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3 February 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 2:10pm

“We are close to becoming robots”: Anne Helen Petersen on millennial burnout

The American writer and journalist on why a whole generation is doomed to exhaustion. 

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Anne Helen Petersen had rejected the notion of “burnout” when, in 2018, her editor suggested she was suffering from overwork and needed some time off. “Frankly, I was insulted by the idea,” she writes.

A self-declared “type-A overachiever”, Petersen “didn’t hit walls, I worked around them”. She was used to working hard. All through her adult life Petersen had optimised her waking hours to work as much as possible, first as a university professor, and then as a journalist at BuzzFeed.

Petersen, who now works full-time writing a paid subscription newsletter for the online platform Substack, spoke to me over Zoom from a small island off the coast of Washington State, west of her home in Missoula, Montana.

If you are suffering from exhaustion or depression, “you do stop functioning in some capacity”, she said, “whereas with burnout, you’re still doing the work, you’re still participating in relationships. But you feel exhausted all the time.” Unlike breakdown, where there is often a dramatic crisis point or climactic moment, the slow descent into burnout can be difficult – and embarrassing – to recognise.

When Petersen accepted that she was burning out, she realised that many around her were too. The term was coined by the psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974, but, as Petersen talked to friends and conducted interviews, she realised that burnout was more familiar to millennials – typically defined as those born between 1981 and 1996 – than to any other generation. She wrote a long reported article in 2019, “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation”, which went viral. The phrase is now the subtitle of her book Can’t Even (Chatto & Windus). She writes from an American perspective, but her areas of focus – the rise of the gig economy and of venture capital; the all-powerful force of social media; the burden of parenting – are relevant to everyone living under capitalism.

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Many older millennials, including Petersen, who was born in 1981, entered the job market around the time of one of two financial crises: the bursting of the dot com bubble in the early 2000s and the 2008 financial crash. The effects remain far-reaching. Millennials will be the first generation in history to end up poorer than their parents. Many will never own a house. Stable, full-time employment is declining, while the top 1 per cent grow ever wealthier.

[see also: “The social movements of our time are explosive”: Aaron Benanav on robots and revolution]

The result is a generation of people who associate work with precarity. To keep their heads above water, they do what they have always been taught: work. “As parents, you set your kids up for the system, to arrive at a stable income, a stable future,” said Petersen. “But that means not teaching them the value of rest.”

The modern workplace only exacerbates this tendency. “Contemporary capitalism is predicated on exponential growth. In order to produce those sorts of returns, it demands increased production and decreased costs, over and over again. And what does the individual have to do in order to produce in that manner? You become obsessed with optimising yourself – and our obsession with productivity is all about cutting as much waste from our lives as possible, so that we become as close to work robots as we possibly can.”

And so work “expands” beyond the boundaries of paid hours, occupying our entire lives. It affects leisure time, and sleep. It intertwines an individual’s value as a worker and their value as a person. What is left is an endless, exhausting feeling of flatness. “It’s our contemporary condition,” writes Petersen. But it is no way to live.

Critics of Petersen’s work argue that these are the excuses of “entitled” millennials. Earlier generations have lived through hardships and recessions, Petersen said, and while these experiences are not unique to millennials, “they have consolidated as a defining component of the millennial generation”.

However, the influence of digital technology – the development of email extending work beyond the office; the pressures social media puts on users to perform perfect, optimised lives – is distinctive to millennials and subsequent generations.

Petersen was finishing the final edits on Can’t Even in December 2019 when Covid-19 emerged in China. Instead of inserting commentary into each chapter about how the pandemic would add to burnout – among “key” yet vastly underpaid workers, and in the difficulty of separating one’s work and personal lives – she put an author’s note at the beginning of the book: “I want to invite readers to think of every argument in this book, every anecdote, every hope for change, as amplified and emboldened. Work was shitty and precarious before; now it’s even more shitty and precarious. Parenting felt exhausting and impossible; now it’s even more exhausting and impossible.”

Can’t Even is not a guide to curing burnout because the problem lies, Petersen argues, in capitalism itself, not the individual. Some socialists have said the book doesn’t demand enough, she said, but they are missing the point. The book, which in its UK hardback edition features a coral-coloured cover with a simple burnt-match design, is targeted at a mainstream audience. “I’m trying to make people think about the idea that it doesn’t have to be this way and that we want change. That in and of itself feels important.” Can’t Even, Petersen said, is “a socialist Trojan horse”.

[see also: The rise of millennial socialism]

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This article appears in the 03 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s tragedy