Can't Even

by Anne Helen Petersen

Cover image

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Copyright: 2020
ISBN: 0-358-31659-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 230

Buy at Powell's Books

Like many other people, I first became aware of Anne Helen Petersen's journalism when her Buzzfeed article "How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation" went viral. Can't Even is the much-awaited (at least by me) book-length expansion of that thesis: The United States is, as a society, burning out, and that burnout is falling on millennials the hardest. We're not recognizing the symptoms because we think burnout looks like something dramatic and flashy. But for most people burnout looks less like a nervous breakdown and more like constant background anxiety and lack of energy.

Laura, who lives in Chicago and works as a special ed teacher, never wants to see her friends, or date, or cook — she's so tired, she just wants to melt into the couch. "But then I can't focus on what I'm watching, and end up unfocused again, and not completely relaxing," she explained. "Here I am telling you I don't even relax right! I feel bad about feeling bad! But by the time I have leisure time, I just want to be alone!"

Petersen explores this idea across childhood, education, work, family, and parenting, but the core of her thesis is the precise opposite of the pervasive myth that millennials are entitled and lazy (a persistent generational critique that Petersen points out was also leveled at their Baby Boomer parents in the 1960s and 1970s). Millennials aren't slackers; they're workaholics from childhood, for whom everything has become a hustle and a second (or third or fourth) job. The struggle with "adulting" is a symptom of the burnout on the other side of exhaustion, the mental failures that happen when you've forced yourself to keep going on empty so many times that it's left lingering damage.

Petersen is a synthesizing writer who draws together the threads of other books rather than going deep on a novel concept, so if you've been reading about work, psychology, stress, and productivity, many of the ideas here will be familiar. But she's been reading the same authors that I've been reading (Tressie McMillan Cottom, Emily Guendelsberger, Brigid Schulte, and even Cal Newport), and this was the book that helped me pull those analyses together into a coherent picture.

That picture starts with the shift of risk in the 1970s and 1980s from previously stable corporations with long-lasting jobs and retirement pensions onto individual employees. The corresponding rise in precarity and therefore fear led to a concerted effort to re-establish a feeling of control. Baby Boomers doubled down on personal responsibility and personal capability, replacing unstructured childhood for their kids with planned activities and academic achievement. That generation, in turn, internalized the need for constant improvement, constant grading, and constant achievement, accepting an implied bargain that if they worked very hard, got good grades, got into good schools, and got a good degree, it would pay off in a good life and financial security.

They were betrayed. The payoff never happened; many millennials graduated into the Great Recession and the worst economy since World War II. In response, millennials doubled down on the only path to success they were taught. They took on more debt, got more education, moved back in with their parents to cut expenses, and tried even harder.

Even after watching our parents get shut out, fall from, or simply struggle anxiously to maintain the American Dream, we didn't reject it. We tried to work harder, and better, more efficiently, with more credentials, to achieve it.

Once one has this framework in mind, it's startling how pervasive the "just try harder" message is and how deeply we've internalized it. It is at the center of the time management literature: Getting Things Done focuses almost entirely on individual efficiency. Later time management work has become more aware of the importance of pruning the to-do list and doing fewer things, but addresses that through techniques for individual prioritization. Cal Newport is more aware than most that constant busyness and multitasking interacts poorly with the human brain, and has taken a few tentative steps towards treating the problem as systemic rather than individual, but his focus is still primarily on individual choices. Even when tackling a problem that is clearly societal, such as the monetization of fear and outrage on social media, the solutions are all individual: recognize that those platforms are bad for you, make an individual determination that your attention is being exploited, and quit social media through your personal force of will.

And this isn't just productivity systems. Most of public discussion of environmentalism in the United States is about personal energy consumption, your individual carbon footprint, household recycling, and whether you personally should eat meat. Discussions of monopoly and monopsony become debates over whether you personally should buy from Amazon. Concerns about personal privacy turn into advocacy for using an ad blocker or shaming people for using Google products. Articles about the growth of right-wing extremism become exhortations to take responsibility for the right-wing extremist in your life and argue them out of their beliefs over the dinner table. Every major systemic issue facing society becomes yet another personal obligation, another place we are failing as individuals, something else that requires trying harder, learning more, caring more, doing more.

This advice is well-meaning (mostly; sometimes it is an intentional and cynical diversion), and can even be effective with specific problems. But it's also a trap. If you're feeling miserable, you just haven't found the right combination of time-block scheduling, kanban, and bullet journaling yet. If you're upset at corporate greed and the destruction of the environment, the change starts with you and your household. The solution is in your personal hands; you just have try a little harder, work a little harder, make better decisions, and spend money more ethically (generally by buying more expensive products). And therefore, when we're already burned out, every topic becomes another failure, increasing our already excessive guilt and anxiety.

Believing that we're in control, even when we're not, does have psychological value. That's part of what makes it such a beguiling trap. While drafting this review, I listened to Ezra Klein's interview with Robert Sapolsky on poverty and stress, and one of the points he made is that, when mildly or moderately bad things happen, believing you have control is empowering. It lets you recast the setback as a larger disaster that you were able to prevent and avoid a sense of futility. But when something major goes wrong, believing you have control is actively harmful to your mental health. The tragedy is now also a personal failure, leading to guilt and internal recrimination on top of the effects of the tragedy itself. This is why often the most comforting thing we can say to someone else after a personal disaster is "there's nothing you could have done."

Believing we can improve our lives if we just try a little harder does work, until it doesn't. And because it does work for smaller things, it's hard to abandon; in the short term, believing we're at the mercy of forces outside our control feels even worse. So we double down on self-improvement, giving ourselves even more things to attempt to do and thus burning out even more.

Petersen is having none of this, and her anger is both satisfying and clarifying.

In writing that article, and this book, I haven't cured anyone's burnout, including my own. But one thing did become incredibly clear. This isn't a personal problem. It's a societal one — and it will not be cured by productivity apps, or a bullet journal, or face mask skin treatments, or overnight fucking oats. We gravitate toward those 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 strategy, or a new approach to meal planning. But these are all merely Band-Aids on an open wound. They might temporarily stop the bleeding, but when they fall off, and we fail at our new-found discipline, we just feel worse.

Structurally, Can't Even is half summaries of other books and essays put into this overall structure and half short profiles and quotes from millennials that illustrate her point. This is Petersen's typical journalistic style if you're familiar with her other work. It gains a lot from the voices of individuals, but it can also feel like argument from anecdote. If there's a epistemic flaw in this book, it's that Petersen defends her arguments more with examples than with scientific study. I've read enough of the other books she cites, many of which do go into the underlying studies and statistics, to know that her argument is well-grounded, but I think Can't Even works better as a roadmap and synthesis than as a primary source of convincing data.

The other flaw that I'll mention is that although Petersen tries very hard to incorporate poorer and non-white millennials, I don't think the effort was successful, and I'm not sure it was possible within the structure of this book. She frequently makes a statement that's accurate and insightful for millennials from white, middle-class families, acknowledges that it doesn't entirely apply to, for example, racial minorities, and then moves on without truly reconciling those two perspectives. I think this is a deep structural problem: One's experience of American life is very different depending on race and class, and the phenomenon that Petersen is speaking to is to an extent specific to those social classes who had a more comfortable and relaxing life and are losing it.

One way to see the story of the modern economy is that white people are becoming as precarious as everyone else already was, and are reacting by making the lives of non-white people yet more miserable. Petersen is accurately pointing to significant changes in relationships with employers, productivity, family, and the ideology of individualism, but experiencing that as a change is more applicable to white people than non-white people. That means there are, in a way, two books here: one about the slow collapse of the white middle class into constant burnout, and a different book about the much longer-standing burnout of being non-white in the United States and our systemic failure to address the causes of it. Petersen tries to gesture at the second book, but she's not the person to write it and those two books cannot comfortably live between the same covers. The gestures therefore feel awkward and forced, and while the discomfort itself serves some purpose, it lacks the insight that Petersen brings to the rest of the book.

Those critiques aside, I found Can't Even immensely clarifying. It's the first book that explained to me in a way I understood what's so demoralizing and harmful about Instagram and its allure of cosplaying as a successful person. It helped me understand how productivity and individual political choices fit into a system that emphasizes individual action as an excuse to not address collective problems. And it also gave me a strange form of hope, because if something can't go on forever, it will, at some point, stop.

Millennials have been denigrated and mischaracterized, blamed for struggling in situations that set us up to fail. But if we have the endurance and aptitude and wherewithal to work ourselves this deeply into the ground, we also have the strength to fight. We have little savings and less stability. Our anger is barely contained. We're a pile of ashes smoldering, a bad memory of our best selves. Underestimate us at your peril: We have so little left to lose.

Nothing will change without individual people making different decisions and taking different actions than they are today. But we have gone much too far down the path of individual, atomized actions that may produce feelings of personal virtue but that are a path to ineffectiveness and burnout when faced with systemic problems. We need to make different choices, yes, but choices towards solidarity and movement politics rather than personal optimization.

There is a backlash coming. If we let it ground itself in personal grievance, it could turn ugly and take a racist and nationalist direction. But that's not, by in large, what millennials have done, and that makes me optimistic. If we embrace the energy of that backlash and help shape it to be more inclusive, just, and fair, we can rediscover the effectiveness of collective solutions for collective problems.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-12-19

Last spun 2020-12-23 from thread modified 2020-12-21