When I moved into my first apartment, I unpacked boxes and built a lot of sand-colored Ikea furniture. What I did not do was set up WiFi. Call it a failure to adult or just laziness, but for ten months, I never bothered to call the local internet provider and schedule a time to install a router—a process that, when the pandemic hit and I ran out of excuses, took all of an hour. This was no virtuous tech fast; I really like watching Netflix and Instagram doomscrolling (preferably at the same time). I just didn’t have enough motivation to get it done.
A similar “errand paralysis” provides the jumping-off point for journalist Anne Helen Petersen’s book-length expansion of her viral BuzzFeed article, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pp., $26). After a series of intense, back-to-back reporting assignments, Petersen’s editor suggested that she might need a break from work. Petersen resisted the offer, even as she noticed that she felt “numb, impervious” and couldn’t finish any of the items on her to-do list: it “just kept recycling itself from one week to the next, a neat little stack of shame.”
She began to read online accounts of similar struggles, mostly written by fellow Millennials, even as she suspected the root of the problem was something deeper than just “adulting is hard” (a generational stereotype made infamous by everyone from Boomers to Gen Z). “Something wasn’t just wrong in my day-to-day,” she writes. “I couldn’t shake the feeling of precariousness—that all 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.”
Petersen is careful to note that burnout (first recognized as a psychological diagnosis of “physical or mental collapse as the result of overwork” in 1974) isn’t new or unique to Millennials, rooted as it is in the “melancholic world-weariness” described in Ecclesiastes and the exhaustion with “relentless change” that accompanied the Renaissance. But for Petersen, Millennial burnout is distinguished by structural and economic factors that mean “burnout isn’t just a temporary affliction. It’s our contemporary condition.” Millennials joined the workforce during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression; we’re deeply in debt (an estimated $37,000 per debtor); and we live with a sense that to get into college, find “good” jobs, and maintain our value in society, we need to be, as Jia Tolentino puts it, “always optimizing.” Little wonder we’re so tired.