Millennial burnout: ‘The first generation predicted to go backwards in terms of life expectancy’

Author Anne Helen Petersen on why young people are burning out and what can fix it

When I reach writer Anne Helen Petersen on the phone, she's remarking on the smoky air outside her home in Montana, a symptom of the wildfires burning in Washington, Oregon and California that have enveloped large swaths of the country in a thick grey haze.

I’m apologizing for the screaming infant and toddler in the background of my own home, a byproduct of the global pandemic that has forced parents to precariously manage an already tottering seesaw of childcare and work.

It’s a fitting landscape to discuss Petersen’s new book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. While the issues that have contributed to the millennial condition of overwork and stress have been building for some time, 2020 saw them boil over in an unprecedented way.

In many ways, it laid bare the failures of what we’ve come to call the American dream. “We are a nation in decline … Millennials are the first generation that is predicted to actually go backwards in terms of life expectancy,” Petersen, who is 39, says. “And that should be a pretty profound realisation.”


Petersen outlined her inability to accomplish small tasks... her'errand paralysis' rang true for the rest of us

Though most of her book was written before Covid brought the world to a standstill, Petersen managed to include a foreword in the book to address how the pandemic has exacerbated an already tenuous situation.

“It was ready to go to the printer. And in mid-February I thought, I definitely need to acknowledge this,” she tells me. “In addition to work becoming this fraught spot of just general anxiety, I’ve talked to people who are like, ‘Oh, I thought I would have so much more time, because I wasn’t commuting any more.’ And then they’ve just filled that time with replying to emails at 7.30 in the morning, you know, and don’t have any of that interstitial space that was once available to them. There’s no decompression time.”

While that erasure of personal time has been highlighted by the pandemic and ensuing lockdown, the notion of work-life balance has been eroding for some time, and helped inform Petersen’s 2019 BuzzFeed article about millennial burnout, which formed the basis for her book. That piece broke the dam and started a conversation around the mental exhaustion experienced by so many in Petersen’s generation.

I first read her essay, fittingly, as I was beginning my day at work, desperately nursing a lukewarm coffee, patiently waiting for its stimulating effects to wake up my sluggish brain. My 14-month-old son was on his third daycare cold, and I had been up all night because he had been up all night. Ironically enough, it was my boss who had sent me the article, its headline all but screaming at me as I clicked on it.

How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation became an instant online sensation, passed around between overworked friends and shared widely on social media, often accompanied by a crying emoji or a gif enthusiastically clapping in agreement. The piece put words to our collective exhaustion and roiling anxiety. As Petersen outlined her own inability to accomplish small tasks, drawing a link between the piled up laundry and unmailed letters and the crushing strain of our imbalanced working lives, her “errand paralysis” rang true for the rest of us.

I’m better at recognizing my own burnout behaviors. So how can I set myself up to do the things that give me joy?

The new book parses the economic, cultural and institutional makeup of the generation born between 1981 and 1996. It tackles rising student debt, the gig-ification of the modern workplace, and the increasingly blurred lines of work and home life. And while some of it is well-trodden territory, like the chapter What is a Weekend – which revisits the idea of leisure, a subject already articulated with more verve in Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing – Petersen manages to give new insights on the cumulative effect of these factors.

The book touches on how we don’t experience these inequalities equally – especially in times of global crisis. Racialised communities are being particularly affected, not just by the virus itself but by the economic fallout. Mothers have been affected by school and daycare closures, threatening a mass disappearance of women from the workplace if second or third waves force another lockdown.

'Regime change in November is not necessarily going to fix everything. It might fix a couple of small things, but it's not going to fix everything'

And though Petersen’s book focuses on an overwhelmingly white, suburban and middle-class millennial, she understands the inherent privileges at play.

Where Petersen really shines is when she gets personal and writes about her decision to not have children. Wrangling with ambition, climate change and fears over her own personhood, she manages to contextualise the millennial condition of burnout and illustrate the painful choices – or lack of choice – it can render in our real lives. Rather than spell out the how, this finally interrogates the “what now?”.

And that is the question many of us in the US will be asking ourselves as we look ahead towards the presidential election in November. “Regime change in November is not necessarily going to fix everything. It might fix a couple of small things, but it’s not going to fix everything,” she stresses.

While larger change may still be far off, I ask Petersen if, on a personal level, she was able to get a handle on her own burnout through the process of writing the book.

“I think that I am better at recognizing my own burnout behaviours,” she tells me. “So how can I set myself up to do the things that give me joy? And whether that is reading fiction, or like just doodling around in my garden, and watching the plants grow? Those are some things that have been really restorative for me. But no, my burnout is not solved.”

Still, even if she can’t offer up a solution, in speaking with other young people about what drives their fears and compounds their worries, Petersen is able to build a compelling archive of the millennial condition.

As one young woman in the book puts it, “the darkness in the world can’t win so long as you don’t stop running”.

For a brief moment this year it looked like the pandemic would be a breaking point, a chance to stop running for a minute. But by now much of the world is operating with varying degrees of normalcy, with schools and businesses tentatively reopening. I ask Petersen what she thinks about our ability to adapt to these new normals.

“We can’t do this forever,” she exclaims. “I think that we’re gonna have to decide as a society and as a generation to figure this sh*t out.” – Guardian