Millennials were burning out long before COVID hit (review of Anne Helen Petersen’s Can’t Even)

Good on bosses who end Zoom calls by reminding us not to sacrifice our health and wellbeing during the pandemic.

But our millennial colleagues could use more than reminders. They’ve been wrestling with burnout long before COVID-19 knocked the world off its axis.

And while our leaders’ intentions are good, what ails millennials can’t be fixed by shortening hour-long Zoom calls to 50 minutes, keeping Fridays free of meetings, going for midday walks and not hitting send on emails written in the dead of night after their kids have finally gone to bed.

“The fallout from the next few years won’t change millennials’ relationship to burnout or the precarity that fuels it,” says Anne Helen Petersen, former senior culture writer for Buzzfeed News and author of Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. “If anything, it will become even more ingrained in our generational identify.”

This is the generation that graduated in and around the Great Recession buried in record amounts of student debt. Good jobs disappeared as fast as housing costs soared. They took unpaid internships for the experience and strung together contract, temp and freelance gigs that paid barely living wages. If they landed full-time jobs with benefits and pensions, they were terrified of losing their golden ticket at any moment. To make themselves indispensable, they adopted an unsustainable ethic of overwork.

Yet no matter how many hours they logged and how little they slept, the traditional milestones of adulthood – marriage, home ownership and kids – were priced beyond their reach. These markers were delayed or dropped. And just as millennials reached their peak earning years, the pandemic hit.

Overwork plus chronic anxiety mixed with student debts, childcare bills and mortgages that no honest woman or man can pay add up to burnout.

Petersen calls burnout a contemporary condition and not a temporary affliction for millennials. She defines burnout as “the sensation of dull exhaustion that, even with sleep and vacation, never really leaves. It’s the knowledge that you’re just barely keeping your head above water, and even the slightest shift – a sickness, a busted car, a broker water heater – could sink you and your family. It’s the flattening of your life into one never-ending to-do list, and the feeling that you’ve optimized yourself into a work robot that happens to have bodily functions, which you do your very best to ignore. It’s the feeling that your mind has turned to ash.”

Burnout is a condition that can’t be cured with life hacks, side hustles, productivity apps, positive thoughts or gentle reminders.

“This isn’t a personal problem. It’s a societal one.  We gravitate toward those personal cures because they seem tenable, and promise that our lives can be recentered and regrounded, with just a bit more discipline, a new app, a better email organization strategy or a new approach to meal planning. But these are merely Band-Aids on an open wound. No amount of hustle or sleeplessness can permanently bend a broken system to your benefit.”

Petersen doesn’t offer quick fixes. She wrote her book to show what’s broken rather than to tell millennials how to save themselves from burning out. There’s value in letting millennials know burnout isn’t a personal moral failure and they’re not alone in their juggling and struggling with work and family commitments. It’s equally important to let us Gen Xers and Baby Boomers know just how close our 30-something colleagues are to collapse and how ready they are for sweeping, substantive changes.  The pandemic’s put the spotlight on a problem that we’ve ignored or downplayed for too long.

“Millennials have been denigrated and mischaracterized, blamed for struggling in situations that set us up to fail,” says Petersen.

“But if we have the endurance and aptitude and wherewithal to work ourselves this deeply into the ground, we also have the strength to fight. We have little savings and less stability. Our anger is barely contained. We’re a pile of ashes smoldering, a bad memory of our best selves. Underestimate us at your peril. We have so little left to lose.”

Jay Robb is a Gen Xer who serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Published by Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

One thought on “Millennials were burning out long before COVID hit (review of Anne Helen Petersen’s Can’t Even)

  1. Excellent post, a valuable read for a millennial like myself & many useful points about the impact of the pandemic on top of pre-existing issues. – Jay @ the Minimum Man

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