“It gradually became clear to me that I’d simply articulated what to that point had been largely unspeakable. We didn’t have a common vocabulary across our generation —
and thus struggled to articulate the specifics of what was happening
to those outside our generation.”
If you aren’t yet familiar with the magnificent Anne Helen Petersen, you will be now. I cannot say how many times, just reading the author’s note and introduction, that I screamed “fuck yes!” into the empty room, over and over, scribbling down quotations and wishing I could magically and instantaneously pass off this book to (1) every non-millennial employer in the country and (2) every family member of my own, or yours, who has ever laughed at any behavior deemed pathetically millennial.
As you may know, we millennials have notoriously “killed” such things as: napkins, golf, vacations, fabric softener, homeownership, banks, handshakes, cereal, the American Dream, and more according to various media outlets. Business Insider even said at the start of 2020 that a decade of “Millenials Have Killed [X]” headlines have been killed, which fortunately wasn’t nearly as tone-deaf as the infamous Economist tweet from 2016 asking why millennials aren’t buying diamonds. But to be fair to us, maybe we aren’t owning homes at the same rate as our parents because the cost of those homes has increased by 67% in the last 30 years, while wages have only gone up 11%. Not to mention healthcare, which increased by 21% from 2007 to 2017. And with the debt on our backs? Forget about it.
To the (jaded) Boomer I had two interviews with (in a single day) in December, who couldn’t stop talking about why he couldn’t find someone for the role I was interviewing for, who droned on about how he thought that young people nowadays are overeducated and just “want to be employees,” want structure, want to have lives after work… He knew this job wouldn’t allow any of that but kept asking aloud why they can’t “just take pride in their work.” To that I was boiling over with would-be answers to his rhetorical questions, thoughts so often swirling through my head which are supported by Petersen:
“Workers aren’t getting lazier, or worse at multitasking. We don’t lack grit or ambition. Instead, work is bad and getting worse, precarious, and getting more so. But to understand how work got this shitty for so many requires a significant detour into the past.”
After he and I had first connected over the phone, we had a masked, in-person conversation during which he elaborated on his past work history. He mentioned he used to be a president of an advertising firm in the early ‘90s and he was making about $400,000 (almost $800,000 in 2020 dollars) per year. He seemed to callously brag about how by the time we were meeting at 5:30pm he’d been “at it” for 12 hours that day, from orchestrating the work of his landscapers before dawn to cranking out a full day at his CPA firm. I nodded along and wondered if he knew how to relax or ever expected his employees to be able to do so. I asked myself if I wanted to have any part in this job if he (a consultant for the company I was interviewing at, not a manager I’d be reporting to) expected me to happily be proud of ten-hour workdays with no guarantee of an hour for lunch, which is the standard, by law, if an adult is working more than eight. He went on to lament how hard the workforce is now for people his son’s age (34, so a solid millennial like myself) and patted himself on the back for being his own boss; he said he’d created, to date, four companies in his adult life.
He had admitted earlier to taking part in what he’d dubbed “the massacre.” At this company (the one I was interviewing for, not any of his personal empire) three years earlier, under new ownership, he’d been called in to figure out why such a lucrative, high-end business wasn’t making enough of a profit. He crunched some numbers and decided that many of the employees weren’t proving to be valuable enough and he pushed for the termination of the entire administrative team. I clasped my hands together listening to this, trying to give myself the strength to keep my perspective to myself.
I went home and did the math on the hourly rate they were offering and nearly broke down sobbing. I’d have to take the job if it were offered to me, no matter how grating it would likely be on my marriage and any expectation of future personal achievements, like, writing another piece like this one, or simply reading another book I deign to write about. I tried to stop getting ahead of myself and kept mulling it over.
Something I would have loved to make him consider, had I the courage: “Does a company run better when its employees are happy and provide livable income for their families? When its profit margins are larger? Because consultants have no investment in the firms themselves, their advice was in line with the aims of unfettered capitalism”— the latter of which suits the owners just fine, but maybe not if, for instance at this company, they haven’t been able to hold down any of the five employees I know they’d hired for this role in the last year. Or, perhaps even better would have been to tell him: “It seems that everyone in the salaried workspace — from managers to workers themselves — is so anxious about proving their value that we neglect a veritable cornucopia of evidence that better work is almost always achieved through less work.... Rest doesn’t just make workers happier, but makes them more efficient when they’re actually on the job.”
In the end, I was saved the trouble of having to decide. I told him nothing, not to read up on Petersen or burnout, I didn’t even have to turn down an offer. I didn’t receive any follow-up interview requests, or a rejection, just silence.
Having applied to college in the fall of 2007, neither I nor my parents quite knew how bad the economy would implode the following year, or what the other side of the Great Recession would look like. I’m both thankful and horrified that I was in college, and thus avoiding the real-world ramifications of the market for a few years. At the time I’d just decided that I wanted to be an artist and to my 17-year-old self I only vaguely understood that my parents would be shelling out a truly exorbitant amount of money for me to spend the following decade struggling financially.
My dad tried to convince me to take a spot I’d secured at the University of Connecticut where he and my mom had attended. The school had offered me a generous merit-based aid package to study communications (which could have meant journalism or graphic design or some amalgamation of the two). As an in-state student, my parents could have gone without using my college fund to cover what would have been to them a negligible cost for each semester. He did a great job of delivering the pros and cons. One major pro being that he could move the money and it could accrue interest, or maybe he’d invest it, and hand it over to me in the form of a trust in the future. And yet, I wanted what I wanted and that was to no longer feel like the robot I’d been for the previous seven years of middle school and high school, but rather, spend the next four discovering myself through art. So I did.
Cut to 30-year-old me: I spent that milestone birthday on unemployment. Though I’d also found personal success in spending ample time caring for my physical self, taking vigorous daily walks to balance out the lockdown blues that had settled in by the summer of 2020. Even though there wasn’t much structure or obligation to my days I still felt perpetually tired and anxious. I lived on a razor’s edge of stability. I was okay that day, but would tomorrow bring my breaking point, financially or mentally? I was applying to countless jobs, even willing to return to the commuter life I’d lived for the previous six years and 90% of my career thus far.
As a 23-year-old just excited to be working in the field I’d studied in, I didn’t care about the 2.5 hour one-way trip to Brooklyn from my parents’ home in Connecticut. I used the train ride to sleep or read or write and that time was decidedly, determinedly all mine: the cell service was mostly nonexistent for at least half of the distance and the other commuters were all wiped out (or still working) and provided a meditative atmosphere. I didn’t start to feel the brunt of the effort of crossing state lines twice daily until years later, and by then I was living only one hour away from Manhattan. I convinced myself that being able to hang out in New York City after work every day made up for the cost of a monthly train ticket and the constant hustle that rushed through my veins, that always put undue pressure on me to be doing something or be on my way to somewhere at all times. I started looking ahead to my wedding and jobs that could take me home to Connecticut to make my days a touch shorter, more “normal.” I lucked out and found one at the end of 2019, but they kicked me to the curb just as COVID struck.
Petersen speaks a lot about “hope labor” or how, with the hope of getting a position that checks all the boxes in the future (stability, benefits, room for growth, working in the field you are interested in/have passion for), millennials are quick to settle in the short term, taking positions that leave them unpaid or underpaid and overworked because they might later have a chance to compete for a spot higher up the corporate food chain:
“The desire for the cool job that you’re passionate about is a particularly modern-day bourgeois phenomenon—and, as we’ll see, a means of elevating a certain type of labor to the point of desirability that workers will tolerate all forms of exploitation for the ‘honor’ of performing it. The rhetoric of ‘Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’ is a burnout trap. By cloaking the labor in the language of ‘passion,’ we’re prevented from thinking of what we do as what it is: a job, not the entirety of our lives.”
I thought that when I first lost my job I could take it as a sign I could pivot my career trajectory and start looking for openings that are just as she described. I kept an eye out for paid internships, fellowships, or entry-level marketing assistantships in publishing. I certainly had the interest in reading contemporary works, and writing, so I thought that the combination of a cover letter extrapolating my verve for the industry and my eight years of admin experience would be enough to get my foot in the door as one of the most eager and lowest paid in the company. I remained especially optimistic as the Big Five publishers steadily raised their minimum salary in 2020 to something I could live on, especially if I could work remotely. I have yet to receive anything more than a handful of form letters from the dozens of applications sent out, save for one “thank you for this” note from a literary agent. I keep a folder in one of my emails just for confirmations of applications to LinkedIn and elsewhere, for all positions inline with my resume. It currently has just below 400 emails, and it doesn’t include any of the 100+ from ZipRecruiter which go to a different address. The hope I had in March is receding quickly.
My friends and family check in every so often, sometimes to ask how I am, but mostly to ask if I’ve found more work yet. I’ve been on contract for a few months which provides me just enough of an income and just enough of a challenge to hand back some of my sanity, but it’s going to expire in the spring. I don’t remain hopeful that I’ll find anything that would pay me at the same rate (certainly not more, though, if you’d asked me a year ago, I would have confidently said that my current pay is at least $10/hour below my worth based on my experience) even as my grandmother insists something is coming. I’m stuck looking at the more likely future that is draining my savings account before the end of my new lease and getting my dad to bail me out for my half of the rent until I can, maybe, snag some non-minimum wage work. He had to co-sign with my husband and I just to get our apartment because while the rent is less than half of our combined income, and I was able to submit current employment and an eviction-free history, we are not desirable enough tenants without my father’s near-perfect credit score. And we still had to hand over $5,000 to move in.
Just as I had resumed regularly sleeping after a spring and summer full of night terrors and insomnia, my sleep took another hit as I suffered through the grueling and demoralizing process of viewing new places, sending out rental applications, and moving. I’m happy to report that over the last week I’ve successfully slept through every night and gotten a solid eight hours more often than not, but I’m all too aware of how soon my unemployment and sleeplessness will resume. No matter how often my loved ones share their words of encouragement, they do nothing to assuage the fear of my near-future.
“.... my value as a worker and my value as a person have become interactively intertwined. I couldn’t shake the feeling of precariousness— that all that I’d worked for could just disappear — or reconcile it with an idea that had surrounded me since I was a child: but if I just worked hard enough, everything would pan out.”
I wonder now if I had known just what the job market had been like post-recession if I would have made the same choice–but I try not to linger too much on that line of thinking because of how dearly I cherish the fellow artist friends I made in college and who I became because of them and the overall experience. Though, when I’ve felt particularly low in recent years, persistently rejected from basic office jobs that I had enough skill and previous experience for, but would give me a nice pay bump, I’d call my mom in tears, apologizing for making the wrong decision as a teenager. “If I could have seen what was coming,” I’d say, “ I wouldn’t have chosen this for myself. I’m sorry.”
I first discovered Anne Helen Petersen completely by accident. One day years ago I was book-browsing after work when I saw a lurid, hot yellow and pink hardcover with a list of qualities that make a person, and especially a woman, “too much.” The title of that book, her first, is Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman. I set it on my feminist bookshelf at home and didn’t think about it until last spring a friend started reading and I jumped at the chance to read it together. I was immediately enamored with Petersen’s writing style. Naming nearly a dozen famous women including Serena Williams, Hilary Clinton, Madonna, Lena Dunham, and Melissa McCarthy, Petersen compiled what bound together became a collection of case studies on the American woman and how even, or especially, when aligned with their celebrity, these women of various occupations and backgrounds are judged vehemently by the public and the press. The aforementioned women are respectively vilified for being too strong, too shrill, too old, too naked, and too fat. Petersen has a talent for providing a stark address of societal flaws which came in quite handy in her follow-up book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.
I say often that I read, generally, because I’m always looking for obscenely beautiful prose that might move me to tears or inspiration, or because I want to learn something about humans or a culture that I may not have been able to know or experience otherwise. Finding the weep-worthy prose is rare, but even more so is when I find a book that combines the skill and a message that shakes me as deeply as Can’t Even did. It validated my life in a way that I can’t aptly describe. For every time I’ve verbally fought with my Libertarian uncle and was unable to name a source off the top of head for what I thought needn’t warrant one, as a humane courtesy, I wish I could shake this in his face. Instead of rage-quitting a C-SPAN live stream after another politician declares everything is fair in America as long as one is willing to pull oneself up by their bootstraps, I’d like to mail Can’t Even to their offices at the Capitol. Rather than listen to someone else telling me to “stay positive” and “try harder,” reminding me I could do anything if I put in the work/sweat/blood/all-of-my-soul: *waves book around*
And, to clarify, I don’t want anything or everything. That doesn’t mean I lack ambition. I’m incensed by encouragement to just WORK ALL THE TIME (aka, hustle) until I get to the amorphous “there.” If I’m not willing to kill myself faster by wrapping my weary body and mind around an even more unrealistic schedule of sleeping never and pushing my brain to keep going going going—I am “lazy.” As Petersen notes:
“To be ‘employed’ today does not mean you have a good job, or a stable job, or a job that pays well enough to bring a family over the poverty line. There’s a startling disconnect between the ostensible health of the economy and the mental and physical health of those who power it. Which is why every time I hear unemployment numbers, I feel gaslit.”
I have modest expectations for my professional future. I don’t want to take over the world or create a monopoly or become a millionaire or disrupt another part of the market. I just want (need) a big enough salary to pay the bills associated with bare minimum living, and buy some books, while saving a little for catastrophes, maybe a condo. I have a figure in mind and I don’t know why it remains so far out of my reach. Of course, I do have ideas for businesses, a couple of which I could execute from my apartment, all of which would make me enormously happy to slog over for years to come, but none of which I could realistically stop working a day job to achieve. I feel stuck in the mud that lies just short of the finish line of progress.
I don’t need to win this rat race though, I couldn’t care less about participating. A competitive nature never fully formed within me, and burnout keeps me focused on my day-to-day. I just want to live. I want to find just enough joy now and then to get me through the worst that life has still to throw at me.
The pain that goes along with the beauty in Can’t Even, is in realizing that we, millennials, didn’t have to be living this way. Hindsight helps, obviously, but in 1981 Time predicted there was “gloom and doom” ahead for American workers, “an era of grand expectations, had given way to a decade of disillusionment.” Katherine S. Newman in Falling from Grace declared that “one can play by the rules, pay one's dues, and still be evicted from the American dream. There’s no guarantee that one’s best efforts will be rewarded in the end.” Alexandra Robbins’ The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids admits that “when teenagers inevitably look at themselves through the prism of our overachiever culture, they often come to the conclusion that no matter how much they achieve, it will never be enough.” In school we were pushed to be better students, and then to pursue expensive degrees, and ultimately to never stop aiming for the top of the heap.
With so many of us jostling for space in a workforce full of aging boomers living longer than ever and not ready to retire, of course many accepted less than we deserved, but now, and I’m no economist, I’m surprised that we have yet to even catch up to wages comparable to our parents’ when they were our age. And what about who you are outside of your job? Have you been able to keep up personally as well as professionally? Do you even have the energy to care?
“A reckoning with burnout is so often the reckoning with the fact that the things you fill your day with — the things you fill your life with — feel unrecognizable from the sort of life you want to live, and the sort of meaning you want to make of it. That’s why the burnout condition is more than just addiction to work. It’s an alienation from the self, and from desire. If you subtract your ability to work, who are you? Is there a self left to excavate? Do you know what you like and don’t like when there’s no one there to watch, and no exhaustion to force you to choose the path of least resistance? Do you know how to move without always moving forward?”
It is not alright to accept that we’re all willing to lose ourselves to a corporate/capitalist machine. We still get to take up space doing non-monetized hobbies—or better yet, doing absolutely nothing. But when are we going to accept that everybody works, even wives who 50-60 years ago might not have been in the workforce? If you’re like me and you have a partner with whom you can divvy up the chores around the house, it is likely still difficult for you both to work full-time and partake in the endless cycle of cleaning and eating and attaining self-fulfillment, while also trying not to be exhausted all the time. The emotional labor alone that goes into planning meals and paying bills and shopping sales because he or I desperately need new socks or jeans etc. is enough to handle, but to also battle with the growing pile of dirty dishes? Knock out.
I require a minimum of two hours per day of alone time, sometimes a bit before work, but mostly after, as chores threaten to eat up more and more of my day… But my husband understands this and he lucks out because he gets the same amount of time in return. Usually I use this time for reading but sometimes all I can do is doomscroll because I’m too fried. (“Most of us would rather read a book than stare at our phones, but we’re so tired that mindless scrolling is all we have the energy to do.”) That’s the only way I cope on the long days. If I don't fold the laundry and the clock strikes Relax then it’ll wait until tomorrow. My romance novel is calling my name. But maybe I’ll check Facebook first, just for 10 minutes....
Twin sisters Amelia and Emily Nagosaki wrote Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle targeted at women who, under quite a bit of societal pressure to handle emotional and unpaid labor, live a life that inevitably leads to burnout. It was informative and motivational as it discussed topics like the “Bikini Industrial Complex” and “Giver Syndrome” and pointed to ways to cope with it all. One such piece of advice is to embrace everyone’s hotness, as in, reveling in the fact that everyone is so different and still undeniably great and hot. They go into more detail about actively choosing simple things that we avoid by instead choosing to DO ALL THE THINGS: prioritizing sleep and other relaxing activities, eating without multitasking, moving your body for the sake of physicality, and making plans to focus on stressors rather than slapping another bandaid on the stress in the form of performative self-care. I thoroughly enjoyed Burnout, but Can’t Even has a greater appeal across gender that I believe makes it even more accessible. The validation landed even harder reading Can’t Even now because it allowed me to realize that what I’d discovered in Burnout is NOT just a problem for cis-hetero women, but for a whole generation.
Vox had the opportunity to interview Petersen, and she said this about how our present has morphed into one so different from that of generations before: “The overarching thing is precarity. Precarity has been connected to burnout historically — we just haven’t called it that. We haven’t paid much attention to it because it was always a smaller percentage of the population that had to grapple with it. People in poverty have been dealing with burnout forever. The burnout experienced by millennials is textured by how we interact with digital technologies, and some of our ideas about work and the fetishization of overwork. There’s a feeling of instability that’s the baseline economic condition for many, many millennials, and it’s enhanced by these other components of our lives that make it harder to turn away from.” In Can’t Even she goes as far as dubbing millennials the “Precariat,” not a new class of people, but another piece of a bigger class system that disallows for an easy shift into a more stable realm of being:
“...one of the greatest cruelties of the American class system is that no one, not even those whose lives are now defined by precariousness, wants to admit as much. They are ‘told they should be grateful and happy that they are in jobs and should be “positive,”’ [Theorist Guy] Standing explains. After all, the economy is booming! Unemployment is low! But that’s not how a growing number of Americans are experiencing it.”
Especially as it relates to the pandemic and the limitations we have to impose on ourselves in order to remain safe and alive, we are not doing okay. If we were feeling this sort of helplessness before COVID, now getting any kind of genuine connection to balance out the overwhelming burnout is almost impossible:
“Most of us have read all about the studies that show that volunteering makes you happier, that in-person conversation and laughter is more nourishing than digital communication, that time for contemplation, religious or otherwise, makes us feel more balanced and less anxious.... But for many people, just the idea of any of those activities seems to require an insurmountable expenditure of energy. In short, we’re too tired to actually rest and restore ourselves.”
So, what are we supposed to do next? Now that Petersen and I have brought you down (or, more hopefully, into the fold, reminding you you are not alone) how can we bring you back up? Aside from saying that her conclusion was titled “Burn it Down,” I won’t try to speak for her. On a personal scale, there are plenty of small efforts to be made. As someone who firmly believes I can’t simply choose joy or choose to be happy, something I’ve left 2020 knowing is that I can try to put myself in the way of something that might hit me head-on with a burst of joy. And I can give myself a pass when I don’t feel like a positive ray of light. I’m going to feel what I feel and not be shamed for it.
For some sweeping, big-picture change, I’d advise you to hold yourself in great esteem no matter what the market tries to value you at. I vow to graciously tell my next employer that I cannot take my work home with me, I will take every lunch break away from my desk, and ask for a raise if they expect me to churn through more work, faster. Refusing to be taken advantage of as a salaried employee or as a freelance worker is key. You are worth taking a vacation for, you require adequate sleep, your passion doesn’t need to be justified with income, you get to set boundaries. I wish for you to know that you are so much more than the shitty hand society has dealt you. We can’t start over right this second. Though maybe, if we band together we can make some headway tomorrow and the next day until this perpetual exhaustion is no longer just something to live with, but something we are vanquishing or have, eventually, overcome.
Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation
By Anne Helen Petersen
304 pages. 2020.