Is There a Cure for Burnout?

Young businesswman with yellow sticky note on her forehead

Young businesswman with yellow sticky note on her forehead. (Courtesy of Getty Images)

During a trip home a few years ago, I casually asked my mother’s partner, D, for some financial advice. I was starting my third job in three years, and a byproduct of all this shuffling of tax forms was that I possessed two or three 401(k) accounts, each containing a paltry amount I nonetheless didn’t want to languish forever. D is a responsible, intelligent man in his 70s whose concerted investing efforts paid dividends throughout his life, and within days, he prepared a modest portfolio of annotated printouts suggesting some mutual funds and stocks for whenever I got around to rolling over those disparate accounts into one.

I said something like, Looks great, before asking if he could winnow it down a little. Well, no, he told me: I just had to do the reading, and decide for myself. But what if I don’t have a lot of faith in the stock market? Well, it comes and goes, you just have to go with your gut and not stress it too much… until it’s time to stress! (Big smiles at the dinner table.) But what if I just like looking at a big number? Well, big numbers are wonderful, but if you’re smart about it you can look at an even bigger number within five to 50 years. But what if I don’t have any faith in the long-term future of Western financial markets and/or society? He had no answer for that.

I was joking but not really, and in the coming days my enthusiasm waned every time I glanced at the portfolio. The amount I needed to redistribute was so negligible that the man at Fidelity more or less laughed when I walked in to ask for more advice. He told me to call the hotline, but the idea of talking on the phone about my stocks seemed deeply alienating for reasons I couldn’t articulate. And so the money just sat there. For 18 months. Until one day I mentioned it to a coworker, who rolled her eyes, said I was being a baby, and provided the specific instructions I desired, which I carried out after googling “[mutual fund] good?” to confirm at least one of us knew what she was talking about.

Most of this was laziness. But I was working full-time; I had an active social schedule; and the Fidelity website said I’d need to invest a whole lot more in order to avoid destitution in my geriatric years. Putting too much effort into maximizing this amount of capital, before I had a better job or a winning lottery ticket, just didn’t seem worthwhile. Every day, the news delivered some ominous portent about how millennials (my generation) were more underpaid and overworked than ever, how corporate America was nakedly stacking the deck against workers, how the economy was shedding permanent jobs for transient giglike distractions meant to tempt us with flexibility instead of health care. Also, climate change.

Without some kind of transformative, society-shaking upheaval, it felt beyond obvious that the financially stable future D and his baby boomer peers were able to take for granted when they were my age—especially the white male ones—would never come. That it took maybe 10 minutes to handle my 401(k) situation after 18 months of waffling only underscored the pervasive sense of futility distracting me and perhaps millions of others from doing what was theoretically in my best interest. Why bother with the little stuff when the big stuff is so profoundly insurmountable?

This enervating psychic stasis might be chalked up to burnout, according to Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, a new book by the academic and culture writer Anne Helen Petersen about how our generation (people born from 1981 to 1996) exists in a perpetually hollowed-out mental state. Can’t Even is an expanded version of “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” a viral article she wrote in January 2019 for her then-employer, BuzzFeed, and whose success is mentioned multiple times in the text. The piece has collected over “more than seven million readers” since its publication, numbers that would make any website editor’s (and at least one book editor’s) eyes pop like a horny cartoon character. The economic and cultural forces that induce burnout are problems faced by all millennials, Petersen says, and with this book she positions herself as an expert on that suffering and offers some lessons that might guide us toward a healthier future.

Burnout is a medical diagnosis that the psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined in 1974 when, after an extended period of working long hours, he found himself extraordinarily incapable of experiencing joy. It was different from exhaustion or depression, and early on Petersen sums up the difference: “Exhaustion means going to the point where you can’t go any further; burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years.” More expansively, the psychoanalyst Josh Cohen defines it as “an intense yearning for this state of completion with the tormenting sense that it cannot be attained, that there is always some demand or anxiety or distraction which can’t be silenced.” Overachievers are classic candidates for burnout; so are people likely to announce on social media that they were gifted kids.

Petersen slots into the former, having oriented her life toward a perpetual state of work: grad school, teaching, a career in the ceaseless churn of digital media. In November 2018, after she found herself “fighting tears every time I talked to my editors,” her BuzzFeed boss suggested she might be suffering from burnout, a diagnosis she initially rejected. But when she took a few days off, she realized that her scrambled mental state might be symptomatic of something greater than mere physical fatigue. “For months, whenever I thought about going to bed, I felt overwhelmed by the steps I’d have to take to responsibly get from the couch to the bed,” she writes. “I felt underwhelmed by vacations—or, more precisely, like vacation was just another thing to get through on my to-do list.” Work was fine (it’s all she seemed to do), but the little tasks with no great reward, like getting her knives sharpened or her boots resoled, continued piling up.

So she began researching what she terms “errand paralysis,” an anecdotal condition appearing to plague thousands of people across the Internet, rendering them similarly incapable of completing basic tasks. Her first instincts brought her to “adulting,” a term coined around 2013 that regards adulthood as an ongoing performance in which fulfilling dull errands feels like cosplaying as your parents. Underneath adulting, Petersen finds the reasons for the millennial flavor of burnout: The busywork and errands of everyday life don’t lead to better living, so it’s difficult to conceive of them as a necessary part of the life we have. But actual work no longer leads to a better life because of decades of sustained corporate and political effort to make labor and its rewards shittier, depriving us of a basic right to simply live off the fruits of our endeavors. All of this runs contrary to Petersen’s received wisdom “that if I just worked hard enough, everything would pan out.” If it did, millennials would have savings, stable employment, and homeownership.

The simmering dread that comes from considering these fundamental tensions among the need to work and the endlessness of that work and the uselessness of that work formed the basis of Petersen’s spin on burnout, leading her to write that article and eventually the book. Thus Can’t Even is structured as an investigation into the dismal realities of millennial life—the gig economy, the education-industrial complex, the oversaturation of social media, etc.—and how they inevitably culminate in burnout. Each chapter is sprinkled with testimonies from other millennials, as she acknowledges early on that no one framework applies to the generation’s diversity of race, gender, and sexuality (or any generation’s, for that matter). After all, an estimated 73 million Americans qualify as millennials, and even an article that attracted over 7 million clicks speaks for only a minority.

“Decentering the white middle-class millennial experience as the millennial experience is an ongoing and essential aspect of this project,” Petersen writes. But she is a white middle-class millennial, and her frequent reliance on the plural “we” often hinders that decentering process. One example comes during an early passage in which she discusses how burnout won’t be cured by “productivity apps, or a bullet journal, or face mask skin treatments, or overnight fucking oats.” She adds, “We gravitate toward these personal cures because they seem tenable, and promise that our lives can be recentered, and regrounded, with just a bit more discipline, a new app, a better email organization, or a new meal planning.” The urgency of this prose suggests its fidelity to a shared lived experience, though on a second pass, it seems clear she’s still circling back to white middle-class millennials. (Also, overnight oats are fine.)

Shortly thereafter, she introduces what might be a mission statement: “Before we can start fighting what is very much a structural battle, we first need to understand it as such.” Here the book diverges from upsettingly popular millennial self-help books like Gary John Bishop’s Unfu*k Yourself  by acknowledging that the problems we face are broader than any individual cluster of decisions. But a conflict arises between the universality of these issues and the unavoidable way Petersen ends up centering herself. More and more, her solutions to these structural issues end up sounding like ones that would best benefit another type-A achiever who desperately wants to find meaning in work. Some people might respond to burnout by switching jobs or moving to another city, but Petersen just wrote a book about it.

Petersen isn’t the first writer to take a crack at diagnosing the millennial condition, as anyone who has ever gone online can tell you, and Can’t Even liberally refers to its antecedents. Most notable is her repeated citation of Malcolm Harris’s 2017 book Kids These Days, a broad look at how the education-industrial complex has shaped the millennial class into worker drones. The two books diverge in plenty of ways, but they draw on a similar body of evidence to demonstrate how and why we got here, because the facts aren’t really up for debate. Millennials have been screwed. We’re the first generation to have a worse economic outlook than our parents. We control less than 5 percent of US wealth, despite making up the largest chunk of the workforce, and plenty of millennials won’t make up that difference after their parents die.

What matters more are the divergences and who they’re meant to accommodate. Harris identifies as a Marxist, and his prose—in his book and elsewhere—thrums with the cynicism of someone putting word to suspicions he’s held for his politically educated life. “None of our institutions look as if they will transform American society in the ways we’d need them to in order to reverse the trends described in this book,” he concludes.

Petersen is no less bullish about her positions, but she’s more sanguine about the possibility of reorganizing the system from within rather than tearing it down altogether. Furthermore, she tends to write from a place of surprise that we’re in this situation to begin with. She claims otherwise: “Few millennials are surprised,” she writes in an author’s note appended to the beginning that addresses how Covid-19 has exacerbated many of these tensions—but much of her personal testimony centers on the ongoing deflation of the myths she learned growing up. She does a lot of related work to ease in those readers who might not be readymade radicals. In one such effort, she writes that it may be “hard for many Americans to hear or think about” the idea that unchecked capitalism is not benevolent.

It’s important to remember this as Petersen builds her case piece by piece, beginning with a straightforward history of how the baby boomers—the generation that has the most political and economic capital—grew self-interested and how they taught their children to construct their lives in anticipation of the bountiful adulthood to follow. From there, she dives into the rise of surveillance culture at work (bad) and how the consultant class helped devastate pensions and steady employment for the working class (also bad). Few of the claims are novel (you could glean as much by scrolling through several months of Bernie Sanders’s tweets), but her dutiful approach is geared toward those who weren’t already aware or convinced of the circumstances swirling all around.

“Most burnt-out millennials I know have arrived at that point of calling those expectations into question, but it didn’t happen right away,” she writes. “Instead, it’s taken decades: Even after watching our parents get shut out, fall from, or simply struggle anxiously to maintain the American Dream, we didn’t reject it.”

I want to stress how much I empathize, because I know a political awakening requires more than a list of facts. But as a reader, these types of generalizations are unsatisfying because they rely so heavily on trusting she has had a representative experience. Who are her friends? What’s the work they wanted to do? You don’t have to look far to find a social world of millennials who didn’t require decades to realize the American dream was flawed, internalized that lesson as teenagers and young adults, and adjusted their worldview accordingly. There are plenty of comparably broad observations dredged from specific experience. Referring to Alexandra Robbins’s The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids, a 2006 book about overworked teenagers trying to get into the college of their dreams, Petersen notes, “multiple people told me they read it as a sort of instruction manual.” If I polled the teens I knew in 2006, most of them would have taken it as a warning guide against being too much of a nerd.

Similar questions accompany each of these confident declarations about how millennials act and think. My experience doesn’t invalidate hers, and it might even be less representative, depending on whom you ask. But that’s the difficulty of interpreting clear evidence—the precarious position millennials undoubtedly occupy—through such a personal lens. And Can’t Even is unavoidably personal. Though every chapter incorporates multiple outside testimonies (culled from “over three thousand responses” to surveys she created alongside “countless interviews and conversations” Petersen tells us she conducted), most of which predictably underline whatever point she’s making, we almost always circle back to what she thinks, based on her life and experiences.

It’s her book, but it’s impossible to cultivate a position of objective expertise from such memoiristic subjectivity, especially given her rarefied work trajectory: academia to media, where she has built a sizable brand and audience. (She recently left her job at BuzzFeed to work full-time on her paid Substack newsletter—a choice that only a small fraction of writers could make.) An easy conclusion would be that the millennial experience is too broad to generalize in any direction, beyond pointing to the hard metrics about our average net worth (or lack thereof), consumption patterns, voting habits, and so on, but Petersen’s book, rather than decentering its writer, makes her experience a heuristic and projects her assumptions onto the world.

A telling admission comes at the end of a chapter about how millennials were duped into accepting poorly salaried work they were convinced they loved because it allegedly provided them social capital and a feeling of purpose. The cool job has been a staple of the millennial market, and Petersen can certainly empathize, since BuzzFeed is a hip digital media outlet whose boss once explicitly discouraged the idea of unionizing. (After suffering years of layoffs, the staff finally voted to unionize in 2019.) “For many, including myself, it’s hard not to feel embarrassed around it: I settled for so little because I was certain that with enough hard work, things would be different,” she writes.

This is bold and endearing—a concession that she may have just messed up, without any grander pathologizing. But it follows a series of hypotheses that the future of millennial work may be uncool jobs or “one that doesn’t exploit you and that you don’t hate.” Two examples she cites, via outside testimony: working in foster care and teaching history to middle school students. “The new millennial refrain of ‘Fuck passion, pay me’ feels more persuasive and powerful every day,” she concludes.

Setting aside the fact that teachers are wildly underpaid, only a workaholic could envision better work as the solution to bad work, despite her calls that a profound restructuring of the economy is crucial for anyone, not just millennials, to have a future. It’s true that a psychic reorganization could ameliorate the cumulative effects of burnout, as “The hell with this—I won’t play by your rules” remains a satisfying way of reclaiming one’s agency within a broken system. But all jobs, not just cool ones, are subject to the ongoing degradations levied by venal politicians and corporations. None of the problems she describes happened by chance; they were all products of specific decisions made over the decades, meant to maximize profits at the expense of people.

A radical approach or solution might scare her readers, but it’s no less unrealistic than imagining we can escape these problems by simply contorting our brains to accommodate them. Switching careers to a job that hasn’t been hollowed out by capitalism is just a more ornate version of overnight oats, in terms of thinking it can fix what ails you and us.

Permit me a sports analogy: In the 1990s a basketball analyst named John Hollinger, who at the time was the sports editor of The Oregonian’s website, developed a formula called player efficiency rating (PER). Instead of comparing the myriad statistics used to track a player’s performance—points, rebounds, assists, shooting percentage, steals, blocks, etc.—fans, executives, and analysts could refer to this catch-all number to summarize his contributions. Because of his position as an innovator of advanced statistics, which were becoming increasingly influential in the broader sports world, Hollinger rose quickly. He moved to Sports Illustrated, became a senior analyst at ESPN, and in 2012 was hired as the vice president of basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies, an NBA team. Meanwhile, PER went from niche mathematical tool to codified league wisdom. Contemporary basketball video games allow you to look up a digital player’s rating, and it’s not uncommon for commentators to casually bring it up during a game.

But PER has its detractors, who have pointed out issues with the formula’s calculations, how it doesn’t account for defense (literally half of the game), and how it diminishes the cultural factors that make up why anyone cares about basketball to begin with. For example, PER states that Allen Iverson—one of the most lauded, influential, and beloved NBA players of the past 25 years—was just “pretty good,” a claim that would get you outright ejected from most professional locker rooms. While reasonable people would acknowledge that PER is just one paintbrush used to color in a complete picture of the NBA, Hollinger has cashed in massively on the idea of his expertise, even when you don’t need a complicated statistic to affirm that Michael Jordan is the best player of all-time (career PER ranking: No. 1).

I thought about PER every time Petersen somehow found a way to bring an argument back around to burnout, a term she uses in some permutation about 140 times. Granted, it’s in the title. But does looking at Instagram really lead to burnout? Is not wanting to take a vacation always a sign of burnout? Or not mowing the lawn? Couldn’t that be just an aversion to yardwork or simply—gasp—laziness? The last decade has seen no shortage of catchy concepts popularized in millennial circles as a shorthand for one’s personality, such as imposter syndrome, the Myers-Briggs test, and adulting. Burnout is positioned here to become another one, and by default, this book makes Petersen a burnout expert, a nice job for someone to have.

It’s not that burnout isn’t real, though its classification as a medical diagnosis should give anyone pause before blithely declaring it’s what ails them. But its credibility dissipates with every enthusiastic invocation and the ingrained belief that many of our problems are either explained by it or lead to it. The insistence on grafting burnout onto every discussed topic transforms a technically informative, unfortunately bland book into an advertisement for the author’s grand theory of life, a theory that, given the evidence, is highly up for critique. Toward the end, Petersen insists she wants to avoid prescribing any solutions, before showing her hand: “Actual substantive change has to come from the public sector—and we must vote en masse to elect politicians who will agitate for it tirelessly.” This isn’t entirely untrue, but coming at the tail end of so many dire anecdotes and data points, it’s as satisfying as a Democratic National Committee talking head reminding us to vote every time Donald Trump opens his mouth.

In some ways, this book’s timing dramatically underscores that lack of political imagination and casts it as one of those self-help books she sought to avoid. Current events can dramatically expose the need for societal reforms: Witness the sudden shift in support for universal health care during the Covid-19 pandemic and for police reform after George Floyd’s killing. Greater investment in local politics or mutual aid or the normalizing of mass protests against unabashed wrongdoing have all emerged as necessary shifts in our collective political thinking, which is why it’s disappointing her book stops short of imagining specific action beyond a broad citation of platitudes and that benign call to vote. Like Petersen, I want things to change, and I also know that change requires broad support across all demographics. I’m just not sure if we should take direction from someone who took this long to put the pieces together, because it means there’s plenty more the person won’t see coming.

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