The writer Anne Helen Petersen’s new book is primarily about “burnout,” a condition endemic to the Millennial generation that she describes as a persistent “sensation of dull exhaustion” and “the feeling that you’ve optimized yourself into a work robot.” Expanding on a widely read BuzzFeed News article from two years ago, Petersen follows lines of cultural and economic inquiry in an effort to identify the root causes of this generational malaise.
But her book, titled Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, is also about parenting. It is about how many Baby Boomers’ hands-on, sometimes overbearing approach to parenting was the product of the anxious economic milieu that they came of age in and how many Millennials’ overbooked upbringings set them up for burnout later in life. This hardly describes the experience of every child of the 1980s and ’90s, but this “intensive” parenting style was practiced widely, and not just by the middle-class parents who pioneered it. (It has since become a nationwide ideal across race and class.)
Over the course of Can’t Even, Petersen convincingly draws a line from society-level economic shifts that took place decades ago to how overwhelmed—by work, by debt, by everyday life—many 20- and 30-somethings feel today. Those shifts, she argues, have also contributed to enduring changes in American parenting.
I recently spoke with Petersen about these ideas. The interview that follows has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Joe Pinsker: What connections do you see between how many Millennials were raised and how burned out many of them are now, as adults?
Anne Helen Petersen: There are two major factors. The first is conceiving of children as mini-adults—trying to cultivate behaviors, postures, and skills that are associated with adults, like being able to carry on conversations with adults or advocating for themselves when they feel something is unfair. I think we often admire that sort of precociousness without understanding what’s lost when you cultivate that in a child. The other component is thinking of childhood as a means to an end, and that end is getting into a good college. So instead of viewing childhood as simply childhood, parents are thinking, How can these various experiences—everything from playdates to piano lessons—lead to this larger résumé-building path to college?
When childhood is treated that way, it can eliminate space for the formation of personality, independence, or confidence. Anything not oriented toward that goal of college—things like hobbies—gets lost. One of the saddest things I heard when talking to many Millennials is that when they reach a point of exhaustion with work, lift their head up, and look around them, they're like, What else is there? Do I have a personality? Do I know what I like? There's no there there, other than their ability to work, and I think that's really difficult.
Pinsker: You suggest in the book that many aspects of this approach to parenting in the ’80s and ’90s had to do with the nature of the economy when Baby Boomers were entering adulthood. How so?
Petersen: In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the middle class was larger and more prosperous, and a lot of Boomers grew up with at least a modicum of financial and class stability. But as adults in the ’80s and ’90s, they felt that stability slipping away, as well-paid middle-class jobs started disappearing. So a lot of the parenting decisions they made were attempts to add that stability that they felt had been lost over the course of their lives.
Growing up, I thought that the reason parents wanted their kids to go to a good college was prestige or cultural capital, and obviously it has something to do with that. But it seems more and more clear that the reason you want your kids to go to a good college is so that they can find stability themselves and then pass that down to their kids.
Pinsker: When I read the chapter in your book about Millennials’ own parenting, it seemed like many of them were doing the same things their own parents did, just more intensely.
Petersen: Yeah, whether it's more activities, more schedules, more supervision, more attention to the specifics of schooling—all of those things just keep going up. It does make sense that now, as Millennials have reached adulthood and often have even less stability than their parents, they’re taking a lot of the same strategies their parents used and just ratcheting them up.
Pinsker: Is the implication that today’s kids are destined for even more burnout in adulthood than Millennials are experiencing, since many of them are being subjected to a more extreme version of the parenting experience that Millennials had growing up?
Petersen: Well, there’s also the possibility that they just rebel entirely, because I do think you can reach a breaking point. Maybe Gen Z will do that, whereas I just do not remember that much rebellion against these ideas when I was in high school.
Pinsker: In the book, you mention in passing that when you were growing up in a small town in Idaho, you remember some families struggling, but you weren’t really aware of the bigger economic forces at play, like government policies that weakened unions and trends in the logging industry. When I read that, I thought about how kids are often unaware of the larger economic forces that have a huge bearing on their upbringing. Do you think that parents should talk more openly with their kids about the structural things that shape their parenting approach?
Petersen: I think that kids who are in more precarious positions have those conversations more. A lot of the people I interviewed who grew up poor had lots of conversations with their parents about being poor, in part because the parents had to say, No, we can't have this, because this is our reality. I interviewed some people who grew up in Michigan and remember conversations about layoffs in the auto industry, because they knew people who lost their jobs. There was also an interview that I did with a woman who grew up Black in the suburbs in Indiana, and her parents told her, The reason you have to stay close is because we live in this racist neighborhood and people are going to treat you like crap. So when the danger or precarity is more pressing, then those frank conversations, I think, become more common.
Many middle-class white parents don't have those conversations. They invisibilize both class status and race, when those are the people who should absolutely be having those conversations.
Pinsker: Near the end of the book, you say that one of the best pieces of advice you’ve heard for reducing burnout isn’t about reducing it for yourself, but considering how your own behavior enflames and encourages it in other people. What do you think that advice looks like in the context of parenting?
Petersen: There’s one woman I interviewed who said something like, “We’re all so tired, but we are all so scared to actually ask for help from one another”—as if asking for help somehow makes you seem like you are failing at motherhood, like you don't have it all together. But there are so many ways that we could take some burdens off of one another. For instance, both kids' parents are often present for playdates. I'm like, let that kid go play! This is supposed to make excess time for at least one of the parents, not take up time for both of them.
Pinsker: You write about how your own burnout played a role in not having a kid yourself, but I’m curious about what kind of parent you think you might have been, given what you’ve laid out in your book. If you did have kids, do you think your goal would be to subvert and destroy the inherited parenting norms? Or do you think that they are to some extent inescapable?
Petersen: There's just no living outside of ideology unless you drop out of society and do a very alternative sort of child-rearing. One thing that would shape this hypothetical child's life is the fact that I live in Montana, where they would have a different sort of everyday life than, say, if I lived in Brooklyn. But at the same time, at the public high school that my neighborhood feeds into, kids compete to go to prestigious colleges, and get into them in part because they're from Montana. And you can't extract yourself from that. So unless we change the way that college works, it's hard to get outside of it.
And a lot of this stuff is internalized by students themselves. I talked to Millennials who were like, My parents couldn't give a crap about college—I was the one who wanted all of this stuff. Personally, my mom tried to raise me as a feminist, and then in seventh grade, I come home from school and I’m like, Mom, I'm trying out for cheerleading. What does she do with that? How do you make your kids naturally want the things that you think they should want or reject the things that you think they should reject? I think that it does take structural change, because otherwise it is so dependent on independent choices and individual capabilities.