Last year, I read the BuzzFeed article that inspired this book, and Rebecca and I discussed this topic in an episode of our podcast. I didn’t learn that Anne Helen Petersen had turned her article into a book until just around the publication day. Fortunately, I was still able to receive a review copy through NetGalley! I was very excited to dig into this book. Although in some ways this book could never have completely satisfied me—more on that later—Petersen nevertheless lays out many interesting ideas, theories, data points, anecdotes, and just in general a wealth of information that helps to describe, untangle, and name the systemic issue of overwork that plagues our society. I saw much of myself and my fellow millennials in Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, and it is one wild ride.
So first thing first: yes, I am a millennial. Petersen defines millennial as anyone born between 1981 and 1996, and even if you quibble with those boundary conditions, I am firmly planted in 1989. So I describe myself as a “middle millennial”: I have no memory of the ’80s, unlike Petersen, but I was already a teenager by the time the web, and then social media, became mainstream. So I kind of have an interesting perspective of being exposed to a variety of the phenemona Petersen describes here—for one of her points is that your experience as a millennial can still differ quite a great deal depending on when within the generation you were born, as well as where, of course, and in what conditions. Petersen acknowledges the influences of race and class on upbringing; she carefully notes how the people she has interviewed describe themselves (white, Black, mixed race, Latina, etc.) and where possible she includes studies that focus on the additional disparities visited upon people of colour. As she says in her introduction, we have a tendency to associate the millennial stereotype with whiteness, even though, statistically, a great proportion of millennials in the United States are not white.
A few other things about me: I am white, and I live in Canada, not the States. Some of what Petersen examines doesn’t apply to us in exactly the same way—we don’t worry about paying for health insurance, for example, although our so-called universal healthcare doesn’t actually cover everything, and many of us do worry about paying for glasses, dentist visits, etc. I also feel very privileged, because unlike many of my millennial cohort, I have fallen into a relatively stable teaching job, and I bought a house at the age of 28.
Yet I am not immune to burnout. As Petersen points out, burnout is a systemic monster: you can avoid it, for a time, with care and self-care—more often than not, however, it creeps up on you all the same. Much of what she describes was not new to me. I do not need to be convinced of capitalism’s rapacious demands for people to work more, more, more, despite the evidence that working less, less, less actually might make us more productive. Similarly, the additional burdens that fall on women (particularly mothers) don’t surprise me. (I would have loved for Petersen to talk about trans people at some point, but I suspect this omission is more due to the lack of data on this subject than an oversight—she seems to be pretty inclusive.) So, for many readers who are keeping up with the issues and the times, Can’t Even is a lot of “already knew.”
So why did I find it so compelling? First, there are definitely things I didn’t know or consider. One of the early chapters discusses the effects of boomer parenting on millennials, and it was quite mind-blowing. Petersen points to a movement from free-range parenting to concerted cultivation and draws a link between this parenting style and adult millennials’ tendencies to overschedule ourselves, to feel like we are never doing enough, and to conflate busy-ness with success or worth. It made me reflect on my own upbringing, and I realize now that my parents gave me a lot of time and space to do my own thing; they seldom pressured me to take certain paths or think about my resume. I believe, now that I’ve read this book, that I owe my parents a lot more for my “chill” attitude than I thought!
Second, even for the parts that sounded familiar to me, Petersen includes compelling data and anecdotes that provide depth. She discusses intersections. She emphasizes that burnout is systemic, not personal. This is the most important yet also the hardest part of this book. When I told Rebecca I was reading this, she said, “I hope she gives solutions too.” That is, we both hoped that Petersen can offer some alternatives, some ways to fix burnout. The truth is that this book is short on solutions. As Petersen points out, individual fixes are temporary at best. You can seldom beat the system.
To be fair, however, Can’t Even makes it clear that we can change the system for the better. Better healthcare that isn’t tied to your job. More time off for new parents—more support for parents (like childcare) in general—and a more frank discussion of unequal parenting and household responsibilities. Stop defining yourself by how much you work, and stop looking down at people for taking it easy.
This past summer, as I lay on my deck reading a book and drinking tea, I told a couple of friends that this is how I want to pass my days. I don’t particularly care if my name is ever recorded in some book with a contribution to society. I want to live well, and be good, and of course I would like to advocate and agitate for change—but I can do that in a collective way. At the end of the day, I want people to remember me as that mellow girl who was there when you needed her. I want to read good books, and have good conversations with interesting people, and live my life for myself instead of for the enrichment of others. I know—typical, entitled millennial. But if we are going to fix the culture of burnout, we have to begin by rejecting generational stereotypes.
Millennials might be the “burnout generation,” but Petersen freely acknowledges that every generation is susceptible to burnout. We do not have a monopoly on it—rather, we get the distinction of that label because ours is the generation that has so solidly ingrained it into the capitalist culture of the United States. Hence, Can’t Even is not an anti-boomer, pro-millennial polemic. Rather, it’s a diagnosis of an inter-generational problem that is everyone’s responsibility to fix. This book is a mirror for millennials but an important read for anyone, regardless of age. Brush aside the stereotypes, and listen to the stories and the data.
I do not like the cover image at all.