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.

Review: Millennials with Kids – Marketing to This Powerful and Surprisingly Different Generation Parents by Fromm and Vidler

MillennialsThis review first ran in the Sept. 28 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Millennials With Kids: Marketing to This Powerful and Surprisingly Different Generation of Parents

By Jeff Fromm and Marissa Vidler



Here are two ways to convince more Millennials to move to Hamilton.

Rebrand our Ambitious City as the Useful City.

And have drones fly over Walmart when shooting highlight reel videos of Hamilton.

Here’s why.  Today’s Millennials are tomorrow’s pragmatists and Walmart shoppers.

“Usefulness will become the new cool and Millennial consumers will take to brands that can contribute to their new idea,” predict Jeff Froom, president of a Millennial marketing firm and Marissa Vidler, founder of a marketing research firm specializing in Millennial consumers. “Pragmatism is rooted in the idea that success is based on how practical something is and how easily something can solve a problem.”

Time-squeezed Millennials who got hit hard by the Great Recession will embrace pragmatism because their lives are about to get even more complicated, stressful and expensive.

“There is an epidemic raging through the Millennial generation, and it seems to be unstoppable,” say Froom and Vidler. “All signs point to the continual spread of this epidemic until the vast majority of the Millennial population is affected. Once exposed, everything changes – in a heartbeat. What could be so contagious, so powerful, so life altering? Parenthood.”

By one count, a quarter of Millennials are already parents. As more of them become moms and dads, they’ll define family life for the next 30 years. Look for Millennials to raise kids blessed with an unprecedented sense of individual tolerance and social responsibility. Millennial moms and dads will lead the charge in setting new standards for health and nutrition and new expectations when it comes to the quality and purity of the food that they serve to their families.

As parents, they’ll be less involved in civic, political and social causes and they’ll become more conservative.

Froom and Vidler believe Millennials with kids will be our most innovative and empowered generation of parents in history. “Now, more than ever, it’s time to stop treating them like kids who are an enigma and start treating them like adults who are in charge and make their own decisions and budgets – and who are quite pragmatic.”

Millennials will also discover what every parent knows all too well. Kids change everything, priorities radically shift and household expenses can go through the roof.

While 20-somethings may swear they’ll never venture beyond downtown and step foot in a Walmart, that pledge of unallegiance is subject to change.

In a recent survey of top 10 brands, Millennials ranked Walmart dead last.  Walmart climbed to the fourth spot among Millennial moms and dads. Why the jump in popularity?

“Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t always about the ‘coolest’ brand (or in this case maybe the ‘least uncool brand’) but rather it comes back to the king and queen of shopping priorities for Millennial parents – price and convenience – both of which Walmart consistently delivers on.”

Yes, some Millennial parents will drop a small fortune on brands that deliver unique, personalized experiences and high quality for their kids.  They’ll shop and splurge at Whole Foods and Pottery Barn. Yet they’ll also look to balance the family finances by saving money on other household purchases.

“Walmart has mastered the art of high-low budgeting,” say Froom and Vidler. “Walmart understands that Millennials are going to spend money on products that are beyond their budget.  They plan to make up for that spending by saving pennies elsewhere. Enter Walmart – the ultimate retailer for a budget-conscious shopper. Walmart is the ideal retailer for bulk shopping that provides essentially everything new Millennial parents need for their households.”

So let’s welcome Millennials to the Useful City. Let’s tell them why we’re the best and easiest place to raise a child.  And let’s show them that we have Walmarts to go along with our waterfalls, parks and downtown arts scene.