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Anne Helen Peterson on Structural Solutions to Tackle Millennial Burnout

by Brendan Dowling on September 24, 2020

Anne Helen Peterson has been a welcome voice for readers of Buzzfeed for years, covering a range of topics from the history of cool girls to refugee resettlement. When she turned her attention to millennial burnout in 2019, the topic struck a nerve, resulting in over seven million views. Now Peterson has expanded the scope of her article with her new book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. Here, Peterson employs her rigorous academic background to dissect the common misconceptions about this generation and focus on how burnout has uniquely affected the ways they work, parent, and socialize. The result is a fascinating look at history, economics, and culture that will profoundly transform the way readers think of this generation. Critics have lavish praise on Can’t Even. Esquire hailed it as a “razor sharp book of cultural criticism” and O Magazine called it “a highlight-every-sentence-in-recognition survey of the anxiety and exhaustion baked into the lives of myriad young people.” Brendan Dowling spoke to Peterson on August 31st, 2020. Photo credit: Eric Matt.

This book arose from a Buzzfeed article you wrote in 2019. Can you talk about how you came to write the article in the first place?

I was totally burnt out and I refused to admit it. My tendency as a former academic is to analyze what’s happening to me at any certain point, less psychologically so much as, “What’s the context?” So I started researching. I was trying to figure out what was going on with what I called my errand paralysis, why I couldn’t get simple stuff done. Obviously there’s overlap with some symptoms of depression and general lowness, but as I read more about it I was like, “Oh, this is burn out.” I started to read about what happens when you have overloaded capacity. When you’re poor and struggling—which was not my case, my financial situation was stable at the time—it actually decreases your ability to multitask, make “good decisions,” and basically create a more solid and stable life for yourself. It all just unfurled. The process of writing the piece was incredibly therapeutic. I found it really, really helpful to give language to describe what I was going through. It didn’t fix it. Even after writing this book, I haven’t cured my burnout. It’s more that I can recognize behaviors that are associated with it, if that makes sense.

That’s what I really appreciated about the book, that it’s not a prescriptive take, “here’s how you’re going to cure burnout.” Towards the end of the book, you write, “I’ve tried to provide a lens for you to see yourself and the world around you clearly.” Can you talk about why you approached it with that framework?

Especially as I researched the book and saw very clearly how the things that are really contributing to our burnout—some of them are personal behaviors, but those behaviors are caused by societal problems. Precarity, which causes burnout, is the result of a systemic lack of a safety net. That incredible instability we experience every day, it doesn’t have to be that way. There are models in other countries—even in our own history—of how to take away some of that instability and how that opens people up to happier, more creative, less worry-filled and anxiety-filled lives. To me, if you were just going to prescribe things that could alleviate your personal burnout, that felt really counter to the project. I don’t think burn out can get better unless we make it better for everyone. We really need societal and structural solutions to accompany any sort of personal plan that we might make ourselves.

You point out the systemic changes systemic changes that were implemented that made the career paths millennials were promised impossible. Can you talk about some of those changes?

A lot of them were put in motion when Boomers first came to power over the course of the late seventies and eighties, and while their parents, the Greatest Generation, were in power as well. The best metaphor that I’ve always thought of is taking the ladder up after you. So you have a pension and you have protections at your job, but you’re making decisions and voting decisions that means the next generation will not have those protections. That can take the form of voting in legislators who enact right to work legislation, which then makes it more difficult for people to unionize and have worker protections. Voting in politicians who continue to de-regulate and defund things like public education so that the amount of student loans incurred during the education process become bigger and bigger.

I think a lot of it has to do with this continued belief that what you did as a college student in the early eighties or seventies is somehow still possible. The prevalence of the idea that you can still work your way through any college that’s not community college, that you can work enough to pay your tuition—the number of people who still believe that’s possible? It just boggles my mind. It was just a completely different reality. A lot of that had to do with robust funding for state institutions, and that has just deteriorated year after year over the last twenty or thirty years.

I was really struck by the breadth of research you did  for the book. Can you talk about how you approached that component?

Again, because I’m trained as an academic and a media historian, I knew that I had to go back and think, “What did this do to our parents? What was going on in the eighties and early nineties in terms of parenting standards that really influenced us?” I broke it up in terms of economic history, parenting history, and educational history, then tried to read as broadly as I could. Within all of those histories, you also have to think about how this is affecting first generation Americans and Black Americans differently. How did this work differently for people who had already raised themselves up in the middle class, which a huge number of Americans had in World War II, and those people who were still struggling? How did parenting strategies work differently in rural places, like where I grew up, as compared to more urban places where they were already in the heat of concerted cultivation.

I have a pretty wide network, both through Twitter and a Facebook group that I’ve run for the last ten years, that is always very eager to assist with any research stuff. I was able to get a lot of feedback and interviews with a wide variety of people through those groups. Many, many thousands of people responded to a total of four different surveys, which were real opportunities for people to expand upon and think through their history. I found that people, when they’re filling out a Google form that’s pretty open ended, would get really deep and say things that they wouldn’t necessarily find the words to say if you were doing a one-on-one interview. I think people sometimes haven’t been asked to think back, whether it’s in terms of thinking back on their high school career and what was happening then that has shaped them in their work habits.

At one point, you describe how changes in our approach to work mean that now a lot of people are “LARPing” work. Can you talk about what contributes to that?

I want to be clear that I didn’t make up the term. It was made up by my friend John Herman, who’s a technology writer. It’s such a perfect term to describe what work feels like, especially now when a lot of us are working from home and spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to show you are doing work. For those of us who work in the knowledge professions, there isn’t always tangible hourly progress, right? You can’t be like, “I stared at my document this whole time.” So there’s this compulsion to try to show how many hours you were working. The way that you do that oftentimes is by checking in and basically making some noise on Slack. It’s the equivalent of showing that you’re in the office. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we’re used to our work being undervalued, so we have to somehow show how much work we are doing. Also this idea of more work being better work. What should matter is that you’re producing good work, it doesn’t matter how many hours you’re actually at your computer. Often the best work is the result of spending time away from your computer.

Even though this isn’t a prescriptive book, at the end you offer some advice, writing, “Think not just reducing your own, but how your actions are fanning or provoking the burnout in others.” Why has that been such a useful perspective for you?

I think that decentering yourself is just generally good advice. We’ve become obsessed with ourselves. I don’t mean that as, “Oh, we’re such narcissists,” but because we are so worried about keeping ourselves and our immediate family afloat, that precarity makes it so much harder to think about others as well. Thinking of this as a system, your reactions always have effects on others and others’ actions have effects on you, and those actions  are oftentimes responsible for some of your burnout conditions. If you can think of your entire system—whether that’s the ecosystem of your workplace or how your family communicates—as a systems analysis, to use a dorky academic term, then the net burnout in that system will decrease.

I was just talking to a friend who was saying that in her workplace they were doing a project. The client emailed them and said, “This needs to be changed tonight!” They wanted them to go back online and change something right away, even though there would be no difference in them getting online in the morning and changing it. Her boss, who’s the person dealing with the client, said, “No, we’re not going to get online right now. We’re going to do it first thing in the morning and I think you will still be very happy with our product.” Having a manager who models that sort of response, who actually preserves and respects your time and models that with clients and then models that with their management style within the company, that’s the sort of change that you need to see instituted on a company-wide level.

And finally, what role has the public library played in your life?

I grew up going to a Carnegie library in my hometown and I would max out my library card every single week. Every summer I maxed out on the summer reading program. I’d be like, “Wait, isn’t there another level that I can do?” (laughs) My graduate career was at public institutions, both in University of Oregon and University of Texas. Having the public library in Eugene, I would go rent audio books on CD when I’d go on drives, from their gorgeous public library that they have in town. It was like a second space for me. We have a brand new library that’s opening up in Missoula, Montana, where I live, and I’m so excited for it an what it’s going to offer the community. I know there are very few people who are like, “I don’t like public libraries,” but I really love public libraries.