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Can't Even by Anne Helen Petersen review – genuinely enlightening on the millennial experience

Holly Williams
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: 10’000 Hours/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: 10’000 Hours/Getty Images

In January 2019, Anne Helen Petersen’s BuzzFeed long read on millennial burnout went viral, attracting more than 7 million readers. My initial reaction was an eye-roll. I am a millennial. I know we’re all burned out, but I also know complaining about that only makes people hate us more. If there’s one thing more common than a complaining millennial, it’s a boomer complaining about complaining millennials.

And anyway, I didn’t have time to read something that long. But pretty soon, I felt like I had to. Just to keep up with everyone else on my Twitter timeline.

These reactions? Classic burnt-out responses. And the sort of thing Petersen now looks at in a book drawing on thousands of first-hand accounts of burnout: the exhaustion we feel from a lifetime of employment insecurity, financial precarity, workplace stress, debt and pressure to be publicly seen as productive and successful...

The author is astute in unpicking the many factors that led to a whole generation feeling constantly exhausted. But the key is identifying the problem as societal, not personal. Can’t Even looks like it might be some navel-gazing pop-psych title about the millennial experience. Actually, it’s as much about 20th-century economics, and serves as a necessary reminder that we subscribe to an inhumane form of capitalism that prioritises profit over wellbeing. Can’t Even is comforting in its insistence that it’s not your fault you feel this tired.

Admittedly, it is easier to sign up to pilates classes than to dismantle capitalism

But neither does Petersen offer platitudinous solutions, railing against the lifestyle-oriented sticking plasters millennials are usually sold. You can’t cure burnout with “a productivity app, or a bullet journal”. All they do is further internalise the idea that if we work enough on ourselves, we can thrive – rather than dismantling the system that makes it impossible to thrive.

Admittedly, it is easier to sign up to pilates classes than to dismantle capitalism, and readers may be left asking: “Well, now what?” Still, identifying the problem is a necessary first step. Can’t Even – despite its unhelpfully whiny title – scotches the idea that millennials are just lazy. Instead, it looks at how we were sold the myth that if you work hard you can have it all, and so we worked really, really hard, through global economic crises, and still found we had less than our parents.

This is hardly a new formulation. But what is genuinely enlightening is the way Petersen lays out how economic changes ushered in by the boomer generation are responsible for work being so unstable these days: deregulation, de-unionisation, decreased public spending, rocketing student debt, the chipping away at pensions, sick pay, or even an hourly wage. Can’t Even may focus on the US, but there is much that applies to British readers too.

Related: Millennials are struggling. Is it the fault of the baby boomers?

There is a problem, however. Petersen’s original article felt timely, diagnosing a near universal experience. But this book has been overtaken by events. It suggests burnout is not just a result of chronic work stress, but also the way we approach parenting, socialising, social media and leisure as another kind of work to be optimised. Burnout comes from never really switching off. And this year, many of us got forcibly switched off. Forced to have nights in; forced to slow down.

In a bolted-on intro, Petersen invites readers to assume that Covid amplifies all her arguments. Inevitably, her descriptions of, say, the grind of office “presenteeism” now feel out of date. Nonetheless, she is surely right that the pandemic will only add to the need for radical change. We may no longer be burned out, but we’re looking for lessons in how not to go back there.

Perhaps this is naive, but I found it heartening that Petersen begins her book with an example of a time when capitalism worked better for society: during a period rebuilding after the Great Depression. An era when robust unions and government investment brought about not only “favourable working conditions for employees” – fair wages, overtime, healthcare, pensions – but also a period of spectacular growth. Prosperity really did trickle down. Can’t Even is a reminder to the burned out generation that things can be different.

• Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen is published by Chatto & Windus (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply