By Anne Helen Petersen, Mariner Books, September 22, 2020, 0358315077
I enjoyed Can’t Even at first, then I kind of got sick of it. I did not feel the millennial characterizations were spot on, at least not from my perspective. I would rather say that her experience was unique to Silicon Valley startup culture. The millennials I know in Boulder, who work in tech, do not have the same issues that Anne Helen Petersen had. I could relate to her issues as a former Silicon Valley startup person.
There’s a lot of interesting cultural aspects in the book which make it a worthwhile read if you’d like to learn about the effects of, say, hyperactive social media use.
Can’t Even is fast past and an easy read.
[k77] Maybe all we need to act on that feeling is an irrefutable pivot point: an opportunity not just for reflection, but to build a different design, a different way of life, from the rubble and clarity brought forth by this pandemic. I’m not talking about utopia, per se. I’m talking about a different way of thinking about work, and personal value, and profit incentives–and the radical idea that each of us matter, and are actually essential and worthy of care and protection.
[k80] If you think that’s too radical of an idea, I don’t know how to make you care about other people.
[k104] When my editor suggested I was burning out, I balked: Like other type-A overachievers, I didn’t hit walls, I worked around them.
[k117] As one piece put it, “The modern Millennial, for the most part, views adulthood as a series of actions, as opposed to a state of being. Adulting therefore becomes a verb.”
[k124] Adulting–and, by extension, completing your to-do list–is hard, then, because living in the modern world is somehow both easier than it’s ever been and yet unfathomably complicated.
[k133] 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: that if I just worked hard enough, everything would pan out.
[k153] When you’re in the midst of burnout, the feeling of accomplishment that follows an exhausting task–passing the final! finishing the massive work project!–never comes.
[k169] Burnout has become so pervasive that in May 2019, the World Health Organization officially recognized it as an “occupational phenomenon,” resulting from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
[k178] We’re balancing skyrocketing housing prices and childcare costs and health insurance premiums.
[k198] We were raised to believe that if we worked hard enough, we could win the system–of American capitalism and meritocracy–or at least live comfortably within it. But something happened in the late 2010s. We looked up from our work and realized, there’s no winning the system when the system itself is broken.
[k200] We’re the first generation since the Great Depression where many of us will find ourselves worse off than our parents.
[k202] We’re drowning in student debt–an estimated $37,000 per debtor–that’s permanently stunted our financial lives.
[k222] People from other generations have been burnt out; that’s not a question. Burnout, after all, is a symptom of living in our modern capitalist society.
[k223] And in many ways, our hardships pale in comparison. We did not weather a Great Depression, or the catastrophic loss of life that accompanied a world war.
[k230] For millennials, burnout is foundational: the best way to describe who we’ve been raised to be, how we interact with and think about the world, and our everyday experience thereof. And it isn’t an isolated experience. It’s our base temperature.
[k258] I find myself returning to the words of Tiana Clark, who wrote a piece on the specifics of Black burnout in response to my own: “No matter the movement or era,” she wrote, “being burned out has been the steady state of black people in this country for hundreds of years.”
[k287] What we talk about when we talk about millennials, then, depends on who’s doing the talking.
[k288] This book cannot fully cover any version of the millennial experience, including the white middle-class one.
[k289] That’s not an abdication of responsibility, but an acknowledgment: This is the start of the conversation, and an invitation to talk more. There’s no burnout Olympics.
[k293] But one thing did become incredibly clear: This isn’t a personal problem. It’s a societal one–and it will not be cured by productivity apps, or a bullet journal, or face mask skin treatments, or overnight fucking oats.
[k303] “You think you’re burnt out? Try surviving the Great Depression and World War II!” In the wake of the millennial burnout piece, that was the most common critique in my inbox. The sentiment usually came from boomers, who, somewhat ironically, had endured neither the Great Depression nor World War II.
[k311] In truth, millennials are boomers’ worst nightmare because, in many cases, we were once their most well-intentioned dream.
[k316] What we could do was roast them online using memes. “Old Economy Steve” first appeared on Reddit in 2012, pairing a 1970s high school portrait with a caption suggesting he’s now your market-loving dad who won’t shut up about how you should really start putting money into your 401k.
[k318] Subsequent iterations narrativized his economic privilege: DRIVES UP FEDERAL DEFICIT FOR 30 YEARS / HANDS THE BILL TO HIS KIDS, one version of the meme exclaims; “WHEN I WAS IN COLLEGE MY SUMMER JOB PAID THE TUITION” / TUITION WAS $400 says another.
[k332] As the comedian Dan Sheehan put it in 2019, in a tweet that’s been liked more than 200,000 times, “Baby Boomers did that thing where you leave a single square of toilet paper on the roll and pretend it’s not your turn to change it, but with a whole society.”
[k339] Boomers were anxious and overworked and deeply resentful of the critiques levied at them. The problem, and why it’s often hard to think of them charitably, is their inability to tap that experience in order to empathize with their own children’s generation.
[k415] To these critics, whose generation had weathered the deprivations of the Great Depression and World War II, these boomers were simply ungrateful.
[k499] But the myth of the wholly self-made American, like all myths, relies on some sort of sustained willful ignorance–often perpetuated by those who’ve already benefited from them.
[k512] As Maurice A. St. Pierre, writing in the Journal of Black Studies, explained in 1993, “The policies of the Reagan administration–based on the philosophy of hard work, independence, thrift, minimum government intervention in the lives of citizens, and making America strong again–affected the poor, many of whom are Black, more negatively than the economically better-off.”
[k566] For yuppies to keep treading water, others had to sink below the surface–economic casualties of yuppies’ on-the-job actions as stockbrokers, consultants, and corporate lawyers.
[k633] But the common denominator between experiences remains the same: to “succeed,” as a millennial kid, at least according to middle-class societal standards, was to build yourself for burnout.
[k635] The tenets of concerted cultivation will sound familiar, because they’re what have been represented, and tacitly agreed upon, as “good” parenting for the last three decades.
[k638] Baby food should be homemade; toddler play should be enriching; private tutors should be enlisted if necessary.
[k641] Every part of a child’s life, in other words, can be optimized to better prepare them for their eventual entry into the working world. They become mini-adults, with the attendant anxiety and expectations, years before adulthood hits. Concerted cultivation is, at its heart, a middle-class practice.
[k735] “Risk management used to be a business practice,” Malcolm Harris writes in Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. “Now it’s our dominant child-rearing strategy.”
[k948] That pressure to achieve wouldn’t have existed without the notion that college, no matter the cost, would provide a path to middle-class prosperity and stability. But as millions of overeducated, underemployed, and student-debt-laden millennials will tell you, just because everyone around you believes in the gospel doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true.
[k992] When one’s value depends on the capacity to work, people who are disabled or elderly, people who cannot labor full-time or who provide care in ways that aren’t paid at all or valued as highly–all become “less than” in the larger societal equation. And as much as we like to believe in a society where a person’s value is found in the strength of their character, or the magnitude of their service and kindness to others, it’s difficult to even type that sentence without being confronted with how little it reflects our current reality.
[k1084] “When As are expected, there’s no way to exceed expectations,” Meghan, who grew up in the Portland suburbs, told me.
[k1100] But the overarching narrative, internalized amongst these middle-class and middle-class–aspirational teens, was the same: Optimize yourself into a college-application robot.
[k1113] And then there’s the creeping disillusionment that none of it really mattered, not then, and not now.
[k1129] If you need a good resume to get into college, and the resume is filled with accomplishments that are largely hollow–then what, ultimately, is college for?
[k1140] First, there are still many high-paying jobs that don’t require a traditional four-year degree: HVAC installers, pipe fitters, electricians, and other construction trades, especially union ones, offer relatively stable middle-class standards of living.
[k1195] But for the vast majority of millennials, getting a degree hasn’t yielded the middle-class stability that was promised to both us and our parents. It’s just the same thing it always was, even when it gets dressed up in the fancy robes of the education gospel: more work.
[k1215] The rhetoric of “Do you what you love, and you’ll never work another 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.
[k1232] As the artist Adam J. Kurtz rewrote the DWYL maxim on Twitter: “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life work super fucking hard all the time with no separation and no boundaries and also take everything extremely personally.”
[k1244] The desirability of “lovable” jobs is part of what makes them so unsustainable: So many people are competing for so few positions that compensation standards can be continuously lowered with little effect.
[k1370] “If I learned anything in that search, it was that networking, nepotism, and insider connections are largely the only way to get a job,” she said. “And even then, that job was an unpaid internship.”
[k1405] But as he continues to seek–and fails to find–work as a pastor, he finds himself cycling between anxiety and shame and depression, and all of it bumping up against the sense of “calling.”
[k1414] The promise of hope labor is that if you can just make it in the door, it doesn’t matter how you or other hope laborers are treated. What matters is that there’s a chance that you’ll end up doing what you love, however poorly paid you will be.
[k1424] Initially, she was ashamed–this was 2008, and, at least in her town, the broad effects of the recession had yet to manifest. But in time, nearly everyone from her class who didn’t go into STEM, or find their way to grad school, had also moved home.
[k1436] See especially academia, which has effectively become a hope labor industrial complex.
[k1456] “We were supposed to accept the status quo because we were doing good,” Erin recalls. “When I quit teaching to work in tech–because I was literally starving!–I felt judged by my former colleagues.”
[k1461] What matters is that they spent a decade or more of their lives working toward what they loved–and failed to reach the finish line. That’s what happens when we don’t talk about work as work, but as pursuing a passion.
[k1483] The fetishization of lovable work means that plain old jobs–non-ninja, non-Jedi jobs that might not be “cool” but that nonetheless offer magical powers like “stability” and “benefits”–come to feel undesirable. Within this logic, mailmen and electrician seem like our grandparents’ and parents’ jobs, the sorts of jobs with a definable start and ending, the sort of jobs that don’t subsume the worker’s identity.
[k1502] Millions of millennials, regardless of class, were reared on lofty, romantic, bourgeois ideas of work. Eschewing those ideas means embracing ones that have never disappeared for many working-class employees: A good job is one that doesn’t exploit you and that you don’t hate.
[k1543] Millennials did not germinate the idea that ‘lovable work’ was the ideal, nor did we cultivate it. But we did have to deal with the reality of just how frail that idea became once exposed to the real world.
[k1563] But the new millennial refrain of “Fuck passion, pay me” feels more persuasive and powerful every day.
[k1589] Above all, precariat workers are exhausted–and, regardless of the specifics of their job, burnt out.
[k1704] “A lot of people assume Amazon or Walmart killed Toys “R” Us, but it was selling massive numbers of toys until the very end,” the anti-monopoly activist Matt Stoller writes. “What destroyed the company were financiers, and public policies that allowed the divorcing of ownership from responsibility.”
[k1717] This is the paradigm shift that’s so hard to confront: that in the current iteration of capitalism, fueled by Wall Street and private equity, the vast majority of employees do not benefit, in any way, from the profits that the company creates for its shareholders
[k1720] This shift in financial goals–from long-term, gradual, stable profits to short-term spikes in stock price–helped create the increasingly shitty and alienated workplace we now know.
[k1846] Bad jobs and the burnout that accompanies them are not the only option. Unions and regulation that address the realities of the changed economy will help.
[k2013] The ideology of overwork has become so pernicious, so pervasive, that we attribute its conditions to our own failures, our own ignorance of the right life hack that will suddenly make everything easier. That’s why books like Grit and Unf*ck Yourself and other titles with asterisks to blunt the profanity and the frustration have become such massive bestsellers: They suggest that the fix is right there, within our grasp. Because the problem, these books suggest, isn’t the current economic system, or the companies that exploit and profit from it. It’s us.
[k2223] This work was framed as particularly suitable for supposedly self-centered, picky, self-righteous millennials; as the gig economy grew in visibility, Forbes declared, “The 9 to 5 job may soon be a relic of the past, if millennials have their way.”
[k2232] The gig economy isn’t replacing the traditional economy. It’s propping it up in a way that convinces people it’s not broken.
[k2233] Freelance and gigging don’t make drudgery or anxiety disappear. Instead, they exacerbate them.
[k2238] Jane, a freelance writer, explains that “there is such a sense in freelancing that you are never doing enough–that you should be doing more, making more, hustling more–and that every failure you have (real or perceived) is entirely your fault. In an office job, you’re still getting paid for those five minutes it takes to make a cup of tea; when you’re freelancing, every minute you’re not working, you’re losing money.”
[k2265] If lawmakers force companies like Uber to stop misclassifying its employees as independent contractors, it would reinforce the social contract between companies and laborers–the idea that companies are responsible for the livelihoods of those who labor for them, and that the profits gleaned through this labor should trickle down, in some form, to them.
[k2318] I’m equally ashamed and exhausted writing that description of a pretty standard day in my digital life–and it doesn’t even include all of the additional times I looked at my phone, or checked social media, or went back and forth between a draft and the internet, as I did twice just while writing this sentence. In the United States, one 2013 study found that millennials check their phone 150 times day; a different 2016 study claimed we log an average of six hours and nineteen minutes of scrolling and texting and stressing out over emails per week. No one I know likes their phone.
[k2339] Like so many aspects of burnout, digital exhaustion isn’t unique to millennials. But our generation has a relationship with digital technologies that, at least in this moment, is uniquely aggravating.
[k2349] Twitter took off and largely demolished the blogging world.
[k2380] But the addition of the Like button–and changing the “alerts” from blue to red, so that people couldn’t ignore them–incentivized repeated, obsessive returns to the site.
[k2469] I do spend a lot of time outdoors with my dogs, and I do spend a lot of time traveling for my job. But I post the outdoor pictures to try to prove to myself and others that the bulk of my Montana life isn’t spent behind a computer, and the other shots are to convince myself and others that constant travel isn’t an alienating slog, but a thrill.
[k2479] We might not curate our “squares” as ruthlessly as Gen Z–who often keep just a handful of photos posted at a time–but most of us think about how often to post, when something’s “story” content versus when it’s a post, how much photo editing is acceptable and how much is too obvious.
[k2496] When I have fifteen minutes before bed and I’m exhausted, I know the best thing to ease myself into rest is reading a book. But just making that choice to put down the phone demands discipline.
[k2500] That’s how social media robs of us of the moments that could counterbalance our burnout. It distances us from actual experiences as we obsess over documenting them. It turns us into needless multitaskers.
[k2512] I want to never think of Instagram again, yet feel a deep mournfulness for what I’d lose if I were to abandon it. It’s an unrewarding part-time job that’s also my only connection to friends I’ve become too busy to spend actual time with.