‘Can’t Even’ is the Ultimate Book About Millennial Malaise

cant even anne helen petersen

Are millennials a bunch of avocado-toast-obsessed cretins who expect participation trophies and financial assistance from their parents? Or are they saddled with low-paying jobs, the constant pressure to ‘perform’ online and a growing distrust in institutions that have failed them? 

Regardless of the camp you’re in, you’re bound to find new insights in Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen.

Borne out of her viral January 2019 BuzzFeed essay, ‘How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,’ Can’t Even finds culture writer and former academic Anne Helen Petersen using a combination of original interviews and detailed analysis to examine how millennials have arrived at this point—and where we go from here.

Petersen conducted thousands of interviews with millennials across the race, gender, socioeconomic and ability spectrum, and her findings center on the idea that regardless of those factors, millennials are experiencing a unique type of burnout, caused by a perfect storm of the gig economy, the monetization of hobbies, the internet (Instagram, specifically) and the pressure to always be moving, seeing and being seen. She introduces Caitlin, a woman who identifies as biracial and grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., in the 1980s. “I started to feel busy at age seven,” Caitlin tells Petersen. Though her days of swimming, T-ball, art class and other extracurriculars are far behind her, the effects of her overstimulated childhood remain: “As an adult, I’ve realized I get stressed when I’m not doing something,” Caitlin says. “I feel guilty just relaxing. Even in college, I found myself needing to take eighteen to nineteen units a semester, have a campus job, join clubs, volunteer, work on the plays and musicals, and I’d still feel like I wasn’t doing enough.”

Though she acknowledges that every generation has had its struggles (the so-called ‘greatest generation,’ for example had the Depression and the GI Bill), millennials have had to contend with a unique blend of setbacks and hurdles, including the 2008 financial crisis, the decline of the middle class and the rise of the 1 percent and the steady decay of unions and stable, full-time employment.

As in her 2017 book Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud, Petersen proves herself to be an incisive cultural critic, though she also notes there’s not much of a solve for the current generation’s woes. As she wrote in her original piece, “The problem with holistic, all-consuming burnout is that there’s no solution to it. You can’t optimize it to make it end faster. You can’t see it coming like a cold and start taking the burnout-prevention version of Airborne.” The best way to begin to treat it, she surmises, it to start acknowledging and talking about it as a chronic illness rather than a short-term ailment. Petersen herself takes solace in reasoning that, “It’s not a problem I can solve, but it’s a reality I can acknowledge, a paradigm through which I can understand my actions.”

The book was written—obviously—before COVID-19 exacerbated many of these issues (specifically, the precarity of work, the absence of universal healthcare and the ever-mounting childcare crisis). Plus, although Petersen does her due diligence in representing a diverse group, she also notes that “many of the behaviors attributed to millennials are the behaviors of a specific subset of mostly white, largely middle-class people born between 1981 and 1996.”

In the end, Can’t Even feels cathartic no matter your age. After all, aren't we all susceptible to the pitfalls of of FOMO, side hustles and thirst traps? Aren't we all doing our best to—cringe—keep on adulting?

sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...