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Anne Helen Petersen Talks Millennial Burnout


The new book "Can't Even" is a cry from the heart, as well as a bill of particulars about the debt, depression, special pressures and sheer exhaustion from gigs, not jobs; paying off debts, not building up savings; and Instagram posts, not real pleasures, worn by so many Americans now in their mid-20s to almost 40. "Can't Even: How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation" is by Anne Helen Petersen. The book grew out of her BuzzFeed article with a similar title that amassed more than 7 million reads.

Anne Helen Petersen joins us from Washington state. Thanks so much for being with us.

ANN HELEN PETERSEN: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: You were finishing this book just as the pandemic hit, and you had the sensation that almost everything you'd said the book was suddenly proven by the pandemic. How so?

PETERSEN: Well, I think that the pandemic has clarified so many things. I like to think of it as like a black light that shines a lot of things that we've hidden or tried to ignore for some time. So now, you know, the lack of safety net in so many corners of our lives has just become so apparent, and people are really angry and really tired.

SIMON: How do we explain the fact that right before the pandemic hit, though, the poverty rate - 2019 was the lowest since those estimates were published, since 1959?

PETERSEN: Well, first of all, I mean, the poverty rate - when we think about the people who are living right above the poverty rate - like, there are a huge swath of people who are just barely making ends meet. And that means that they are oftentimes working two jobs and then wedging in some time, you know, working as an Uber driver or something like that just to be able to pay the bills every week. And they might not be technically below the poverty line, but they are not comfortable, and they feel a precarity imbuing every day of their lives.

SIMON: Let me ask you to lay out what you see as some of the paralyzing forces that millennials have to contend with - big one, of course, is student debt.

PETERSEN: I think the huge one for millennials is that a huge swath of us right in the center of the generation graduated, either from high school or from college, right into the Great Recession. But then there's just, you know, stuff that every generation has to grapple with to some extent but that is, I think, particularly difficult for millennials, so things like the compunction to perform your life on social media and just the idea that you really should be working all the time, and if you're not working all the time, you're somehow failing and falling behind in some capacity.

SIMON: You're not monetizing your off-time.

PETERSEN: Yeah. That (laughter) pressure to monetize your side hustle is something that millennials are very familiar with, and what that does is it makes it so that there's not really any corner of our lives where we can find rest or relief or cultivate ourselves, right? If every single corner of your life has to be made profitable in order to make ends meet, there's not a lot of room for the self left.

SIMON: You point out there's not much freedom in being a freelancer, is there?

PETERSEN: No (laughter). No. The freedom that is associated with freelancing is the freedom to work all the time. Without the securities that are part of the workplace, you just have to be hustling. You know, you're only as good as your next gig.

SIMON: I can't help but reflect on the fact that, you know, Mark Zuckerberg, 36, a millennial, people who founded Instagram, millennials, people who founded Dropbox, Airbnb, Tumblr, Lyft, DoorDash - they're all millennials. What does that mean?

PETERSEN: Certain members of our generation were trying to find a different way, were trying to innovate. And a lot of the ideas that I think millennials have internalized about work and about that performance of self, they are sustainable for a certain amount of time. Like, to radically rethink what the workplace would be like, or radically rethink what community would look like - these are beautiful ideas in theory, but in practice, I think, they have not ended up that way. And as millennials have aged into their 30s, their late 30s - you know, I'm the eldest millennial. I'm 39. I think people are looking up from their lives, especially right now during the pandemic, and wondering about the society that we've created. How can we actually change this to make it workable moving forward?

SIMON: I communicated with a friend who is a younger millennial than you. She said another word for burnout is extinguished.


SIMON: Boy, that made me think - burning bright and then burning out.

PETERSEN: And I think that a lot of us have dealt with burnout as our backdrop for so long. But there becomes a point where you just refuse - right? - where you do drop out, where you extinguish. And right now, people are facing that moment of, like, how much longer can I bear with this? Is this my future? Is this the rest of my life?

SIMON: I'm going to give away your last line if that's OK.


SIMON: You say we have little left to lose. It's kind of a call for revolution.

PETERSEN: Yeah (laughter). You know, I think that millennials at this point, we are so screwed. You know, that's kind of the overarching thesis. So either we can keep rolling with that, or we can take that dissatisfaction. We can look up and say, it doesn't have to be this way and try to actually effect change.

SIMON: Meaning?

PETERSEN: (Laughter) Meaning we can refigure our relationship to work. We can refigure our relationship to our communities, but also that we can, you know, refuse to let this burnout be the backdrop of our lives. And a lot of that involves systemic change, right? It involves reinstating safety nets. And to do that, we need to change who's in power.

SIMON: Anne Helen Petersen - her book, "Can't Even" - thanks so much for being with us.

PETERSEN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 18, 2020 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous headline incorrectly referred to Anne Helen Petersen as Helen Peterson. The intro also misspelled Petersen's last name as Peterson.