the piece, telling me that she never heard the words 'anxiety' or 'depression' in her home growing up. "I heard the terms &7;&0;('eating bitterness') and&5;&3;('heart feeling') as both my parents felt the depression that is common for newcomers to Canada, struggling to find stable work in a society that places white folks above all others," she explained. "Accepting the fact that I, too, can be burned out, depressed, and anxious while still being a Chinese person has been a tough process."
And I think of a report from the Pew Research Center, examining the difference in student debt and home ownership between generations. That's useful, but using stats for the entire generation leaves another story untold: how millennial student debt as a whole has ballooned, but for Black Americans, especially those who attended predatory for-profit colleges, it has skyrocketed. A recent study examining the fate of loans taken out by students in 2004 found that by 2015, 48.7 percent of Black borrowers had defaulted, compared to 21.4 percent of white borrowers. That's not just a significant statistical difference; that's another version of the millennial narrative altogether.
Different types of millennials have experienced the road to burnout, well, differently, whether in terms of class, parental expectations, location, or cultural community. After all, so much of generational identity has to do with your age/place within the generation at the time of massive cultural, technological, and geopolitical events. For example: I spent my college years taking pictures on my Vivitar and getting them developed weeks later. But so many millennials had to figure out college and adulthood at the same time they began to navigate Facebook and what it meant to represent themselves online. Some millennials experienced the attacks on 9/11 as an abstract event, inconceivable to their elementary school minds; others endured years of harassment and suspicion because of their religious or ethnic identity.
And then there's the Great Recession. As an old millennial, I was already in grad school by the time the bank bailouts and the foreclosures started happening. But others finished high school or college and stepped right into the financial crisis, giving them little option than to do the thing for which our generation would later be roundly ridiculed: move back home. At the same time, tens of thousands of millennials watched their parents lose jobs, the homes they grew up in, their retirement savings'making it harder, if not impossible, to move back home. Some millennials' experience of the recession was realizing how fortunate they were to have a safety net; others' was realizing how far you can fall without one.
What we talk about when we talk about millennials, then, depends on who's doing the talking. These events, and their aftermaths, have made us who we are'but they've made us differently. This book cannot fully cover any version of the millennial experience, including the white middle-class one. That's not an abdication of responsibility, but an acknowledgment: This is the start of the conversation, and an invitation to talk more. There's no burnout Olympics. The most generous thing we can do for others is to attempt to not just see, but really and truly understand, the parameters of someone else's experience. In short, acknowledging someone else's burnout does not diminish your own.
In writing that article, and this book, I haven't cured anyone's burnout, including my own. But one thing did become incredibly clear: This isn't a personal problem. It's a societal one'and it will not be cured by productivity apps, or a bullet journal, or face mask skin treatments, or overnight fucking oats. We gravitate toward those personal cures because they seem tenable, and promise that our lives can be recentered, and regrounded, with just a bit more discipline, a new app, a better email organization strategy, or a new approach to meal planning. But these are all merely Band-Aids on an open wound. They might temporarily stop the bleeding, but when they fall off, and we fail at our newfound discipline, we just feel worse.
Before we can start fighting what is very much a structural battle, we first need to understand it as such. That might seem intimidating, but any easily implementable life hack or book promising to unfuck your life is just prolonging the problem. The only way to move forward is to create a vocabulary and a framework that allows us to see ourselves'and the systems that have contributed to our burnout'clearly.
That might not seem like much. But it is an essential beginning, an acknowledgment, and a declaration: It doesn't have to be this way.
- ASIN : B088W5Q5ZR
- Publisher : Vintage Digital (14 January 2021)
- Language : English
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- Print length : 302 pages
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Top reviews from other countries
It didn't tell me anything I didn't know and only made me feel a bit anxious, if I'm honest. Like a long reminder that things are pretty rubbish right now.
I just finished reading Michelle Obama's book "becoming", which I absolutely adored, so maybe the contrast added to my opinion on it.