We live in a cultural landscape ripe for burnout. In Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, Anne Helen Petersen engages in compelling cultural analysis to argue why millennials are not lazy or entitled (as they have wrongly been labeled), but rather people who are exhausted after being raised by burnt-out parents to be “walking resumes.” As adolescents, millennials were encouraged to be stressed, sleep-deprived, and over-extended, trying to create a perfect college application so they could get a secure job that they would love (or so they were promised). For boomers, good parenting meant passing down an elusive, simple ideal that no matter the cost, hard work pays off and leads to success and fulfillment.
The problem is that no matter how hard millennials work, it is not paying off for many of them.
Petersen contends that millennials understand themselves as “human capital,” or “subjects to be optimized for better performance in the economy.” Millennial worth and value is based on their ability to perform a task with efficiency and proficiency. Therefore, when choosing between friends and building a college application, many millennials chose school over having a social life. From Petersen’s perspective, much of millennial worry over preparation for college as teens and with work as adults is due to feeling like there are only two possible life outcomes: total success or abject failure.
Can’t Even summarizes some of the most important shifts in the American workplace. Petersen explores how the creation of “temp” jobs (which led to part-time jobs, seasonal gigs, freelance work), the new habit of subcontracting, and the practice of hiring consultants to make cuts on behalf of companies created a volatile work landscape. The current work environment exhausts and worries workers, exploits and violates laborers, shifts risk to individuals, and treats people as dispensable all in the name of companies making fast money at any cost.
Petersen also explores how “the rise and glorification of overwork, the spread and normalization of workplace surveillance, and the fetishization of freelance flexibility” contributes to burnout. Even jobs with more security, like working for Facebook, encourage all three in veiled ways—(1) workism is masked by access to food and gyms at the office so your whole life is spent at work, (2) workplace surveillance is disguised as team-building through apps like Slack, and (3) flexibility is really a way of encouraging workers to have zero boundaries between work and their personal lives.
Petersen boldly proclaims, “When we look back on the period following the Great Recession, it will be remembered not as a time of great innovation, but of great exploitation.”
If you want to understand how millennials became a generation obsessed with getting a job that they love at the expense of everything, including themselves, Can’t Even covers this too. Petersen takes on the modern-day phenomenon of desiring to find a job one loves, explaining how millennial obsession with having a cool job that they are deeply passionate about has led to millennials being willing to work too many hours, for too little pay and too few benefits, an equation poised for burnout. The idea that you should find a job you love and the similar concept of following a “calling” are both conducive to capitalism, Petersen argues. From her perspective, companies from zoos to churches to educational systems exploit millennial desire to do something they are passionate about and fulfill a destiny they feel they have by underpaying and over-working them.
In addition to critiquing the idea of “getting a job you love and never working a day in your life,” Petersen criticizes what she calls the “education gospel.” She explains that education has been framed as the solution to every economic problem even though having a college degree has not been a viable solution for downward mobility and not every job demands a college degree.
While Petersen is right about both things, this view of college is narrow. If college is (as it was historically) about helping young people to articulate the meaning of life (see e.g. Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be or Kronman’s Education’s End) and grow in cultural competence (college campuses can be some of the most diverse communities in the US) and develop intellectual humility (a major goal of a course, Life Worth Living, that I helped co-teach at Yale), it is important for everyone to have the opportunity to go to college. The team at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture (of which I was formerly a part) is doing meaningful work on the purpose and revitalization of higher education. It would have been helpful for Petersen to acknowledge that college is not just simply about training people to get a job. It serves the common good.
While Petersen argues that millennial parents did not spoil millennials but rather destroyed the likelihood of millennials obtaining what was promised, there is more to the story that she could have unearthed. For the college-educated, work has shifted from being a means of making money to a means of making a self. She touches on the idea of finding identity in work, but from my view, to rest from work for millennials is to rest from the pursuit of making a self, from defining who we are, and setting ourselves apart from the crowd. Who wants to rest from any of this? The stakes are too high.
On the other hand, to rest from work is to have to face that we actually do not know who we are or where our lives are headed. From my assessment, it seems many millennials feel they must busy themselves with the search of finding themselves lest they struggle with meaninglessness. It makes sense that “workism” also contributes to anxiety about the future and paralyzing depression then. When who we are is primarily connected to what we do and we suddenly become unable to perform as well as we used to, become confused about what is next, experience burnout, get a poor evaluation, or fail, we can easily perceive that we have not only under-performed, rather we have failed at finding or becoming our self.
Petersen goes on to explain how the shifts in work have created poor conditions for many people and how attempts to change the conditions of work or to ask for fair treatment are often then unfairly labeled as “entitlement” and “ungratefulness” in millennials. Petersen hopes for “benevolent capitalism,” which treats employees like human beings not human doings. Petersen explains differences between Amazon and Google and Uber who exploit, underpay, and shift responsibility and places like Quicktrip and Trader Joes that value their employees and still make money. As it turns out, companies can care about their employees by providing decent hours, living wages, job security, and benefits while still flourishing as a company.
Other than work and parenting, a major contributor to millennial burnout according to Petersen is the smartphone and social media. Social media platforms like Instagram and new technologies like our phones that keep us always on are eroding leisure time, giving us the impression that we can and need to constantly multitask, and are causing us to have unrealistic expectations. Petersen adds that our current work and technological landscape has meant “significant decreases in both familial and nonfamilial networks.” There are several reasons for social network decline. Everyone is busy. People prioritize efficiency over relationships. Finally, there are fewer spaces to gather in to cultivate informal ties. The lack of third places combined with the fact that group activities are often easy to cancel leaves us with more work and less relating
While Petersen does not want to offer quick strategies for resisting burnout (that would be another to do list!) she does mention things that would make a difference. Petersen thinks that millennials would benefit significantly by recognizing that they have inherent value, not because they labor and perform, but because they are. Throughout the book, Petersen also explores other important shifts: labor laws that fit the new work landscape (such as forcing companies to recognize all people who work for them as employees and to take care of them as employees); government regulation of technology companies; equal distribution of domestic labor among women and men; and equal parental leaves for men and women (ideally men would take this leave at a different time than their partner).
Can’t Even is a fair, honest, and helpful assessment of multiple issues in contemporary society. Petersen’s claims are research-based, informed by interviews, and personal, which makes her book easy to read and tough to swallow. It would be difficult for most readers to read her book and not feel overwhelmed (or convicted). Yet the truths she unearths and articulates with remarkable clarity are ones we must all grapple with and respond to in meaningful ways—for the health of millennials and for rising generations. If you want to understand the anxiety, stress, and depression—burnout—that is touching so many people’s lives, Petersen is a worthy guide.
I tend to think much of the trouble (we) millenials experience comes from the fact that we drank deeply of the values of our parents then applied their values with a universality and ruthlessness that they never forsaw. We’re probably the first generation in human history, for instance, that are incapable of participating in institutions unreflectively . We’ve got a very bad case of what Charles Taylor calls “Reform,” because our parents told us to “make the world a better place.” They told us “be creative” and “think critically,” so literally everything is up for constant review. It’s emotionally, morally, and intellectually exhausting, but because we’re so radically committed to living by our values, to do any less we be to betray (you guessed it) ourselves.
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