What post-pandemic America will look like, especially to anyone under 40, is unclear right now, but in her insightful new book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, Anne Helen Petersen gives us plenty of reasons for worry even with the election of Joe Biden.
As someone who came of age in the ’60s, I feel generational guilt whenever I compare my lot to that of today’s millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996). Through no virtue of our own, my friends and I got a good deal on everything from college admission to jobs, but we never transferred our good fortune to those who came after us.
COVID-19 has been a “great clarifier” as far as Petersen is concerned. What she means by this is that the coronavirus has illuminated, not caused, the problems ranging from racism to unequal health care that currently haunt America. A COVID-19 vaccine won’t cure these problems, nor will it end the burnout in the millennial generation that is the focus of Can’t Even. “Work was shitty and precarious before; now it’s more shitty and precarious,” Petersen contends.
In his 1931 essay, “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” F. Scott Fitzgerald showed how it was possible to blend personal history and generational history in a single narrative. Petersen, like a number of modern American writers, has profited from Fitzgerald’s example. She is a thoughtful partisan when it comes to her generation. Can’t Even is the perfect companion book to the Hulu streaming service’s brilliant coming-of-age, millennial comedy Pen15.
I have taught college-age millennials for over two decades, and I have never understood the resentment directed against their generation. But there is no denying the resentment. When in 2013 Time published a cover story titled “The Me Me Me Generation,” it captured the widespread dislike of millennials. A poll taken a year later showed 71 percent of Americans thought of millennials as “selfish,” and 65 percent thought of them as “entitled.”
By contrast, as a college teacher, I have been struck by the vulnerability and kindness of my millennial students. I remember their shock at 9/11, the willingness of a number of them to go to New Orleans in 2005 to help rebuild houses damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and the debt so many have acquired in order to pay for college.
Millennials are, according to the Pew Research Center, the first generation in American history to enter adulthood in worse economic shape than their parents. Yet, millennials have largely not succumbed to a politics of resentment. They are genuine progressives with 64 percent favoring an activist government that helps to solve problems and two-thirds saying Blacks are treated less fairly than whites.
Petersen emphasizes the vulnerable side of the millennial experience. The burnout that besets America’s 73 million millennials, the country’s largest generation, comes from so many directions, Petersen contends, that it is hard for millennials to believe they can ever have control of their own lives.
Millennials became resume builders in their teens as they struggled to make it into college, then found that once in college resume building continued at a more hectic pace as they struggled to complete internships. Even the digital revolution has not helped millennials. They have become tethered to their smart phones, Instagram, and Twitter. Petersen reports that on average millennials check their phones 150 times a day—a figure I find easy to believe. When the millennials I taught got smartphones, the first thing they would do after class, even if they were waiting around to talk, was check their phones for messages.
Complicating these cultural issues for millennials is the nature of the work so many of them now do. For those at the bottom of the economic ladder, low-wage jobs have made it impossible to save, but more prestigious jobs have also become unstable. An entire subset of highly educated workers now hire themselves out as independent contractors and face the burden of obtaining health insurance on their own and being subjected to quick dismissal if the company they work for decides to downsize. In 1980, 46 percent of private sector workers were covered by a pension plan. By 2019, that number had fallen to 16 percent.
“Precariat” is the term Petersen most often uses to describe today’s vulnerable millennials. Adjunct professors, freelance writers, and Uber drivers fall into this group. Petersen sees their lives built around fear and exhaustion even when they are working. Those who make up the precariat can, they know, be back in the unemployment line at a moment’s notice. That is why so many of them have become risk averse and are willing to take jobs that don’t require the education they have sacrificed so much to get.
When they graduated from college, most of my millennial students found the only way they could live on what they earned was to take an apartment with three or four friends. Under these circumstances many concluded that returning home to live with their parents while they saved up money from a starter job was the better choice.
Petersen, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin and is a senior cultural writer at BuzzFeed, does not see herself as immune from burnout. She points out how long it took her to get a 401k and buy a house, and in her concluding chapter she discloses that she has made a decision not to have children.
She is accepting of the compromises she has made. Her point is that millennials like her are in trouble if they continue to blame themselves for what are large-scale societal failures. While acknowledging the special difficulties the Great Recession of 2007-09 inflicted on her and her fellow millennials, Petersen thinks that the problems millennials face are likely to carry over to Gen Z (those born after 1996).
Petersen’s answer for millennial burnout is for her generation to work with others for social and economic change. “We can recognize that it’s not enough to try to make things better for ourselves. We have to make things better for everyone,” she insists.
What exactly that collective effort would look like in practice Petersen never says, but we get an idea of what she has in mind when we turn to her praise of President Franklin Roosevelt’s National Labor Relations Act of 1935. For Petersen, the New Deal’s protection of unions embodies the good that can happen when the government seeks to balance the economic scales by giving workers the power to battle their employers collectively. Health care, overtime pay, and safety rules all result from unionization, Petersen argues.
Roosevelt is a natural link to the present for Petersen. “This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny,” Roosevelt declared in 1936 on being nominated for a second term as president. FDR was sure he could make that rendezvous with destiny benefit the generation suffering through the Great Depression, just as Petersen is confident that her generation is now poised to battle back from burnout.
“Our anger is barely contained,” Petersen warns on her final page. “Underestimate us at your peril: We have so little left to lose.” The good news for millennials is that Generation Z, their highly diverse successor generation (composed of just 52 percent non-Hispanic whites), seems sure to be allied with them thanks to the impact of COVID-19.