Millennials — people born from 1981 to 1996 — are much maligned. Boomers (and even Gen Z) accuse them of laziness, entitlement and ingratitude. As Anne Helen Petersen explains in Can’t Even, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Millennials are broke, entitled, lazy and immature, sponging off the parents with whom they live for far too long. Their consumption quirks kill entire product categories, including dining chains, mayonnaise and cable TV. Millennials are selfishly ruining America’s future by refusing to have children of their own.
But Anne Helen Peterson argues that millennials don’t deserve their bad rep. Rather, millennials are a uniquely unlucky generation, squeezed by the 2008 recession, endless war, student debt, automation, stagnating wages, rising health care and child care costs, corporate exploitation, the looming existential threat of environmental apocalypse, and, most recently, a global pandemic.
These factors have generally foiled expectations of individual and societal greatness. That has, in turn, led to generation-wide burnout, argued author and former BuzzFeed senior culture writer Anne Helen Petersen in her 2019 online essay, “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.” Burnout stems from an anxiety-driven internalization that in order to have a rewarding life – or even just an approximation of economic security — millennials must work all the time. It often manifests as ”can’t even” – an inability to complete miscellaneous adult errands like registering to vote, returning clothing that doesn’t fit or filing insurance reimbursements. What looks like entitlement is actually just an unsurprising symptom of an endless pursuit of work. Millennials are, quite simply, exhausted.
Millennials live with the reality that we’re going to work forever, die before we pay off our student loans, potentially bankrupt our children with our care or get wiped out in a global apocalypse.Anne Helen Peterson
Petersen expanded that essay into this book. She uses brief anecdotes from many millennials of diverse backgrounds to frame her larger points. The first three chapters focus on boomer parenting, millennial childhoods and the trajectory to college. The middle three chapters discuss labor and the workplace, past and present. The final three chapters look at millennial leisure time and how technology, social pressures, sexist division of domestic labor and parenting have rendered it hardly like leisure at all.
Petersen’s narrative of millennials is as follows: Parents fearful of slipping a few rungs down the social ladder conditioned millennials to turn every hobby or skill ruthlessly into college application fodder. Post-college, millennials continued to apply this approach to work. This “concerted cultivation” not only introduced stress that diminished their genuine enjoyment of life, but it also hasn’t paid off with stable, well-paying jobs. The rise of the shareholder doctrine and the Wall Streetification of everything have driven companies to aggressive cost-cutting; outsourcing; the replacement of full-time positions with low pay; shrinking benefits packages; workplace surveillance;unstable, poorly paid gig work that shifts the costs of training and equipment to the employee; and unhealthy expectations of round-the-clock passion or commitment to the job.
Unions, churches, social associations unaffiliated with work and public institutions have faded. Absent these social and financial support networks, millennials are in a precarious position, increasingly isolated and inclined to view others as competition. Technology has made life more convenient, but it has also facilitated constant work, fueled envy and class anxiety, and destroyed the ability to pay true, sustained attention to what matters. Few millennials feel secure enough to become parents; those who do have children face serious financial and logistical difficulties. Racism has exacerbated all of the above for people of color.
Petersen’s original BuzzFeed essay faced criticism for its myopic focus on just one white, college-educated, middle-class slice of the roughly 73 million millennials. Petersen is more careful in Can’t Even. Her anecdotes are more inclusive. She acknowledges that despite shared difficulties, no millennial experience is universal. She concedes that millennials aren’t the only generation that must contend with today’s challenges, and they’re not the first historically to surmount obstacles. These are welcome improvements, although some critics think Can’t Even could have gone further.
Petersen’s focus on white millennials makes some sense. Raised by the most prosperous generation, privileged white millennial children were told that they could achieve anything if they simply worked hard enough. Disillusionment with that promise has fueled burnout. For the nonwhite, LGBTQ or disabled, the story is different. You can’t be defeated in expectation or hope if you never had an expectation or hope in the first place.
Diagnosing what ails an entire generation is an ambitious and arguably impossible goal. Petersen admits this, but, in true millennial fashion, asks too much of herself. The title would probably be more apt as “Can’t Even: Why Privileged, White, Media-Literate Millennial Women With Internet Access Got Burnt Out.” Take it as a sociological document of this subgroup at a unique moment in history. For readers in this audience, Petersen’s work will retred familiar ground: The anecdotes contain few surprises, but some readers may find possibly welcome confirmation and vindication.
Petersen’s voice is accessible, engaging and peppered with profanity. You can almost hear the vocal fry. But it’s also prone to the internet-inflected hyperbole endemic to the generation. “For as long as I could remember, I’d been working pretty much nonstop: first as a grad student, then as a professor, now as a journalist,” Petersen writes, before going on to remember many periods of her life when she was not, in fact, working nonstop. This may seem like pedantic quibbling, but it undermines Petersen’s arguments.
Petersen offers no cutesy tips for managing burnout because there is no way to manage it. Lifehacks and self-care are Band-Aids on a brain tumor, and often simply wind up as yet more chores to feel guilty about not completing. Petersen contends that much broader systemic change is needed, but she doesn’t discuss more granular policy recommendations. She briefly mentions a few ways that millennial life could be better – strengthened labor laws and expanded access to free or low-cost child care – but she doesn’t elaborate.
Since Can’t Even doesn’t present solutions, some critics find that it resembles a smart, charming child protesting “it’s not fair.” That life is not fair is, of course, not news. The argument that life is less fair under market capitalism than it should be is also not news. Leaving it up to others to delve into the nitty-gritty of fixing problems feels meta-textual: Petersen herself can’t even.
And yet, her book is a good starting place for conversations. Boomers in particular might find new information about their children. It will also be interesting to see how this anxious snapshot of a subset of millennials ages. Hopefully – but not probably – Can’t Even will still look more like a protest than a prophecy.