Can’t Even by Anne Helen Petersen review – in defence of millennials


Sometimes, whereas in the grocery store, Anne Helen Petersen likes to check herself: she purposefully stands in the most important checkout queue, to look at how lengthy she will stay in her personal head with out distraction and frustration. “I’m addicted to stimulation,” she admits in Can’t Even, her meticulously researched research of burnout amongst millennials. “I’ve forgotten not just how to wait, but even how to let my mind wander and play.” Some readers might even see this as a horrifying indictment of fashionable life, however to others, will probably be utterly comprehensible. When was the final time you merely stood in silence, fairly than placing on a podcast or scrolling endlessly by Instagram or responding to an e mail or notification?

Burnout is a symptom of feeling overworked and undervalued, ensuing in what Petersen calls “alienation from the self, and from desire”. Some would possibly recognise it in themselves: an underlying anxiousness, an incapacity to calm down, a basic fuzziness in the mind. Petersen’s guide, born from a BuzzFeed essay that went viral in 2019, has a barely deceptive subtitle: “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation”. It is actually centered on American millennials, and doesn’t argue that solely these born between 1981 and 1996 endure burnout. Rather, millennials are the era to bear the brunt of financial, social and political selections made by their mother and father and grandparents, or era X and the child boomers; everyone seems to be feeling the pressure.

Petersen is at her greatest when drawing a line by historical past, displaying how earlier generations thrived inside a framework of protections in the office and wider society, then dismantled all of them whereas pushing the parable of the self-made man: laborious work means success. The older generations didn’t spoil us, Petersen writes, “so much as destroy the likelihood of our ever obtaining what they had promised all that hard work was for”.

The sections on leisure and social media, and why millennials can really feel exhausted by relaxation, are astutely noticed. In the Eighties and 90s, their mother and father steered them in direction of “concerted cultivation” – extracurricular “enrichment” actions similar to tennis, debating and singing in choirs – that might hopefully get them into prestigious faculties, which might later land them white-collar work, then success, stability and happiness. Regardless of whether or not or not they went to Harvard, many millennial kids developed a warped perspective in direction of leisure, as play turned work and work turned fixed.

American millennials graduated into the worst job market in 80 years, after the monetary disaster, whereas boomers and era X continued to carry most of the facility, first as their mother and father and academics, now as their policymakers and managers. The equation they’d internalised at residence and in faculties (laborious work equals success) meant that millennials settled for unpaid internships, or what Petersen calls “shitty” work, for firms whose earnings at the moment are contingent on their staff struggling – and due to this fact devalued their very own work much more. As it stands, millennials would be the first era because the Great Depression to be worse off than their mother and father. Yet, incessantly characterised in the media as fickle and lazy, they’ve internalised their precarity as a private failure, fairly than recognising that the issue is capitalism. It is what Petersen calls the “millennial way”: “If the system is rigged against you, just try harder.”

Social media is “uniquely aggravating”; the extra it feels obligatory – or like work – the extra social media turns into “frustratingly unrestorative”. Similarly, the 24-hour information cycle has created a continuing sense of needing to “catch up” on each critical information and inane chatter, that are afforded the identical significance; a pair of weeks in the past, it appeared that the Georgia runoff elections and “Bean Dad” have been equally vital, given the noise round each. “We’re desperately, continuously confused,” Petersen writes, “and each click promises something approximating meaning.” Her interviewees, who come from a range of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, report debilitating anxiousness when they aren’t working, or posting, or studying information – merely, not doing something.

For many, myself included, Petersen’s guide will result in excoriating self-reflection. I’m a millennial youngster of gen X mother and father and boomer grandparents, all of whom fear that I can’t be higher off than they’re. I discovered my final vacation exhausting as a result of I felt nervous with out duties; I did attend college and saddle myself with debt as a result of I assumed it was crucial for my success; I’m nonetheless at all times anxious about cash, years after making myself destitute as an intern; for me, too, checking e mail has turn into like a nervous tic – I’ll even do it whereas brushing my enamel or making ready for sleep.

Petersen has added a foreword acknowledging the affect of the pandemic, calling Covid-19 “the great clarifier”. Work was “shitty and precarious before; now it’s more shitty and precarious. Parenting felt exhausting and impossible; now it’s more exhausting and impossible. Same for the feeling that work never ends, that the news cycle suffocates our inner lives, and that we’re too tired to access anything resembling true leisure or rest.” She predicts the pandemic is not going to change something about millennial burnout, however make it even “more ingrained in our generational identity”: “Millennials don’t stand a chance … but the same dire prediction holds true for large swaths of gen X and boomers, and will only get worse for gen Z. The overarching clarity offered by this pandemic is that it’s not any single generation that’s broken, or fucked, or failed. It’s the system itself.”

Petersen is reluctant to suggest actions to the reader – different books have, she says, they usually have been ineffective. “Actual substantive change has to come from the public sector – and we must vote en masse to elect politicians who will agitate for it tirelessly,” she argues. But who’re they? And what of all the opposite nations the place voter turnouts are increased, even obligatory, the place millennials stay overworked, overeducated and nonetheless largely with out energy?

Petersen says she has tried to increase past the frequent understanding of each millennials and burnout; particularly, the experiences of white, middle-class folks. But her considerations are overwhelmingly American. Yes, an Uber driver with three jobs is more likely to really feel precarious the world over – however not all Uber drivers can be worrying about healthcare or scholar debt in the best way many Americans do. The epilogue accommodates some fascinating particulars on Japan, the place they’ve a phrase, karoshi, for actually dying from burnout, however it is just actually there to supply distinction. There are some perceptive observations right here, however a lot of the guide isn’t a lot about millennials as being American. Regardless, Can’t Even is extraordinarily enlightening – I can solely hope that millennials, and Americans, gained’t be the one ones to learn it.

Can’t Even is printed by Vintage (RRP £14.99). To order a duplicate go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery expenses might apply.



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