Beginning with childhood overachievement, she finds burnout is aggravated by towering student loans, social media’s demands of perfection, email’s 24-hour communication line and an expectation of constant cultural consumption of everything from Twitter to podcasts. Petersen calls it “an attention death spiral”. At times, Can’t Even slogs along as a series of yawningly similar case studies. But Petersen’s personal interjections and deft contextualisation of current issues with American history and politics more than compensates, while the toll of the pandemic on our mental health makes her research feel all the more timely.
The author is astute in unpicking the many factors that led to a whole generation feeling constantly exhausted. But the key is identifying the problem as societal, not personal. Can’t Even looks like it might be some navel-gazing pop-psych title about the millennial experience. Actually, it’s as much about 20th-century economics, and serves as a necessary reminder that we subscribe to an inhumane form of capitalism that prioritises profit over wellbeing. Can’t Even is comforting in its insistence that it’s not your fault you feel this tired.
Petersen resists offering a tick list on how to solve the problem, but still rather nebulously asks for “substantive change” and for us to “unite in our resistance”. As a manifesto it falls some way short, but as a piece of critical theory it storms ahead. Without bleating about how we are worse off than other generations, Petersen makes a sharp argument: if absolute productivity in all spheres is the end goal, then failure is inevitable.
Petersen is at her best when drawing a line through history, showing how previous generations thrived within a framework of protections in the workplace and wider society, then dismantled them all while pushing the myth of the self-made man: hard work means success. The older generations didn’t spoil us, Petersen writes, “so much as destroy the likelihood of our ever obtaining what they had promised all that hard work was for”...There are some perceptive observations here, but much of the book is not so much about millennials as being American. Regardless, Can’t Even is extremely enlightening – I can only hope that millennials, and Americans, won’t be the only ones to read it.
Petersen’s book is a readable, well-researched guide to a generation, but her “burnout” brief means that she is unable to touch on the ways the perilous economic landscape navigated by millennials has rendered them socially and culturally alien to older generations. For me this is perhaps the most interesting thing about us. ... Petersen commendably refuses her burnt-out millennial readers any inspirational uplift. Ours is not a dilemma that will be solved by more hard work or more positive thinking or more degrees. We are subject to economic forces beyond our individual control. That makes the revolutionary threat that ends Petersen’s book sound futile: “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.”