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.
Read: Why Swedes are chiller parents than Americans
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.