Jeremy Gordon: Is There a Cure for Burnout? (The Nation)
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Andrew Keen's "The Cult of the Amateur" says the internet is destroying culture, but he himself built this book without any of the professional skills he claims are so important. On the Colbert Report, said there was nothing wrong with elitism.