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Millennials a burnt out and sold out generation

Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout generation

Anne Helen Petersen

Chatto & Windus, €14.99

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Anne Helen Petersen

Anne Helen Petersen

Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, by Anne Helen Petersen

Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, by Anne Helen Petersen

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Anne Helen Petersen

When journalist Anne Helen Petersen's editor suggested she might be suffering from burnout, instead of acknowledging the entirely correct diagnosis and taking a much needed break, Petersen pitched an essay on what she had come to call errand paralysis. By which she meant the inability to execute those second half of the to-do list tasks; getting back to an email, booking an appointment. She was, she recalls, not really feeling anything at all by this point. Overwhelmed by the smallest task. The thought of a vacation was simply one more thing on the to-do list, itself "a neat little stack of shame".

As she began to research the essay which became a viral phenomenon, How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, (since being published by Buzzfeed in January 2019, it has been read by over eight million people), she realised she was, in fact, suffering from a condition she now views as the "base temperature" for millennials. Out of this essay came Petersen's latest book, Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. The author identifies burnout as a 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 broken water heater - could sink you and your family. It's the flattening of life into one never-ending to-do list, and the feeling that you've optimised yourself into a work robot". It's not a new condition, she acknowledges, rather a symptom of living in a capitalist society. But for millennials, it is their baseline, not a temporary affliction.

Petersen traces the root cause to the fact that her generation has essentially been sold a pup.

"For millennials, the predominate message of our upbringing was deceptively simple: all roads should lead to college, and from there, with more work, we'd find the American Dream, which might no longer include a picket fence, but certainly had a family, and financial security, and something like happiness as a result."

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Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, by Anne Helen Petersen

Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, by Anne Helen Petersen

Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, by Anne Helen Petersen

Except that this wasn't the case. Millennials are the first generation since the Great Depression who will find themselves worse off than their parents. They are more anxious, more depressed, under-insured, lacking in retirement plans. Petersen outlines the factors that led to what she identifies as a societal, not a personal problem. Boomer parents, in the face of their own sense of economic insecurity, instilled in their millennial children a mindset that prioritised work above all else, through helicopter parenting, what Petersen terms "concerted cultivation".

In a chapter called 'Growing Mini-Adults', she describes the over-scheduling that hallmarked the childhoods of her generation, particularly younger millennials, some of whom from terrifyingly young age were treated by their anxious parents as walking CVs. Far from being a generation of work-shy snowflakes, their entire lives are work. The chapter 'College at Any Cost' opens with the story of Frank, who, in his junior year in high school, had a schedule so packed he could not take a lunch break. In a blog post written before he set off for Harvard, he observed, "I wish that my parents would see me as a person, not a resume".

College, especially an elite college, would ensure their child a life safe from economic anxiety. Of course, what actually happened was that millennials became "the first generation to fully conceptualise themselves as walking college resumes… subjects to be optimised for better performance in the economy". An exercise exhausting enough in its own right, but one that ultimately, in so many cases, proved unrewarding, as millennials graduated, saddled with massive debt, into a crippling recession.

Successful or not, this hothousing approach set the terms for how millennials would orient their entire lives; around the fallacy that work was guaranteed to bring success and fulfilment. The issue lies also in the increasingly problematic nature of work. The fetishisation of a career that is a passion, in fact, allowing for exploitation (overworked and underpaid, but you love your job), the always-on culture, the grim reality of freelancing. In one quite poignant passage, the author provides a brutally honest account of her day in order to exhibit how technology has, in many cases, made our entire lives work.

"There is no 'off the clock' when every hour is an opportunity for content generation, facilitated by smartphones that make every moment capturable and brandable."

Petersen mixes interviews with social history and her own narrative. She manages to succeed where these kinds of books, part memoir, part social documentation, often fail; retaining the reader's interest when she moves from the personal, to the results of her research. A former academic, she wears those results lightly, never does the reader become bogged down in facts and figures. The personal anecdotes, especially those from her own life, mean this book packs a powerful, at times uncomfortable, punch; on several occasions I found myself reluctantly questioning my own work habits and internalised beliefs.

From the outset, she acknowledges the problematic catch-all nature of the term "millennial"; this book was informed by her own experiences; middle class, white. As she herself points out, no book can capture fully any version of millennial experience. Ultimately, the aim here is not to be didactic, but rather to make the reader rethink themselves and the world around them.

In both revealing her own journey, especially in the powerful final chapter, and backing it up with numerous interviews, and academic research, Petersen has created a book that will leave the reader questioning the very priorities by which we organise our lives.

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