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Can’t Even by Anne Helen Petersen review – in defence of millennials

The system is at fault, not individuals ... a study of burnout makes clear why it’s wrong to portray millennials as flimsy, fickle or lazySometimes, w

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The system is at fault, not individuals … a study of burnout makes clear why it’s wrong to portray millennials as flimsy, fickle or lazy

Sometimes, while in the supermarket, Anne Helen Petersen likes to test herself: she purposefully stands in the biggest checkout queue, to observe how long she can live in her own head without distraction and frustration. “I’m addicted to stimulation,” she admits in Can’t Even, her meticulously researched study of burnout among millennials. “I’ve forgotten not just how to wait, but even how to let my mind wander and play.” Some readers may see this as a horrifying indictment of modern life, but to others, it will be completely understandable. When was the last time you simply stood in silence, rather than putting on a podcast or scrolling endlessly through Instagram or responding to an email or notification?

Burnout is a symptom of feeling overworked and undervalued, resulting in what Petersen calls “alienation from the self, and from desire”. Some might recognise it in themselves: an underlying anxiety, an inability to relax, a general fuzziness in the brain. Petersen’s book, born from a BuzzFeed essay that went viral in 2019, has a slightly misleading subtitle: “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation”. It is really focused on American millennials, and doesn’t argue that only those born between 1981 and 1996 suffer burnout. Rather, millennials are the generation to bear the brunt of economic, social and political decisions made by their parents and grandparents, or generation X and the baby boomers; everyone is feeling the strain.

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