All the world’s a factory (review of Christopher Mim’s Arriving Today)

I did my Christmas shopping last year in under an hour thanks to a century worth of technological innovation, supply chains that stretch around the world and a legion of industrial athletes.

While we were in the thick of a global pandemic, the gifts starting arriving on my front porch the next day. How that happened was a miracle and a mystery that journalist Christopher Mims reveals in his book Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door – Why Everything Has Changed About How and Why we Buy.

Mims acts as an international tour guide, inviting us to follow a USB charger from a factory in Vietnam to a front porch in the United States.

“Along the way, you’ll become convinced, I hope, of this astonishing fact: You live inside a factory,” says Mims. “We all do. And you are also a worker inside that factory. As are we all. By the time you finish this book, I hope that you will never again be able to take a package from your front step without feeling a tiny shiver at the gobsmacking effort and complexity behind its delivery to your home.”

Mims’ tour starts at Cai Mep International Terminal, one of the largest container ports in Southeast Asia. “Manufacturing in the twenty-first century isn’t material in, finished products out, as it was in the days of Bethlehem Steel and Henry Ford,” says Mims. “Today’s manufacturing is waypoints on much longer supply chains, a string of factories transforming raw materials into parts and subassemblies before final assembly in some other facility.”

Mims then boards a cargo ship that’s the length of four football fields and carries up to 6,600 shipping containers. It’s about half the size of the world’s largest cargo ship, which is as long as the Empire State Building is tall.

“If you look around the room you’re in now, it’s almost certain that all or nearly all of what you can see came by ship.”

Once back on shore after a 22-day crossing of the Pacific Ocean, Mims takes us through the Port of Los Angeles, the cab of a fully wired long-haul semitruck and into an Amazon fulfilment centre. “Graft Willy Wonka’s sense of whimsy onto Henry Ford’s pragmatism, hire M.C Escher to decorate and Rube Goldberg as chief engineer, then crib the scale of the place from the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which a warehouse of crates stretches to the vanishing point. Make the ceilings snow white, the floors polished concrete, and fill the guts of the thing – miles of curving stainless-steel conveyor – with tens of thousands of daisy-yellow plastic totes.”

Mims’ tour ends with us riding shotgun in a UPS truck. Delivery drivers are industrial athletes, averaging 135 stops a day during a 10 or 12-hour shift.

“In the twenty-first century, how things get to us matters as much as how they’re made,” says Mims. “With manufacturing of even a single object spread across ever more intermediary stages, factories and countries, in many ways the supply chain and the factory floor are now indistinguishable. Adding you, the consumer to the equation and molding your behavior to make it more compatible with this system, through algorithms and marketing tricks, is trivial compared to all the effort that comes before you click the Buy button.”

Mims delivers on his promise of leaving us gobsmacked by the technology, logistics and networks of factories, ports, ships, barges trains, planes, trucks and warehouses that deliver the world to our front door.

Jay Robb 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. This review first ran in the Dec. 17th Hamilton Spectator.

Time to retire retirement and opt for rewirement instead (review of Michael Clinton’s Roar Into the Second Half of Your Life (Before It’s Too Late)

I know I’m getting old because I’ve had the talk.

This is when you can retire and this is how much money you’ll have in the bank, said my financial planner.

I wanted to ask her if I’m richer than I think but that’s a different bank and my financial planner is all business.

Don’t check your retirement savings plan balances every day, she said while handing me a folder stuffed with charts and figures. Remember, these are longer term investments. Markets fluctuate.

I’ve ignored her advice. While I check the balances daily, I’ve sent only one panicked email wondering if I should switch to investments with little risk and no return. Cooler heads have prevailed.

I’ve also started reading the emails sent by my employer, inviting me to retirement planning workshops on Zoom where I can learn how to retire without debt, master the basics of investing and pick up strategies for navigating taxes.

This is all very helpful and much appreciated. But what I could really use is some “rewirement” planning. Michael Clinton’s book Roar Into the Second Half of Your Life is a good start.

“Let’s banish the word retire and call it refire or rewire instead, as many people are living extraordinary lives after they leave their main profession,” says Clinton. “The traditional construct – marriage and a couple of kids, a job at a company for 30 years or more with a pension and a comfortable retirement – is being blown up every day. You may have lived that life once, but now there are ‘reimagineers’ among us who are redefining what might be beyond the first half of one’s life.”

Clinton, who rewired his own career after serving as president of Hearst Magazines, interviewed more than 40 fellow reimagineers and surveyed 630 individuals between the ages of 45 and 75.

He took what he heard and came up with a concept he calls ROAR. It’s about reimagining yourself, owning who you are, acting on what’s next and reassessing your relationships to get you there.

Your mighty ROAR starts with a question.

What’s your favourite future?

Maybe your future looks exactly like the present. You love what you’re doing and wouldn’t change a thing. Well done you!

But maybe you’re ready or long overdue for a change. Maybe it’s a new job, a new career, a new place to call home or a new relationship. You know a change would do you good but you’re hazy on the details. You’re not alone.

“ROAR was actually conceptualized before the pandemic, but as an idea it was never more relevant than in such fraught times as so many of us began reassessing our lives and looking for inspiration from those who have successfully crossed over into a new second half,” says Clinton.

“The Great Pause, as it has been called, has made us reflect and ask: what is important in our lives? Are we on a path that will satisfy us individually? Do we have a lot of unlived moments that we pine for? Do we have a clear view of our future and what we truly want?”

Give yourself time to work through the four steps of ROAR and find the right path for you. Clinton says this could take between one or two years. It’ll be hard, soul-searching work. But don’t put if off indefinitely.

Time is not on your side. Life is short. And being a miserable SOB who’s stuck in a rut will likely force the changes you’re reluctant, afraid or unwilling to make.

“You need to put your life on hyperspeed until your dying breath, regardless of when that might be,” says Clinton. “To ROAR is to contradict and challenge all of what you thought about getting older, to have the imagination, the self-awareness, and the self-confidence to start anew. Your dreams are yours to make happen. It can start today.”

Jay Robb 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.  

How to figure out what makes you come alive at work (review of Sparked by Jonathan Fields)

Planning to join the Great Resignation and jump ship?

Park those plans until you’ve righted your own ship first. You may find that you only need to tweak your job rather than change employers.

It’s good advice I could’ve used at the start of my career

I’ve changed jobs five times over the past 28 years, with three of those moves happening in my first decade after graduating from the Harvard of the North. Lucky for me and my family, every move to a new employer’s panned out and been a great experience (my bosses and colleagues may have a slightly different take).

But I may have stuck with one employer longer if I’d known earlier what kind of work makes me come alive and what wears me out and trips me up.

Jonathan Fields knows. According to the Good Life Project founder and author of Sparked, I’m a Sage. That’s one of 10 Sparketypes that Fields has identified based on insider-intel from half-a-million individuals and organizations plus 25 million data points.

“For sages, illumination is your call,” says Fields. “You live to share insights, ideas, knowledge and experiences with others in a way that leaves them in some way better, wiser, and more equipped to experience life differently – and maybe sparks something in them that makes them want to learn more.”

Along with sages, there are Mavens who live to learn. Makers create and bring ideas to life. Scientists figure things out. Essentialists create order from chaos. Performers turn moments into magic. Warriors gather and lead people. Advisors coach, mentor and help others grow. Advocates serve as champions for others, amplifying their voices. And Nurturers listen, care and help others in personal, hands-on ways.

A free online assessment at sparketype.com will identify your primary and secondary Sparketypes and your anti-Sparketype. For the record, I’m a sage and maven and definitely not a warrior.

“For most people, discovering your Sparketype is like meeting your true self,” says Fields. “There is an immediate, intuitive knowing – an undeniable truth that explains so many past choices and outcomes. It empowers you to not only understand who you are and why you do what you do, but also how you contribute to the world on a very different, more intentional, and fulfilling level.”

Fields starts and ends his book with a warning. Don’t blow everything up once you know your Sparketype. He calls this the premature nuclear career option.

“There can be a strong tendency to convince yourself that the pain and disruption and financial upheaval of walking away is nothing in comparison to the existential angst of unfulfilled potential you currently feel,” says Fields.

“But you know what else is real? The very painful cost of dynamiting your current reality, the emotional groundlessness it can lead to, the fissures it often creates in your relationships, the relentless stress it can foster; the and the devastating effect it can have on your emotional and physical health as you realize your next thing isn’t dropping into your lap with quite the speed or ease you’d hope.”

Instead of blowing up your career or jumping ship to pretty much do the same job somewhere else for a bit more money, rethink the job you’re already doing. “Ask what might happen if you stayed where you were, but did the work needed to reimagine and realign your current job, position or role to allow you to more fully express your Sparketype.”

Your boss and colleagues would appreciate the change in your mood and productivity and you’d likely get assigned more of the work that makes you come alive and perform at a higher level.  

Maybe you’ll still jump ship but you’ll leave with a much better sense of the work you should be doing.

“You’ll do it from a place of not only far great conviction, but also embodied self-knowledge and the sense of alignment and radiance that often generates a level of possibility not available when your exit is more ‘cut and run’ than ‘I did the work’.”

If you’ve spent the pandemic dreaming of a new job or career change, Fields can help you figure out what to do next. Jumping ship isn’t your only option and it shouldn’t be your first move.

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

The five-year plan for becoming an overnight success (review of Dorie Clark’s The Long Game)

Itching to ditch your day job for your dream job?

You’re not alone. Record numbers of workers are quitting in what’s being called The Great Resignation. The pandemic’s served up a wake-up call that’s reordered our priorities and left many of us wanting a different, better and more meaningful way to earn a living. Maybe you’re dreaming of writing a book, launching a business or going out on your own as a consultant or coach.

But what if you’re a little hazy on the details of your dream job, like what it is, how to get there and how long it’ll take to reinvent yourself.

Again, you’re not alone.

It’s easy to sail through life on autopilot, frenetically filling our days and years with busy work that keeps us distracted, makes us feel important but ultimately leaves us unfulfilled.

“So many of us today feel rushed, overwhelmed and perennially behind,” says Dorie Clark, author of The Long Game: How to be a Long-term Thinker in a Short-term World.

“We keep our heads down, always focused on the next thing. We’re stuck in permanent ‘execution mode’ without a moment to take stock or ask questions about what we really want from life.”

Here’s how to break out of execution mode and find your way to more meaningful work and a happier life.

Start by making tough choices. Decide what you won’t be good at. Learn to say no. Yes, people will be disappointed when you turn down their requests and pass on their offers and opportunities. But to be a strategic, long-term thinker, you need lots of what Clark calls white space.

“Being so busy may seem like the path to success – but without time to reflect, an ominous possibility looms: what if we’re optimizing for the wrong things? We need to give ourselves the opportunity to explore what a successful life means to us.”

Clark also recommends “optimizing for interesting” to find what’s most meaningful to you. What piques your curiosity? What are you already doing that you enjoy? Where are you volunteering your time and talent?

You’ll also need to get better at three types of networking so you have the right people connecting, coaching, advising and mentoring you along the way. There’s short-term networking when you need something fast like a job or a new client. “Do it sparingly and only with people you already have close relationships with,” says Clark.

Use long-term networking to connect with interesting people who you admire, respect and enjoy. “These people may be potentially helpful to you in the future, but in indeterminate ways.”

You should also build relationships with fascinating people in diverse fields through what Clark calls infinite horizon networking. “You’re building the connection out of pure interest in them as a person.”

And finally, keep the faith. It’ll take years to become an overnight success – Clark says five years is a realistic timeline. There’s no quick and easy pivot from where you are today to where you want to be tomorrow. “Here’s the thing about playing the long game,” says Clark. “At times, it can be lonely, maddening, and unfulfilling. It’s worth it in the end. But in the moment, it often feels like a complete, humiliating waste of time.”

Strategic patience will get you through the inevitable false and slow starts, setbacks, rejections, failures, self-doubt and the second guessing from family and friends who can’t believe you quit your day job.

“In the short term, what gets you accolades – from family, from peers, from social media – is what’s visible: the stable job, the beach vacation, the nice new car. It’s easy to get swept along. No one ever gives you credit for doing what’s slow and hard and invisible.

“But we can’t just optimize for the short term and assume that will translate into long-term success. We have to be willing to do hard, laborious, ungratifying things today – the kind of things that make little sense in the short term – so we can enjoy exponential results in the future. With small, methodical steps, almost anything is attainable.”

Jay Robb serves as communications manager in McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999. This review first ran in the July 3 Hamilton Spectator.

Reclaiming your time and living a happier life (review of Time Smart)

Dreading the return of your daily commute? I’m not.

Before the pandemic, I walked to work through a residential neighborhood and sometimes a forest. It took 20 minutes.

That walk holds the record for longest commute of my career. Short and stress-free commutes is one of the best perks of working and living in a mid-size city.

Could I have made more money working out-of-town? Probably. Would longer commutes have been worth the bigger paycheques? No.

“Commutes suck,” says Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at Harvard University, behavioural scientist and author of Time Smart. “Mega-commuters burn weeks of their lives in high-stress, unhappy gridlock. Bad commutes are, generally speaking, the by-product of a disconnect between one’s desire for a certain type of work and one’s desire for a certain type of home.”

It’s also a reflection of how we value money more than time. While we can always make more money, we can’t make more time. Everyone’s days are numbered and many of us don’t fully appreciate how few we get.

“No matter our age, education or income, we share the same reality: none of us knows how much time we have left,” says Whillans.

“One day, time runs out and tomorrow never comes. This is one of the core discoveries I’ve made researching time and money: we don’t understand well that time is our most valuable resource and it is finite. People tend to focus too much on working and making money and not enough on having more and better time.

“Given how precious time is, we should put it first. But many of us focus on our careers, constantly giving up more of our time in exchange for more money or productivity.”

Whillans is on a mission to help us put time ahead of money. It starts by avoiding six common traps that leave us time poor.

There’s our constant connection to technology that interrupts and fragments our free time. We’re scrolling and swiping our way through life.

We’re obsessed with work and making money. “We are taught and (incorrectly) believe that money, not time, will bring greater happiness,” says Whillans. “Chasing professional success at all costs is a cause of, and not a solution to, our feeling of having too much to do and not enough time to do it.”

We’ve turned busyness into a status symbol that shapes our identity and defines our self-worth.

We’re quick to give up lots of time to save a little money.

We’re averse to idleness. Doing nothing makes us feel guilty and leaves us bored, restless and reaching for our phones.

And we’re overly optimistic about how much time we’ll have in the future. We say yes to any and all requests that fill our work and social calendars. “The cost of saying yes in the present is low (and it feels good to say yes to people) and the future seems like a place filled with open time – that is, until the future becomes the present and we often wish we could take back the things we said yes to.”

To avoid these traps, start by figuring out where your hours are going.

Think about what you enjoy doing and what gives you a sense of purpose. It’s probably not a two-hour daily commute.

Find small pockets of time each day to do more of what you enjoy.

Now think about what you don’t enjoy.

Spend less time doing what makes you miserable. Quit doing it altogether (drop out of meetings where you have no value to add) or pay someone to do it for you (housekeeping, mowing the lawn).

Block out the free hours you’ve found and funded and then enjoy it without guilt or interruption.

 “If something makes us happy or gives us purpose, we need to hold on to it,” says Whillans. “We need to do whatever we can to prioritize it, to care for it, and to not let distractions disconnect us from it. All of us are living lives that are slowly slipping away. In an era of constant distraction, without careful planning our seconds will pass easily and unhappily.”

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

The art of being indispensable at work with a post-pandemic caution (review)

There’s a right way and wrong ways to build relationships at work.

Playing politics and making it personal would be the wrong ways. These are your colleagues who try to win you over by tearing others down or who are forever lobbying for bigger budgets and more people with promises of returning favours. And then there are the coworkers who either make the rounds each day to say a superficial hello and shoot the breeze or who really want to be your best friend and genuinely believe we should be one big happy family at work.

The problem with these relationships is that they don’t hold up when times get tough and hard decisions must be made.

“Workplace politicking and personal rapport are not good business reasons for making decisions or taking actions in the workplace,” says Bruce Tulgan, author of The Art of Being Indispensable at Work. “They are complications at best and, at worst, can lead you to make the wrong decisions or take the wrong actions. In the real world, the best politics in the workplace – and the best way to protect personal relationships with coworkers – is to stay focused on the work.”

To build strong relationships, make yourself indispensable. Build a reputation for making smart decisions, doing important work very well and very fast and finishing what you start.

Tulgan’s studied “go-to” people for decades and has cracked their code. So what’s their secret? Serve others.

“Stop focusing on what other people can do for you and focus instead on what you can do for other people. Make yourself super valuable to others. The more value you add, the more truly invested others will become in your success.”

Go-to people are also big on maintaining what Tulgan calls vertical alignment. Stay perfectly in step with the priorities, ground rules and marching orders set by your boss. Respect the chain of command. “How you align yourself in terms of decision making and support – and with whom – is the first core mechanism of becoming indispensable at work. Get in the habit of going over your own head at every step and align with your boss through regular structured dialogue.”

A word of caution as we dig ourselves out from the pandemic and make the long slog back to business as usual. Learn when to say no, not yet and yes to all the urgent requests that’ll come your way.

“In the postpandemic era, the would-be go-to person is at greater risk than ever before of succumbing to overcommitment syndrome,” says Tulgan. “Fight it. If you try to do everything for everybody, you’ll end up doing nothing for anybody. Now more than ever, it will take extra savvy and skill to manage yourself, your many work relationships and all the competing demands on your time and talent.”

While avoiding overcommitment will be a constant challenge, the alternative – being notably dispensable – will be a far bigger and career-limiting problem.

This review first ran in the June 5 edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb 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.

The case for building sparks & changing lives (review of Cumulative Impact by Mark Schaefer)

You’ve built a successful career, a thriving business and a good life for your family.

What’s left to build?

Sparks. Lots and lots of sparks for kids and grown-ups who are starting out, staring over and in need of a helping hand.

“A spark can be an open door, an open heart or guidance at the right moment in life,” says Mark Schaefer, social media marketing consultant and author of Cumulative Advantage.

Here’s what happened when kids at Banneker High School just south of Atlanta were showered with sparks.

It was a school where six out of 10 students didn’t graduate and 97 per cent lived in poverty. 

The school piloted a partnership with volunteers from Junior Achievement. Students tackled real-life business case challenges. Volunteers from the companies that sponsored the challenges mentored the kids. Teachers wove the challenges into their curriculum, linking what was taught at school with what was happening out in the world. Students then showed off their teamwork, leadership, creativity and problem-solving skills by pitching their solutions to their mentors.

By their senior year, students had completed 16 case challenges. They then took on capstone projects, including consulting assignments, field research and paid internships.

High school graduation and postsecondary participation rates soared. Absenteeism and disciplinary problems plummeted. And most important of all, 98 per cent of students said they were excited by their future prospects.

What caused the dramatic turnaround? “It wasn’t due to any windfall of money, buildings or new staff members,” says Schaefer. “This troubled school turned around because it had an enormous infusion of sparks created by everyday people that led to a redistribution of hope and esteem.” 

Building sparks ties into one of the five factors in Schaefer’s formula for setting success momentum in motion and gaining cumulative advantage. That advantage is how we improve our odds of getting heard, standing out and succeeding in a world where the big are getting bigger and the rich are getting richer at an accelerated clip. Just as there is cumulative advantage, there’s also cumulative disadvantage. Schaefer’s formula can close that gap.

His momentum-building formula starts with identifying an initial advantage, discovering a seam of timely opportunity, creating significant awareness through a “sonic boom” of promotion, reaching out and up and building sustained momentum through constancy of purpose and executing on a plan.

As others reach up and out, Schaefer says it’s important that we reach down and offer experiences, opportunities and connections as mentors. These are the sparks that can change lives.

Schaefer writes from personal experience. Years ago, he became a mentor to a seven-year-old boy. That child, one of seven siblings who was raised by a single grandmother, is now an elite athlete who’s off to university on a full scholarship.

“Don’t just lend a hand; be the hand and help those in this world who are being left behind,” say Schaefer. “Everything good and great starts with something small. What can you do to create sparks of momentum in your part of the world.

“We know that the momentum of cumulative advantage begins with a spark – that initial seed of potential. Maybe the world needs you and I to be in the business of providing sparks.”

This review first ran in the May 21st edition of The Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Rediscovering our sense of humour at work (review of Humor, Seriously)

I used to have a sense of humour.

In university, I drew a daily cartoon strip for the student paper about a sorority sister and fraternity brother. Profs taped the strip to their office doors. A candidate for student council president promised to ban the strip if elected. He lost.

Early in my career, I put out fake newsletters. These were the early days of PowerPoint presentations, the high water mark for management consultants and the peak of re-engineering the corporation. The zingers wrote themselves. The head of HR thought the union had put out the first newsletter. Lucky for me, he had a sense of humour.

But somewhere along the way, I lost mine and fell off the humour cliff. I can go days without cracking a smile. Weeks without a laugh. I’m not that much fun to be around.

“The collective loss of our sense of humor is a serious problem afflicting people and organizations globally,” say professor Jennifer Aaker and executive coach Naomi Bagdonas, authors of Humor, Seriously. “We’re all going over the humor cliff together, tumbling down into the abyss of solemnity below.”

Aaker and Bagdonas, who teach a humour course at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, know the way back up humour mountain. It’s a climb that’ll restore some much needed levity to balance out the gravity of our situations at work and home.  

“We don’t need more ‘professionalism’ in our workplaces,” say Aaker and Bagdonas. “Instead, we need more of ourselves, and more human connection – especially as in-person meetings are replaced by video chats and more relationships are sustained entirely by email. Often, all it takes is a hint of levity to shift a moment, or a relationship, from transactional and robotic to relational and authentic.”

Humour serves up a cocktail of hormones that can make us happier, more trusting and productive, less stressed and even euphoric.

Aaker and Bagdonas have identified four humor styles. While we all have a default mode, our humour styles vary based on our moods, situation and audience.

There are stand-ups who come alive in front of crowds, earnest and honest sweethearts who never tease, magnets with their unwavering good cheer and the edgy, sarcastic snipers with their dry sense of humour and deadpan delivery (take a free quiz to figure out your humour style).

As with everything else, leaders set the tone when it comes to humour at work. It’s less about being funny and more about letting your team know you actually have a sense of humour. Be quick to smile, laugh at other people’s jokes, lean into self-deprecating humour and continually look for ways to break the tension and lighten the mood.

Solemnity can seem like the safer bet. No one gets cancelled for being humourless. Yet you can be funny and stay employed by following two cardinal rules. Never punch down by making fun of someone who’s lower on the org chart. For example, a president who makes fun of an intern is a bully and a jerk.

And never make someone’s identity a prop, plot point or punchline.  “Derogatory humor doesn’t just push boundaries or highlight divisions. It can perpetuate prejudice and impact behavior by those with prejudiced views. It further divides.”

Aaker and Bagdonas close their book with a compelling argument for more levity and humor. No one on their death bed says “if only I had laughed less and taken myself more seriously.”

Sharing a laugh is a tiny expression of love, say Aaker and Bagdonas. “Where there is love, humor is not far behind.  A life of purpose and meaning is a life filled with laughter and levity.”

It’s time we get out of the abyss of solemnity and start scaling humour mountain with Aaker and Bagdonas as our sherpas.

This review first ran in the Feb. 26 edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager at McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.     

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.