Millennial Burndown

The Short Fuse of Anne Helen Petersen's "CAN'T EVEN"

Millennial Burndown

The gig economy “means complete independence, which in the current capitalist marketplace is another way of saying it means complete insecurity,” writes Anne Helen Petersen in her new book CAN’T EVEN: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020). Herein lies the central aim of her project: to reconcile how millennials, despite doing all the right things to ensure a healthy balance of security and freedom, have somehow emerged with neither.

Petersen first coined the term “millennial burnout” in a viral Buzzfeed article in early 2019; the book, which is essentially a fleshed-out version of the essay, traces the policies and attitudes that have defined millennials’ current relationship to work and leisure. In it, Petersen explores how the social structures millennials were raised to adhere to (and measure themselves against) — college, a salary and benefits, property ownership, marriage and family — crumbled before our eyes, resulting in not only a generational-scale loss of institutional trust, but also widespread workaholism that, somehow, failed to bring about any sort of meaningful financial stability.

Petersen was trained as an academic, but she’s spent the majority of her career as a journalist. It shows — her writing is best when she’s wading through information to dramatize larger cultural narratives. Braiding together history, scholarship, criticism, and original reporting, she guides readers through the pillars of modern millennial life: (preparing for) college; the post-grad job market and corporate irresponsibility; the rise of smartphones, social media, and surveillance; and the changing modes and demands of cultural consumption. On many of these topics, she’s legitimately insightful.

In her discussion of the rise of freelance work, for example, Petersen traces the roots of the gig economy back to the 1970s, when companies effectively feminized and trivialized temp work as “voluntary or superfluous, rather than necessary to supplement another salary.” This, she argues, set the stage for the explosion of what she calls “contingent work” in subsequent generations, giving rise to a class of not-quite-employees including independent contractors, freelancers, adjunct professors, and other gig laborers. But even as the economy and employment landscape changed, many large companies reserved a second-class status for these contingent workers, yielding a new category of well-compensated — but un-benefitted and wildly unstable — worker, which she dubs the “precariat.”

Despite the massive fissures in social institutions over the past few decades, freelance work is still viewed as a choice made exclusively by the absurdly wealthy or absurdly idealistic. The exhaustion and instability of freelancing, Petersen writes, is “compounded by the widespread refusal to see what you do as work … Even calling these jobs ‘gigs,’ with all the inherent connotation of brevity and enjoyability, elides their status as labor.”

On the other end of the employment spectrum, Petersen does a fantastic job breaking down the insidiousness of the ex-consultancy pipeline on modern workplace culture. Every year, scores of young, largely Ivy League-educated gunners leave their positions at grueling Big Four firms and end up importing the consulting ethos to their new roles and companies. “As more and more ex-consultants spread throughout corporate America,” Petersen explains, “the employee-sloughing, core-competency-preserving, short-term-profits-at-all-costs ideology became commonplace.” These high-earning millennials are burned out, too, but the amenities available to them — particularly those in tech — simply insulate them from the detriment they’ve inflicted on their peers.

The crux of Petersen’s analysis (and the tipping point of our collective burnout) is the attention economy, which she argues has blurred all demarcations between work and play, effectively transforming leisure time into another job. She doesn’t quite offer a new perspective — in fact, her attempts to illustrate this always-on mentality feel a bit obvious and overly-worn — but she does usefully simplify the narrative around technological consolidation, particularly as it relates to the advent of push notifications and the overall gamification of personal admin.

The internet’s “promise to ‘make our lives easier’ is a profoundly broken one, responsible for the illusion that ‘doing it all’ isn’t just possible, but mandatory,” she writes. “When we fail to do so, we don’t blame the broken tools. We blame ourselves. Deep down, millennials know the primary exacerbator of burnout isn’t really email, or Instagram, or a constant stream of news alerts. It’s the continuous failure to reach the impossible expectations we’ve set for ourselves.”

This is where the book falls short: the writing feels too huffy and exasperated to be genuinely engaging. In attempting to debunk the stereotype of millennials as lazy, narcissistic, and entitled, Petersen simply ends up constructing a quasi-martyr narrative around the futility of millennial ambition. This defensiveness distracts from the project itself: you get the sense that Petersen is less interested in actually examining the world around her than she is in proving, once and for all, that millennials got uniquely ripped off.

The scope and ambition of the book — while impressive — likely contribute directly to this aura of fatigue. The litany of interviews (and their attendant dogtags: race-comma-SES) is exhausting; too anecdotal to be moving or even that convincing. It’s not that I doubt Petersen’s research, but that her failure to pin down her audience forces her to sacrifice specificity for mass-market limpidity. In her effort to show how structural disintegration has affected all millennials, along every rung of social strata, she ends up failing to construct a compelling, complex portrait of any one archetype.

To be sure, older vs. younger millennials inherited vastly different worlds, which alone makes it difficult to unite the generation under a common identity. Petersen, who graduated from college in 2007, experienced the effects of both the dot-com burst and the mortgage crisis as a young professional; in contrast, back-end millennials, who entered the workforce nearly a decade later, had long-internalized the distrust (or irrelevance) of many of the societal structures that Petersen appears to mourn. Paradoxically, this perspective seems to have made younger millennials more secure — or at least less prone to let-down. We were freer (of social stigma) to cobble together multiple jobs, more comfortable with the idea of lifelong debt, and less set on property ownership as the surefire route to long-term stability. It wasn’t that we felt less entitled to the good life we felt we had earned through hard work, but that we weren’t expecting the same sort of institutional payoff as were Petersen and older millennials.

This audience problem also seems to account for the bagginess of the book’s cultural touchstones. The implications of FreshDirect, the 2016 election, and “coastal elitism” — while certainly materially significant — no longer hold enough fresh narrative tension to feel either abrasive or resonant. The historical context Petersen presents is interesting, and her observations are factually substantiated, but her attempts to render the lived experiences of millennials are too diffuse to give her para-political conversations much utility.

Ultimately, it’s the tone that’s most off-putting: Petersen’s prose, while fiery and full of energy, lacks the emotional texture and dissonance necessary to prompt any meaningful self-reflection (the antidote to burnout isn’t “overnight freaking oats,” she complains). This standoffish approach might be fine if the project was strictly reported, but there’s a cloying sense that it is personal, and her failure to own this motivation undermines her authority as a cultural interlocutor.

Petersen is not alone in this tendency: It’s become somewhat of a feature of pop-cultural criticism to veil one’s personal exploration as a macro-level societal argument (Meghan Daum’s The Problem with Everything, even Jia Tolentino’s wildly successful Trick Mirror) to affect a wider purview or a more “objective” account of social phenomena. But if we were comfortable forgoing mass appeal, or laying bare our own demographic interests (at the risk of appearing too privileged or too self-absorbed), we might find that a personal investigation would better illuminate the losses — however petty — we feel we’ve sustained.

Actually, Petersen would make herself more unassailable if she were to ground her argument in personal experience — not only because we’d be asked to reckon with her humanity (rather than facts and figures), but also because we would better understand the particularities of the ennui she attempts to explain. Rather than distancing herself from her topic with a supposedly neutral, universal account, personalizing the narrative would afford Petersen more space to invite real nuance.

In the conclusion, Petersen does drop her armor and probe her own choices — most notably, how pursuing her PhD saddled her with debt that ultimately foreclosed the possibility of having children. “These days,” she says, “children are much more valuable than a PhD, but the impulses that guide us toward these decisions remain the same: They just feel right, like the best possible choice we could make, like something we won’t regret.”

This admission — of wondering how things might be different had we done things differently — is what saves Petersen from losing the trust she’s earned through her extensive reporting. Through this acknowledgement, she finally emerges as relatable; admittedly, after 250 pages of data and analysis, it’s comforting to see Petersen retreat from her airtight argument and wonder if she might actually be responsible for some pieces of her life, even as it’s tempting to blame the many ugly, external forces.

We’re burnt out, it’s true; but we’d do well to remember that our instinctual, flawed decision-making still has a hand in what’s become of our world. For this reason, Petersen is perhaps most astute in her moment of concession: “Every day,” she reflects, “people decide that the wreckage is worth it.”

Emma Baker

is a freelance writer and a graduate of NYU's Cultural Reporting and Criticism program. She writes about self-image and consumer culture, and lives in Brooklyn.

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