Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation

  • By Anne Helen Petersen
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 304 pp.
  • Reviewed by Antoaneta Tileva
  • April 1, 2021

Why the kids aren’t alright.

Put down your avocado toast and close that Zillow page — the latest salvo in the intergenerational war between boomers and millennials is here, and you don’t want to miss it. In Can’t Even, media scholar (and millennial) Anne Helen Petersen offers an insightful treatise on the “burnout generation” that is a far cry from the essentialist portrayals of both generations that dominate the current discourse.

Rather than dissect who is to blame for the plight (and it is a plight, histrionics aside) of millennials, Petersen offers a moving discourse on why the kids are not alright and, even more importantly, why they are not, despite how they’ve been characterized, the spoiled, lazy, feckless generation.

“Okay, boomer, sit down and read” is an apropos prescription for this book.

In 2019, Petersen published a Buzzfeed article titled “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” which drew millions of readers. Wry title aside, Can’t Even, an expansion of that earlier piece, is well researched and sobering in its findings. The book examines a variety of areas of millennial lives, including work, education, social-media culture, relationships, and parenthood, zeroing in on issues like student debt, workplace burnout, and millennials’ astronomical levels of anxiety and hopelessness.

The section on millennials’ childhood is especially engrossing. Petersen uses the concept of “concerted cultivation” to explain how the parenting style of the previous generation sowed the seeds of the thorny relationship between millennials and work. Dispelling the popular trope of millennials refusing “to adult,” the book illustrates the very opposite: that millennials have been adulting since they were kids:

“The child’s schedule takes precedence over parents’; the child’s well-being and future capacity for success is paramount; baby food should be homemade; toddler play should be enriching; private tutors should be enlisted if necessary…Every part of the child’s life should be optimized to better prepare them for their entry into the working world.”

And, of course, the first step toward that world is education. Here, too, Petersen is masterful in foreshadowing the inevitable burnout. She describes millennials as the “first generation to fully conceptualize themselves as walking college resumes.” Because — you guessed it — getting into college (let alone paying for it) isn’t as easy for them as it was for boomers.

Getting a job isn’t as easy, either. Can’t Even offers an excellent analysis of how millennials graduated into the “worst job market in 80 years,” one with an excessive list of demands:

“To be valued, you need plans, lengthy resumes, ease and confidence interacting with authority figures, and innate understanding of how the job ladder works. You need connections and a willingness to multitask, and an eagerness to overschedule.”

Not to mention that being groomed to find a job one is “passionate” about created a toxic mentality disconnected from the realities of the working world. Fracturing the cliché that millennials heedlessly hop from one job to another, Petersen shows how it was boomers who instilled the “one’s work is one’s identity” mantra into their children. With that conflation came the predictable — and incredible — stress millennials feel about their careers.

One thing missing in Can’t Even is a broad discussion of how class factors into the boomer/millennial dynamic; the author only briefly suggests that concerted cultivation is, in part, a reflection of class anxiety. That is, while only wealthy boomers may have been able to afford things like private tutors, less-affluent boomers could at least sacrifice all their time and limited resources in the name of their child’s future success.

Speaking of time, Can’t Even presents a thoughtful commentary on free time. Connecting it to the groan-inducing “unstructured free time” term from child psychology, Petersen’s conversations with adult millennials are moving and unsettling. These people can’t even have fun: “Any down time began to feel like I was being lazy and unproductive, which in turn made me question my self worth,” one subject shares. So much for the popular image of the carefree, brunchin’ millennial.

The moments when Can’t Even grapples with the burnout that has now become the hallmark of the millennial generation are insightful and leave the reader hungry for more. I, for one, would’ve been happier with fewer statistics and more of those first-person testimonials. Nevertheless, like a good millennial, Petersen has done her homework.

Can’t Even is a must-read both for millennials and the generation that made them. In the immortal words of Tupac, “I was given this world; I didn’t make it.” This book illustrates exactly that: that millennials are living in a world that’s a far cry from the one they were groomed to inhabit. And all that hard work they were taught would lead to a better life has led, instead, to nothing but a need to work even harder.

Antoaneta Tileva is a Bulgarian transplant who has lived in the DC area for the last 30 years. An avowed introvert, she does a lot of extroverting as a cultural anthropologist who teaches at American University and Georgetown. She is a mean cruciverbalista and a not-so-mean (but very dedicated) feminista.

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