An interview with Anne Helen Petersen on millennials

Sarah Gelman on September 21, 2020

In 2019, Anne Helen Petersen published a Buzzfeed article titled “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.” The article has been read over seven million times. This article spawned a book: Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, which will be published tomorrow and just happens to be one of our Best Books of the Month.

While the title makes me giggle, Can’t Even is a serious and sobering look at how former generations—specifically the Boomer generation—have failed millennials and set them up for burnout. A millennial herself, the author is a welcome insertion into her argument, particularly in the conclusion when she strengthens her message with her own narrative.

Petersen answered my emailed questions about her book, and how she’s avoiding burnout in 2020.

Sarah Gelman, Amazon Book Review: You wrote a piece for Buzzfeed on this topic that went viral. What was the path from that article to this book?

Anne Helen Petersen: For the article, I was able to take something that I saw happening in my own life, develop a framework for it, and then try and expand it to my own past and experience. For the book, I was really able to expand the scope—not just to hundreds of other millennials whose stories are included in some form or fashion—but also to look in depth at our economic history, at the shifts in parenting philosophy, and so much more to get a real textured understanding of where burnout culture (e.g. the standards and expectations we have around work and life) comes from. It's cheesy but I learned so much.

Who is the audience for this book? Millennials? Everyone?

Is it unfair to say everyone? I think millennials will naturally feel most "seen" by this book, but this book also provides a way for people who aren't millennials to understand why we are the way we are. I know several baby boomers who've found it very illuminating, in part because there's a significant chunk of the book that attempts to excavate some of the economic and societal stresses that made boomers themselves burnt out—all the way back in the '70s and '80s—and that had so much influence on the way that millennials grew up and were parented.

I’m really interested in the research you completed for this book. How did you source your stories?

I'm an academic by training, so my first impulse is always to read as many books as possible. I spent a lot of time reading economic history, some of it very dry and some of it really fascinating—like Louis Hyman's Temp, and Barbara Ehrenreich's Fear of Falling.

For almost all of the chapters, I also created a Google Survey, filled with all sorts of questions. For the Childhood chapter, for example, there were questions about the first time you felt "busy," how your parents thought of your activities, what your play and supervision looked like on a daily basis, and so much more. A lot of millennials want to share their experience, but feel intimidated by something as formal as making an appointment to get on the phone, but will expand at length if they can do it on their own time, in a black square. I would sometimes follow up with someone if I didn't understand their meaning, but just having the form made it possible to get thousands of responses for each section of the book.

What was most surprising to you?

Just how much barely contained rage was emanating from the responses from mothers about parenting burnout. And this was before COVID!

As you touch on in the Author’s Note, you wrote this book pre-pandemic and you “invite readers to think of every argument in this book, every anecdote, every hope for change, as amplified and emboldened.” Half a year into the pandemic, what are your thoughts on how millennials are faring?

Every element of the book, every source of burnout—all of it’s amplified and worse. Burnout is tightly connected to the disintegrating social safety net, and I think a lot of people are feeling that more acutely than ever, whether in terms of financial precarity, health precarity, work precarity, educational precarity, and so much more. It's the pandemic, but it's more. It's the constant reminders of climate change, but it's more. It's the overload of information and fear swirling around our forthcoming election, but it's more. But as I wrote in a recent issue of my newsletter, we're also in a moment (what historians sometimes call a "plastic hour") where massive changes are possible. The hope for my book is that the pandemic allows us to see, even clearer than before, that something has to give—and that it's going to take massive, societal shifts in the way we think about and value work (and each other!) for us to actually recover from burnout in any sort of substantive way.

The conclusion in this book is very personal; you talk about why you chose not to have children. Why did you choose to include this in the book?

I think it's often very easy for some of the realities of burnout to feel abstract—or very personal, as in, that happened to that person, but it won't happen to me. But I included my own story (and tried to draw some connections with what's happened with work culture and birth rates in Japan) as a means of underlining that a refusal to grapple with burnout culture now will have massive, meaningful effects on our society in the near and not-so-near future.

It’s a pretty tough time to be a millennial (or anyone). What are you doing to stay as sane as possible?

I try to spend time gardening and/or walking with my dogs. I am an old lady, a Lawn Dad, a total dork. But I try to do all of these things without listening to podcasts or having other distractions—giving myself permission to hang out in my own mind. I find that to be a real burnout antidote.

What are some books by millennial writers that you have been enjoying?

Some of my recent favorites: Luster by Raven Leilani, Real Life by Brandon Taylor, and Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips.

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