Can’t Even book cover image
Nerdette's October book club pick is 'Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.' Greta Johnsen / WBEZ

Book Club: Burnout Is For Millennials (And Millennials At Heart)

Author Anne Helen Petersen explains why the experience of being a millennial is defined by precariousness.

Nerdette's October book club pick is 'Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.' Greta Johnsen / WBEZ
Can’t Even book cover image
Nerdette's October book club pick is 'Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.' Greta Johnsen / WBEZ

Book Club: Burnout Is For Millennials (And Millennials At Heart)

Author Anne Helen Petersen explains why the experience of being a millennial is defined by precariousness.

Millennials have been called whiny and precious.

They’re accused of needing participation trophies and moving back home with their parents when “adulting” gets too hard.

But the millennial generation came into adulthood during an American recession, an era of crushing student loan debt and the rise of temporary workers and independent contractors. Add a global pandemic to that precariousness and you’ve got a perfect recipe for burnout.

That’s part of the argument behind Nerdette’s October book club pick: Anne Helen Petersen’s Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, which is an expansion of a viral article Petersen wrote for Buzzfeed in 2019.

In both the book and the article, Petersen explores how external forces shaped the realities of more than 80 million people in the United States.

Nerdette host Greta Johnsen spoke with her about what burnout looks like, whether it’s a generational issue or a societal one and what (if anything) we can do about it. Below are highlights from the conversation.

What is burnout?

Anne Helen Petersen: The best way to describe burnout, at least in the way that I’m describing it, is that feeling of running a race that feels like it’s lasted forever. You’re so tired. You feel like you’re going to drop out. You hit the wall, but then you scale the wall and you just keep going for a race that is the rest of your life.

Why describe burnout as a millennial problem and not a societal problem?

Petersen: Oh, it’s totally a societal problem. But I think that a lot of the symptoms have manifested more acutely in millennials, and that has to do with our generational timing. So because of the time when we entered into the workforce, either graduating from high school or college, it was right into the Great Recession or into the aftermath of the Great Recession. So that has had incredible effects on every component of our economic standing, how long it took to reach some sort of economic stability, if it was ever achieved, and also the kind of jobs that a lot of us were able to find. One of the most significant stats about the jobs that were added to the economy after the Great Recession was that the majority of them were contingent or temp or unstable in some way. So people might have found jobs, but they did not have the sort of stability that would make you feel stable.

And I think there was also an incredible psychological scarring that happened as a result of entering the job market at that point. I think people really internalized the idea that it’s OK to work for less, it’s OK and normal to work in incredibly unstable conditions. We just acclimatized ourselves to that precarious workplace.

And I use the word scarring purposefully, because it is a word that economists use to talk about people’s attitudes towards the economy, their spending habits, their ideas about the future. And I think that most millennials I know, when the pandemic hit and the concurrent economic recession, they’re like, “Oh, of course. Of course the moment I found a modicum of stability this would happen.”

What’s the antidote to burnout?

Petersen: Things that address this on the personal level: That’s fine. That’s a good Band-Aid. But you’re still bleeding. It’s not going to fix it. So we have to think about things that aren’t just for ourselves, aren’t just for people who look like us, who work in places like us, but for everyone.

Hear more from this interview by pressing the play button above. This transcript was lightly edited for clarity and brevity.