It is my sincere hope that millennials will read Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, Anne Helen Petersen’s new book about the professional zeitgeist—that is, if they’re not too burned out to do so.
In nine well-researched chapters, Can’t Even feistily fleshes out Petersen’s viral 2019 BuzzFeed article about millennial burnout. Interviews with a diverse array of millennials and deep analyses of labor history, class and sociology illustrate just how bad life has gotten for many members of this age group. What was called “workaholism” in the 1980s is called “hustle” in the 2020s—and if you can’t hack it, that’s on you. The result for too many Americans is insurmountable student debt, an erosion of job security, the rise of the gig economy, the fetishization of freelance work, a lack of leisure time and a trend toward “competitive martyrdom” in parenting.
Woven throughout Can’t Even is a sharp critique of boomer parents and employers. White, middle-class boomers in particular inculcated high expectations for the future in their children while tearing down the safety net beneath them. Petersen drives home the point that our current problems are not personal but societal—and yet, when a millennial cannot afford health insurance or a down payment on a house, it’s judged as laziness. No wonder so many people experience life as constant busyness and feel guilt for relaxing. “Burnout . . . is more than just an addiction to work,” she writes. “It’s an alienation from the self, and from desire. If you subtract your ability to work, who are you?”
However, readers don’t need to be personally burnt out for Can’t Even to resonate. If social media or the gig economy touch your life in any way, there’s something to chew on here. Fortunately, Petersen doesn’t offer any “hacks” or “tips” to pare back our busy lives. Instead, she advocates for societal self-reflection and an assessment of our values to spur change: Do we really want to live this way?