Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation

Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation

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“[A] razor sharp book of cultural criticism…With blistering prose and all-too vivid reporting, Petersen lays bare the burnout and despair of millennials, while also charting a path to a world where members of her generation can feel as if the boot has been removed from their necks.” Esquire

An analytically precise, deeply empathic book about the psychic toll modern capitalism has taken on those shaped by it. Can't Even is essential to understanding our age, and ourselves."—Ezra Klein, Vox co-founder and New York Times bestselling author of Why We're Polarized

An incendiary examination of burnout in millennials—the cultural shifts that got us here, the pressures that sustain it, and the need for drastic change

Do you feel like your life is an endless to-do list? Do you find yourself mindlessly scrolling through Instagram because you’re too exhausted to pick up a book? Are you mired in debt, or feel like you work all the time, or feel pressure to take whatever gives you joy and turn it into a monetizable hustle? Welcome to burnout culture.

While burnout may seem like the default setting for the modern era, in Can’t Even, BuzzFeed culture writer and former academic Anne Helen Petersen argues that burnout is a definitional condition for the millennial generation, born out of distrust in the institutions that have failed us, the unrealistic expectations of the modern workplace, and a sharp uptick in anxiety and hopelessness exacerbated by the constant pressure to “perform” our lives online. The genesis for the book is Petersen’s viral BuzzFeed article on the topic, which has amassed over seven million reads since its publication in January 2019.

Can’t Even goes beyond the original article, as Petersen examines how millennials have arrived at this point of burnout (think: unchecked capitalism and changing labor laws) and examines the phenomenon through a variety of lenses—including how burnout affects the way we work, parent, and socialize—describing its resonance in alarming familiarity. Utilizing a combination of sociohistorical framework, original interviews, and detailed analysis, Can’t Even offers a galvanizing, intimate, and ultimately redemptive look at the lives of this much-maligned generation, and will be required reading for both millennials and the parents and employers trying to understand them.

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  • Format: Hardcover

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780358315070

  • ISBN-10: 0358315077

  • Pages: 304

  • Price: $26.00

  • Publication Date: 09/22/2020

  • Carton Quantity: 12

Anne Helen Petersen
Author

Anne Helen Petersen

A former senior culture writer for BuzzFeed, Anne Helen Petersen now writes her newsletter, Culture Study, as a full-time venture on Substack. Petersen received her PhD at the University of Texas at Austin, where she focused on the history of celebrity gossip. Her previous books, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud and Scandals of Classic Hollywood, were featured in NPR, Elle, and the Atlantic. She lives in Missoula, Montana.  
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  • reviews
    Amazon's Top Ten Editor's Best of the Month picks for September 

     

    “Brilliant… Although Petersen wrote this before the pandemic, candidly talking about burnout culture that has now been impacted by two recessions, it’s more timely than ever.” —Apartment Therapy 

     

    “[A] razor sharp book of cultural criticism…With blistering prose and all-too vivid reporting, Petersen lays bare the burnout and despair of millennials, while also charting a path to a world where members of her generation can feel as if the boot has been removed from their necks.” —Esquire 

     

    "Whether you’re looking for solutions or just looking to feel seen, Can’t Even is a can’t-miss." —Harper's Bazaar, "27 Best Books of 2020" 

     

    "Petersen’s third book, a highlight-every-sentence-in-recognition survey of the anxiety and exhaustion baked into the lives of myriad young people, dispels many of the myths and misconceptions—the laziness! the entitlement!—surrounding the generation that came of age amid the internet and economic collapse. Yet rather than pit millennials against boomers, Petersen makes meaningful and constructive connections between the toils and troubles of the two groups." —O Magazine 

     

    "We think of capitalism as a way of organizing an economy. But given enough time, it goes beyond that: It organizes our lives, our hopes, our relationships. Anne Helen Petersen has written an analytically precise, deeply empathic book about the psychic toll modern capitalism has taken on those shaped by it. Can't Even is essential to understanding our age, and ourselves."—Ezra Klein, Vox co-founder and New York Times bestselling author of Why We're Polarized 

      

    "Can't Even is the Nickel and Dimed of this generation. A cogent and sober analysis of the economic lives that decades of precarity has wrought, told in Petersen's smart, measured style."—Tressie McMillan Cottom, assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina and author of the National Book Award finalist Thick: And Other Essays  

      

    "Reading this incredible book, I had the overwhelming feeling of someone arranging the chaotic fragments of my life into a cohesive whole. Can’t Even felt like a field guide, a mirror, and an absolution. Compassionate, wise, and incisive, it is a defining work about a generation defined by work." —Ed Yong, writer, The Atlantic and New York Times bestselling author of I Contain Multitudes 

     

    "Can't Even is a compelling exploration of the phenomenon of burnout and how an entire generation has been set up to fail. As a Millennial, reading this book was a deeply cathartic experience. Anne Helen Petersen articulates the struggles and motivation of a generation so impeccably. Reading this book made me feel like finally, someone understands me. I wish I could give this book to everyone I know." —Taylor Lorenz, culture reporter, New York Times  

     

    "Trenchant and well-researched...an incisive portrait of a generation primed for revolt." —Publishers Weekly 

     

    "In a cultural moment rife with inter-generational sparring ("OK, Boomer"), and with millennials garnering criticism for their transient-appearing lifestyles (never buying houses or napkins), Buzzfeed culture writer Petersen cracks open why millennials behave the way they do and how the lifestyles that have been forced upon them are a detriment to society as a whole...Petersen is generous in divulging personal experiences and hopeful even at her most enraged. This galvanizing read reminds readers that what seems impossible is absolutely not, especially for a generation with so little to lose." —Booklist, STARRED review 

     

    "Articulate and persuasive...Petersen delivers a cogent explanation of the millennial landscape, incorporating in-depth research, interviews, and her own experiences to define the problems that millennials face as they attempt to live up to high, occasionally near-impossible expectations." —Kirkus, STARRED review 

     

    “As one of the most insightful culture critics of our time, Anne explains how individuals, organizations, and societies can prevent emotional exhaustion.” —LinkedIn 

     

    "Brilliantly researched...Insightful in the vein of Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique and powerful in the tradition of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, Petersen's Can't Even manages to engross and infuriate while still entertain."—Shelf Awareness 

     

    "'Can't Even’ is a cry from the heart, as well as a bill of particulars about the debt, depression, special pressures and sheer exhaustion…It’s a call for revolution.”—Weekend Edition on NPR 

     

    "A sharp critique....It is my sincere hope that every millennial reads [this book]."—Bookpage, STARRED review 

     

     

     

     

  • excerpts
    Introduction

    “I think you’re dealing with some burnout,” my editor at BuzzFeed very kindly suggested over Skype. “You could use a few days off.” 

         It was November 2018, and frankly, I was insulted by the idea. “I’m not burnt out,” I replied. “I’m just trying to figure out what I want to write about next.” 

         For as long as I could remember, I’d been working pretty much nonstop: first as a grad student, then as a professor, now as a journalist. Throughout 2016 and 2017, I had been following political candidates around the country, chasing stories, often writing thousands of words a day. One week in November, I went straight from interviewing the survivors of a mass shooting in Texas to spending a week in a tiny Utah town, hearing the stories of dozens of women who’d fled a polygamous sect. The work was vital and exhilarating—which was exactly why it felt so hard to stop. Plus, I’d had rest after the election. I was supposed to be refreshed. The fact that I’d found myself fighting tears every time I talked to my editors? Totally unrelated. 

         Still, I agreed to take a few days off, right before Thanksgiving. And do you know what I did with them? Tried to write a book proposal. Not for this book, but a far worse, more forced one. Obviously, that didn’t make me feel better, because I was just working even more. But by that point, I wasn’t really feeling anything at all. Sleep didn’t help; neither did exercise. I got a massage and a facial and they were nice, but the effects were incredibly temporary. Reading sort of helped, but the reading that interested me most was politics-related, which just circled me back to the issues that had exhausted me. 

         What I was feeling in November wasn’t anything new, either. For months, whenever I thought about going to bed, I felt overwhelmed by the steps I’d have to take to responsibly get from the couch to the bed. I felt underwhelmed by vacations—or, more precisely, like vacation was just another thing to get through on my to-do list. I at once resented and craved time with friends, but after I relocated from New York to Montana, I refused to devote time to actually make new ones. I felt numb, impervious, just totally . . . flat. 

         In hindsight, I was absolutely, ridiculously, 100 percent burnt out—but I didn’t recognize it as such, because the way I felt didn’t match the way burnout had ever been depicted or described to me. There was no dramatic flameout, no collapse, no recovery on a beach or in an isolated cabin. I thought burnout was like a cold you catch and recover from—which is why I missed the diagnosis altogether. I had been a pile of embers, smoldering for months. 

         When my editor suggested I was burning out, I balked: Like other type-A overachievers, I didn’t hit walls, I worked around them. Burning out ran counter to everything that I had thus far understood about my ability to work, and my identity as a journalist. Yet even as I refused to call it burnout, there was evidence that something inside me was, well, broken: My to-do list, specifically the bottom half of it, just kept recycling itself from one week to the next, a neat little stack of shame. 

         None of these tasks was essential, not really. They were just the humdrum maintenance of everyday life. But no matter what I did, I couldn’t bring myself to take the knives to get sharpened, or drop off my favorite boots to get resoled, or complete the paperwork and make the phone call and find the stamp so that my dog could be properly registered. There was a box in the corner of my room with a gift for a friend I’d been meaning to send for months, and a contact lens rebate for a not-insignificant amount of money sitting on my counter. All of these high-effort, low-gratification tasks seemed equally impossible. 

         And I knew I wasn’t the only one with this sort of to-do list resistance: The internet overflowed with stories of people who couldn’t bring themselves to figure out how to register to vote, or submit insurance claims, or return an online clothes order. If I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to write for my job, at least I could write about what I jokingly termed “errand paralysis.” I started by sorting through a vast array of articles, mostly written by millennials, and mostly published on millennial-oriented websites, on the everyday stresses of “adulting”—a word adopted to describe the fear of doing or pride in completing tasks associated with our parents. As one piece put it, “The modern Millennial, for the most part, views adulthood as a series of actions, as opposed to a state of being. Adulting therefore becomes a verb.” And part of adulting is getting the things done on the bottom half of your to-do list, even if they’re hard. 

         As I read, it became clear that there are actually three types of adulting tasks: 1) the kind that are annoying because you’ve never done them before (taxes, making friends outside the framework of school); 2) the kind that are annoying because they underline that being an adult means spending money on things that are no fun at all (vacuums, lawnmowers, razors); 3) the kind that are more than just annoying—they’re time-consuming and unnecessarily labyrinthian (finding a therapist, submitting medical reimbursement bills, canceling cable service, quitting your gym, consolidating your student loans, figuring out if and how to access state support programs). 

         Adulting—and, by extension, completing your to-do list—is hard, then, because living in the modern world is somehow both easier than it’s ever been and yet unfathomably complicated. Within this framework, it was clear why I was avoiding each task loitering on my to-do list. Every day, we all have a list of things that need to get done, places where our mental energy must be allocated first. But that energy is finite, and when you keep trying to pretend that it isn’t—that’s when burnout arrives. 

         But my burnout was more than the accumulation of undone errands. If I was honest with myself—actually honest, in the sort of way that makes you feel uncomfortable—the errands were just the most tangible indication of a much larger affliction. Something wasn’t just wrong in my day-to-day. Something had been increasingly wrong for most of my adult life. 

         The truth was, all of those tasks would take away from what had become my ultimate task, and the task of so many other millennials: working all the time. Where had I learned to work all the time? School. Why did I work all the time? Because I was terrified of not getting a job. Why have I worked all the time since actually finding one? Because I’m terrified of losing it, and because my value as a worker and my value as a person have become intractably intertwined. I couldn’t shake the feeling of precariousness—that all that I’d worked for could just disappear—or reconcile it with an idea that had surrounded me since I was a child: that if I just worked hard enough, everything would pan out. 

         So I made a reading list. I read about how poverty and economic instability affects our decision-making abilities. I explored specific trends ...

Available Resources

Related Categories

  • Format: Hardcover

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780358315070

  • ISBN-10: 0358315077

  • Pages: 304

  • Price: $26.00

  • Publication Date: 09/22/2020

  • Carton Quantity: 12

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