Mandatory Reads: ‘Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation’ Explains Why You Can’t Function

Have you ever felt like you’re running on empty but can’t seem to take your foot off the gas pedal? You’re not alone. In fact, you’re probably a millennial. An entire generation of young people are struggling to stay employed, live independently, and pursue happiness – and failing in the process. But a new book suggests that this inability to “make it,” much less slow down and enjoy success, is not personal; it’s societal.

Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation is the work of former Buzzfeed Senior Culture Writer Anne Helen Peterson. It was spawned from a viral article she wrote on “errand paralysis,” or the inability to accomplish simple tasks like registering to vote, buying a vacuum, or canceling cable service. The more she wrote and spoke to others experiencing this strange affliction, the more she realized that the aversion to “adulting” stemmed from the belief that she should be working all the time, that her worth as a person was tied to her value as a worker. Anything that detracted from that was non-essential. And yet, even when she did work all the time, she never felt like she could coast for a while. She was incessantly striving.

“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,” Petersen writes. But that simply has not proven true. Hard-working millennials are still scrambling for job stability, buckling under massive student loan debt, and toiling round the clock just to pay the bills.

Even when gainfully employed – as Petersen was – millennials feel like they can’t take a break without risking their entire livelihoods. “I couldn’t shake the feeling of precariousness – that all that I’d worked for could just disappear,” Petersen writes. The anxiety and exhaustion caused by this instability resulted in burnout.

How do you know if you’re burnt out? Well, “when you’re in the midst of a burnout, the feeling of accomplishment that follows an exhausting task…never comes,” Petersen writes. “It’s the sensation of dull exhaustion that, even with sleep and vacation, never really leaves. It’s the knowledge that you’re just barely keeping your head above water, and even the slightest shift – a sickness, a busted car, a broken water heater – could sink you and your family.”

If that sounds familiar, this book is for you. Over the course of 200-plus pages, Petersen examines the roots of the burnout phenomenon and how our toxic work culture was created (thanks, Boomers) using historical and academic research, survey responses, interviews, and conversations with millennials struggling to stay afloat.

Petersen concludes that the only solution is to “burn it down” and rebuild – a message that resonates even more strongly in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic downturn that’s resulted from it.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” she writes, suggesting that the current state of the world is “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.”

If you’re suffering from burnout and want to understand what caused it and how to beat it, reading Can’t Even belongs on your (inarguably epic) to-do list. Unlike all that other crap you have to take care of, finishing this book will actually make you feel better.

Need more to read? The following books are all about millennials and/or burnout.

Mandatory Reads: ‘The Hilarious World of Depression’ Speaks to Your Inner Isolator

Mandatory Reads: ‘As Needed For Pain’ Addresses Opioid Addiction for Everyone (Even Successful, Functioning People)

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