I've been an academic and a professor, a writer for BuzzFeed News, a nanny, and a bagel shop worker. I'm an Elder Millennial [born in 1981] and I've also been burnt out for most of my adult life — but I didn't realize it until a year and a half ago, when I wrote a essay for BuzzFeed about "the burnout generation" that was read by over seven million people. I spent the last year expanding that essay by talking to hundreds of millennials from across the country, reading a boatload of history, and thinking through how we came to think of ourselves as walking resumes who can't figure out how to have hobbies that we don't monetize and feel like we should be working all the time. The final product is Can't Even, which is out today — but I can't wait to talk more about your own burnout, about pandemic burnout, and whether Gen-Z can figure out a way to avoid following the same path. (I also write a newsletter that grapples with a lot of these issues on a weekly basis — you can check it out here, and follow me on Twitter here ).

Proof: https://i.redd.it/44mwy75ccjo51.jpg

Comments: 148 • Responses: 29  • Date: 

miannnnnnn95 karma

Why do you think millennials are treated, especially in advertising, as if we are all still teenagers, when the oldest of us are pushing 40? I’m thinking, of course, of the recent Paul Rudd mask PSA. What is it that just refuses to shift in people’s minds?

annehelenpetersen70 karma

IT IS SO WILD TO ME. I think a lot of older people think that millennials are still teens? How is this happening?

sjmks42 karma

I think of it like when you’re 15 and you babysit a 12 year old and a 9 year old. They stay 12 and 9 in your memory. Then suddenly you come across them on Facebook. You’re 40 and they’re 37 and 34 now; they both have kids the same age as yours and you’re like, no, that’s actually impossible. Anyone younger than you always seems SO much younger even as you age. (I say this as a cusp millennial, 1980.)

annehelenpetersen12 karma

Yes!!! This is a great explanation.

MathematicianFashion66 karma

After a lifetime of expectation to overachieve, is it ever really possible to be "just okay" at your job - showing up at 8, going home at 5, doing your job and what is asked of you, but not going above and beyond? This would presumably leave a lot of brain-space for hobbies and the nice things that alleviate burnout, but in a world where cutthroat capitalism could mean that doing the bare minimum gets you fired or puts you on a career path you're not happy about, how do we make that choice?

annehelenpetersen60 karma

So much of this has to do with the current iteration of the "Protestant" work ethic, which valorizes not just work, but work with INCREASED returns/profits/growth. You can't just turn a profit. You have to make exponentially MORE profit every year, which usually means sacrificing and cutting costs (and exploiting workers/the earth/etc) to do so. You can see how this philosophy gets mapped, in a sort of perverse way, onto ourselves: you can't just be "good" at something; you have to be "the best" (and always improving, always optimizing!) The best hobbies = ones that you suck at and have no aspirations to truly "master"!

Darn_21031 karma

Thanks for all of your writing. I have been wondering how burnout and disillusionment are related for millennial women. Seems like me and a striking number of my friends all dropped out of our jobs to take breaks, move in w parents, travel around age 32 when we realized there was no getting past the glass ceiling and that careerism was a carrot dangled in front of us but that the promotions never came. We all took jobs we were not passionate about, stopped working for free on weekends, and made much less money after realizing there’s no winning. How do you find sexism is related to burning out?

annehelenpetersen29 karma

I will say that I've heard from a lot of women who've arrived at this point in their 30s, and I don't know exactly what to make of it — does it mean that women are just less willing to tolerate this bullshit cycle for the rest of our lives, when we know that no matter how hard we work we're still going to get fucked by sexism/the patriarchy? Does it mean that men don't feel like they have this, uh, "luxury"? I'd love to hear more of your thoughts.

Thalesian17 karma

The experience of millennials obviously is distinct from that of its immediate predecessors - but is there historical analogies if we look deeper in American history, or that of other countries? I’ve often wondered if GenX of Japan after their 90’s economic crash isn’t a useful (if distressing) analog.

annehelenpetersen24 karma

That would be *such* a great area of research (and one that would require Japanese fluency) but I would love to read it. I do think there are some parallels between the way that the Greatest Generation (which went through The Great Depression and then WWII) became conditioned to precarity....clearly millennials aren't dealing with events as cataclysmic, but there's something to be said for what happens to the psychology of a generation when they're always expecting the other shoe to drop. (Most millennials I know were not at all surprised that the pandemic fucked up our lives in this way — of COURSE shit was going to hit the fan sooner or later)

PowerfulDependent13 karma

This is probably addressed in your book, which I'm excited to read, but aside from systemic change, what are the best ways for young people to avoid burnout, especially when they have to use social media constantly for work?

annehelenpetersen17 karma

Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. So hard to maintain, but I know people who've found ways to force themselves to keep them, either through apps that shut off access to various social media apps after a certain amount of time, or simply full scale deleting apps off your phone at night and/or for the weekends.

outofMT12 karma

Hi! Big fan – I grew up in Bozeman but then my parents moved and I can pretty confidently say that I will never be able to live there again. Big Sad but thats how it goes. I'm an older genZ, and I really enjoy reading all your stuff about burnout – a lot of it feels pretty similar to my experiences, generational divide aside.

Do you have a dumb expensive house in Missoula/Bzn/around MT that you're keeping an eye on right now? Real estate snooping is a passion of mine and I always have a couple around town I keep tabs on.

annehelenpetersen14 karma

YES HOW DID YOU KNOW TO ASK. I am so weirdly curious about this house in the Rattlesnake (area of Missoula) that goes on the market *every summer* and then nothing happens. What is going on with this house! Look at the picture of the family!!!!!

(Just checked and it's off the market again, I guess because it's not summer anymore?)

Kevbo379 karma

This is awesome, and so relevant, thank you. I am 38 and recently retired from the Air Force after 20 years of service. I enlisted and was in basic training 3 days after high school. Just last year I noticed my burnout; I was active duty, full time college student, father of 4 children, on the board of directors for my state high school lacrosse league, and shadowing people in finance jobs to figure out what i wanted to transition into after retirement. I still feel stuck in the burnout with the pandemic affecting me now also. I made it all the way through the hiring process with a large investment bank that went into a hiring freeze before onboarding me and now have to wait until the new year to start. Until then, I am working as an operations manager for two separate franchises and feeling lost in the grind still, but now adding studying for FINRA certifications instead of college. How do you get out of the vicious cycle?

annehelenpetersen18 karma

This is a great question, and you are not alone in being someone who's reached their mid- late-30s, looked up from their lives, and realized: how long can I sustain this? Am I living my life? What else is there besides my ability to work? Since you have four kids, there's obviously other parts of your world out there to ground you, but my biggest recommendation is trying to figure out spaces in your life to do things that really do feel meaningful to you, not because they look good to others, or because they meet the standard of what a "good" worker or "good" parent should be, but because you recognize them as nourishing in some way. I know that's a vague answer, but trying to make space for that is a good first step.

Inspector-37218 karma

I’ve loved your writing since The Hairpin and if you don’t mind, I have two writing related questions.

1) Could you talk through your approach to writing and meeting deadlines. Do you use internet blockers/productivity methods, set word targets, etc?

2) When you were at Buzzfeed and working on the most recent book, how did you balance different writing projects and deadlines?

annehelenpetersen13 karma

I don't use internet blockers, but I do love going places with absolutely no internet and rediscovering what concentration feels like. There's a section of the book where I describe the writing process of going to the woods (I had a little solar generator) and writing like the wind for a week straight. It's so clarifying but also, uh, not available on a daily basis.

With that said: I try to be kind to myself and the time I spend staring into space or being "unproductive" and then generally find myself writing big chunks (2000-4000 words) in the space of a few hours.

To write CAN'T EVEN while I was at BuzzFeed, I had to take book leave. I took three months unpaid and used part of my book advance to cover expenses during that time. It just wouldn't have been possible otherwise.

annehelenpetersen8 karma

THIS HAS BEEN SO GREAT! Feel free to ask more questions; I'll spend some more time answering later tonight!

runtk8 karma

What are Steve and Peggy's personalities? Why is it so beautiful in Montana? Is your iPhoto app just a blur of sunrises and gorgeous scenery?

OK, topical: I think you've tweeted about running, do you consider that a good hobby in the context in which you've written about hobbies? I sometimes wonder if it's contributing to the burnouty stuff to keep doing training programs/trying to improve. Would love your thoughts.

annehelenpetersen15 karma

Steve is a rambunctious, hilarious butt. He's still just a year and a half and has a real puppy streak still. Peggy is full of personality, just incredibly expressive and stubborn. Right around 6 pm every night they decide it's time to grapple on the living room floor.

Montana is just amazing, what can I say. With that said: I don't always take pictures of all the moments when it's just flat and gray outside, and those certainly exist.

And the best thing I've done to make myself not "optimize" myself with running = stop running with a Garmin (or any other sort of tracking device) entirely. I've totally stopped caring about my pace. I map my mileage ahead of time, so I know how far I'm going, but that's it. It's really transformative.

Pikaus7 karma

In chapter two you set the stage for concerted cultivation and how that went from something upper middle class and up did to being how society defines good parenting. And while some of your cases are from POC, I wonder how much concerted cultivation is tied up with whiteness and even when POC engage in it, it might be what anti-racists would call assimilation. Any thoughts?

annehelenpetersen10 karma

Oh you could write SO MUCH about this, and there are really great writers/thinkers/academics who are working through these ideas — I was especially reliant (as you'll find in the chapter on millennial parenting practices) on the work of Tamara Mose, whose book THE PLAYDATE goes deep into the classed/raced expectations of contemporary parenting (and unpacks a lot of the white, bourgeois thinking around "good" parenting). She'll also be at the CAN'T EVEN event at the 92Y on Wednesday!

kris991016 karma

How did you get going on your own stuff after leaving academia? From the outside (as I am working to finish a dissertation) your job seems so cool but I KNOW it took a lot to get where you are.

annehelenpetersen11 karma

I inadvertently built myself a life raft while I was still in academia. I started blogging on a good ol' Wordpress blog back when I was doing my comps (and continued doing it for fun), and then pitched The Hairpin with some of my research (written for a popular audience) when I was in the final year of my diss. That lead to more internet work was I was still in academic, until I arrived at the point (when I was flailing on the academic job market) where I also had some job offers from journalistic outlets. But that was a total fluke — it was 2014, and digital media was in a moment of real expansion.

seand41336 karma

Where is one place you've visited outside the country that you really loved, but think is under-appreciated?

annehelenpetersen15 karma

Laos! One of the best places in the world. I spent a long, incredibly languorous week on Don Det, an island with.....basically nothing to do, save be, and stare at the river, and drink milkshakes with just a little bit of weed mixed in.

pinpoint146 karma

Hey, I've followed you for a while on the bird site. I really liked your article last year! It's sorta helped me come to terms with what this last decade has been for me in terms of my relationship to my work.

I don't have a question related to your work so I'll ask... What's your favorite seat on an airplane (aisle, middle, window) and why?

annehelenpetersen7 karma

I love this question, although like so many of us, I haven't been on an airplane in a very long time. I used to travel so much for work, but I really can't see myself going back to that travel schedule even post-COVID. But the answer is always aisle, always always.

soiflew5 karma

Hi Anne, such a big fan since you wrote about Old Hollywood and excited to read the book! How much of this do you think comes down to the idea of being special? To me, it feels like you can’t just be good at your job or at parenting, you have to be the best, you have to be on 30 under 30 lists, you have to make the best Halloween costumes on Insta, etc?

And what’s the solution? How do we get to good enough is enough?

Congratulations on the book, can’t wait to read, send Peggy and Steve some pets, they’re ridiculously photogenic.

annehelenpetersen5 karma

Peggy and Steve appreciate their pets very much.

I wrote about this a bit in the response to a different question, but whew, I think so much of it has to do with "distinguishing" ourselves in some way so as to place ourselves on the path to stability (which has long been framed as "get into college"). Hence: it's not enough to play the piano; you have to win an AWARD for playing the piano. I think this really evacuates all hobbies, experiences, interests, etc. of the pleasure and joy of just *doing* them.....instead, they become instrumentalized, utilitarian, a means to an end.

Sea_Money225 karma

When you are reading for work, and research how do you organize that? How do you take notes, prioritize and keep track of your reading (especially bigger books)?

annehelenpetersen6 karma

First I cast a really wide net for research. I buy (new or used) as many books as I can afford or get my hands on (when I lived in New York, I spent a lot of time at the NYPL; in Montana, I bought a lot of books used). Then, during the research process, I try to tackle one book a day. Sometimes I read every single word, sometimes only a chapter or two is really pertinent to what I'm thinking about. I underline throughout, and then when I'm done with the book as a whole, I transcribe the underlined sections in a Scribner file, trying to organize them a bit thematically (but still pretty loosely). When I happen upon a new book or article mentioned in a book I'm reading, I get my hands on it, too. At some point you have to stop yourself, but I find that's a good way to build your initial research.

mcamy145 karma

Hello! Love your newsletter and happy to pay for it but always facing the question of how much to pay for content/how many things to subscribe to. How do you decide what news sources/newsletters to subscribe to? do you give yourself a limit? Also wondering if you've watched the Paris Hilton documentary- the celebrity commentary made me think of your writing.

annehelenpetersen9 karma

Great question, and something I've thought about a lot as I've made the transition to Substack (and as I've done some interviews that have asked about the future of newsletters, journalism, etc). The simple answer is that I think it's important to pay, in some way, for the things you consume and especially for the things you value. The more complicated answer is that I don't think it's viable, in the long term, for all writers to be supported by vast patronage networks; some reporting and journalism just isn't "popular" in a way that can support that model, but that doesn't mean it's not still necessary. So I dunno! We'll see where Substack is in five years. Maybe they decide to start offering bundles?

StingyMango4 karma

Hi Anne! Hello from Montana. Big fan of yours. What do you make of the elections in Montana this year? Do you expect Democrats to pull out some victories?

annehelenpetersen5 karma

I have been watching the polling closely and talking with some of the sources I've met in my previous Montana political travels. Bullock's chances seem good; people seem to really like Kathleen Williams (and dislike 'Maryland Matt'), but there's also, of course, that old-fashioned desire to vote cross-ticket. Seems like Gianforte's going to be our governor.

bradytowelker4 karma

Hi there. I wonder if you can, or if you have already did this in your book, to tie a connection with the burnout generation with the monetary policies enacted by the Fed and the congress to keep on propping the market up after the recession? Does it not feel like part of our burnout is related to be working and living inside the body of a zombie? Because your description really makes me thinking of that term "zombie economy". America is known for its innovation and the willingness to accept them by its people, but in reality our world has been stuck in a cycle that more or less looks the same every day except a very few sectors. Will this get better once the boomers starts to retire in mass? Do you feel like we are living in the best of the times but also the worst of the times?

annehelenpetersen9 karma

You clearly have a more sophisticated mind for economic analysis than I do, but I read a a big stack of books on our economic history that helped me begin to make sense of why, as one of the book chapters puts it, work got so shitty. The big point: deregulation (enacted by both parties!) has made the economy work for, well, not the worker. The investor, the CEO, but not the worker. And the obsession with shareholder value and exponential growth is a huge part of that, think.

emmag3253 karma

What's your go-to bagel order? Anything you'll never eat again after working at the bagel shop?

annehelenpetersen3 karma

Oh man I miss my Brooklyn bagel shop so much. It wasn't special or fancy but it made an everything whole wheat bagel with smear of plain cream cheese just PERFECTLY.

aztecraingod1 karma

I wish one could get a decent bagel in Missoula

annehelenpetersen2 karma

One solution I've found = bialies from Black Coffee

violetsanddatedmemes3 karma

You've discussed how seeing multiple recessions has affected older millennials (and Xennials) perspectives. How do you think the current pandemic driven recession will affect younger millennials and Zoomers/GenZ?

annehelenpetersen12 karma

I'm really concerned about this, honestly. Think of how graduating into The Great Recession affected millennials on so many levels — and we're still really feeling the ripples of that overarching precarity during this foundational part of our adult lives.

[deleted]3 karma


annehelenpetersen12 karma

It is "normal" insomuch as you are very much not alone — but I do think that means it's okay. One of the refrains of the book is "it doesn't have to be this way." Working at a shrinking paper *during a pandemic* at a time when local news is really struggling to figure out its place....it's not going to get easier. It's going to be a slog. And you have to decide if you want to deal with that slog because it's worth it, or if you feel your sense of self getting swallowed up. That doesn't mean I think you should quit journalism altogether (necessarily) but just remember that quitting a job (or quitting a profession) does not mean that you're a failure, it means that you're trying to figure out a way to keep going. (And clearly the larger solution is a new funding model entirely for local news! But until we get there.....you can always email me for support, whatever I can provide)

runfreedog3 karma

As someone who finally managed to catch a break during the pandemic (via my career imploding, haha) and develop a few hobbies. Have you developed any hobbies during the last few months?

Ps. I have a tab open for your Leaving Work survey, is it too late to submit???

annehelenpetersen1 karma

I became a bit of a Lawn Dad! (Wrote a bit about it here). But I'd be more interested to hear what YOU'VE started!

Pikaus1 karma

Why are boomer and millennial not capitalized?

annehelenpetersen5 karma

Always depends on the style guide, to be honest.

heathie_a1 karma

Hi!! I am a recovering academic (defended my PhD in 2019) currently dropping out of this insane job market. Could you offer any tips on how to start writing for a wider audience and publishing books through non-academic press?? I have a couple of ideas I’d like to run with, but feel overly conditioned to write academically. :)

annehelenpetersen11 karma

I always think of how I'd explain something to my mom, who's smart but doesn't have a deep familiarity of, say, media theory or history. How can I make her understand what I'm talking about in a way that's not condescending? Assume that you have a smart audience, just not a SPECIALIZED audience. Think about how you can summarize a concept like, say, "ideology" or "hegemony" in a sentence, and then think about whether you need to actually use the word "hegemony." That's at least a starting point, I think!

MmmnonmmM1 karma

Do you want children? Sorry, I know this is cliche and passe to ask. I guess I'm really interested in how your research into burnout and division of labor has impacted your personal life decisions.

annehelenpetersen1 karma

YOU'LL HAVE TO READ CHAPTER 10 TO SEE!!!!!!!! (Sorry don't mean to troll, but this ends up being a big part of the conclusion!)

djnermz1 karma

Hi Anne - can I ask where you stand now in terms of faith? Also, who is/was your favorite Christian band?

annehelenpetersen2 karma

I no longer think of myself as a Christian or believe in God. I miss church a lot, though — not the moralizing part, but the *community* part. If there was a church like the debt-forgiveness socialist Baptist church I profiled last year where I lived....I'd go. I'm also deeply invested in thinking through the place of religion and religious institutions in our world today, which of course stems from me trying to think through my own previous investment.

Favorite Christian bands: Jars of Clay OF COURSE, Third Day, Jennifer Knapp, dc Talk