You Better Work

‘Can’t Even’ offers a history of U.S. labor, and defends burnt-out millennials

This morning, I woke up early and read about 100 pages of a book that’s assigned to me for review. Then, I clocked into my 9-to-5 job as a paralegal, and worked for most of the day, only stopping when the sounds of my neighbors having sex became so loud you could hear it on my Zoom calls. At lunch, I posted on Instagram about the books that publishers will release this week, making sure to thank them for my gifted copies. In the evening, I made dinner and squeezed in some quality time with my partner before writing this review. Once that’s finished, I’ll edit another essay and submit a story to four literary magazines. I’ll fall asleep moments after my head hits the pillow at midnight.

Anne Helen Petersen, author of Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, would call that a pretty typical day for someone my age and in my desired field. “The rhetoric of ‘Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life’ is a burnout trap,” she writes. “By cloaking the labor in the language of ‘passion,’ we’re prevented from thinking of what we do as what it is: a job, not the entirety of our lives.”

Can't Even

Petersen recharacterizes the generation famous for participation trophies as a group of overeducated and underprepared 20-somethings and 30-somethings who are struggling to catch up to the traditional milestones and prosperity of their predecessors. “[T]alk to most millennials and the thing they’ll tell you about growing up isn’t that they conceived of themselves as special, but that ‘success,’ broadly defined, was the most important thing in their world,” she says. Think of the resumes and college applications packed with activities and honors, SAT prep classes, and a meticulous plan to get into your school of choice. In exchange for all of that hard work, society was supposed to reward you with a college degree and economic security.

When the 2008 recession hit and many millennials entered the job market with little opportunity; rather than relying on a social safety net that did not adequately exist, they adapted—turned to gig work or freelancing, monetized that long-held hobby, and generally accepted a lifetime of overwork. In Petersen’s words, millennials are “conditioned to precarity.”

“We were raised to believe that if we worked hard enough, we could win the system—of American capitalism and meritocracy—or at least live comfortably within it,” she writes. “But something happened in the late 2010s. We looked up from our work and realized, there’s no winning the system when the system itself is broken. We’re the first generation since the Great Depression where many of us will find ourselves worse off than our parents. The overarching trend of upward mobility has finally reversed itself, smack dab into the prime earning years of our lives.”

Can’t Even, originally and fittingly a Buzzfeed essay, works best as an extremely well-researched history of the U.S. labor movement, rather than any psychological examination of burnout. Petersen couches millennials’ success-chasing and overwork in the work experiences of their parents and the generations before them. What’s more, burnout isn’t a uniquely millennial experience; rather, the boomers who raised millennials—and who are now the primary critics of millennials’ whiny and entitled behavior—may have grown up in a period of unprecedented economic stability, but that began to slow during the 1970s and 80s. Their panic over maintaining that new middle class status manifested in much of the same anxiety and overwork we see today. Millennials had to learn it somewhere after all.

Some surprising facts I learned in Can’t Even:

  • Millennials’ net worth is 20% lower than boomers at the same point in their lives.
  • The Greatest Generation came the closest to an equitable distribution of wealth that this country has ever seen. For example, in 1950, CEOs made about 20 times more than a regular employee, as opposed to 204 times more in 2013.
  • In 1980, pension plans covered 46% of private-sector workers, as opposed to 16% in 2019.
  • In 1940, only 5.9% of men and 4% of women over 25 had bachelor degrees, and only 14% of the population had completed high school; whereas, in 2018, 90.2% of the population over 25 had completed high school, and 45.4% had an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
  • Between December 2007 and October 2009, the unemployment rate doubled: from 5 to 10%; for millennials during a similar time frame, the unemployment rate rose from 10.8 to 19.5%.
  • At Google, subcontracted employees and temps amounted to 121,000 workers worldwide in 2019, and outnumbered actual employees at 102,000.
  • Apple only employs 63,000 of the 750,000 workers who manufacture or sell Apple products worldwide; the rest are subcontractors or temps.
  • As of 2017, 20% of children in the U.S. live with a single mother. And on average, 36% of a single parent’s income goes to childcare.
  • Women who work for pay outside of the home still make up 65% of childcare responsibilities, which equates to just as much time as stay-at-home mothers in the 1970s spent parenting.
  • Only 12% of female workers and 5% of female low-wage workers have access to any paid leave.

Petersen presents this all evenly and without airs. I so often struggle to read dense socioeconomic nonfiction texts with too much exclusionary lingo or that are just plain boring. With chapter titles like “How Work Got So Shitty,” Can’t Even has none of that. Each word, each data point makes me feel like the author is excavating my lived experience, and each disturbing interview—“It’s the kind of exhaustion where you can’t really have other feelings”—concretizes a problem that feels so huge and ever-present that it’s always been there.

But in the author’s words, “it doesn’t have to be this way.” As Petersen shows, for middle class Americans, work hasn’t always looked as draconian as it does lately. “Trimming the company [in the 1970s and 80s] meant short-term profits; short-term profits meant higher stock prices and satisfied stockholders; satisfied stockholders meant the CEO and board members got to keep their jobs, even as the remaining non-temp, non-outsourced workers at the company were given less and less in terms of benefits and pay increases,” she writes. “All of this seems like common sense today: That’s just how the market works. But that’s just because that’s how the market has worked during millennials’ lifetimes.”

Rather than advocating for burning the whole system to the ground—appealing, but sounds like an awful lot of work—she points to tangible actions that protect workers and their interests: unions, regulations that address the changed economy, and employee benefits like healthcare, pensions, stable schedules, paid training and education and promoting from within. To me, many of her suggestions sound like the workplaces of decades past, where a guy could start in the mail room and work his way up to CEO. Instead of simply driving home the various ways that the world has screwed millennials and the generations that follow them,  a hopeful plan for how to save work emerges.

“I’m not talking about a utopia, per se. I’m talking about a new way of thinking about work, and personal value, and profit incentives—and the radical idea that each of us matter, and are actually essential and worthy of care and protection from precarity. Not because of our capacity to work, but simply because we are,” Petersen writes in an author’s note. “If you think that’s too radical of an idea, I don’t know how to make you care about other people.”

Can’t Even helps millennials explain why they can’t just self-care their way out of feeling anxious and overwhelmed, while showing the generations before them how things go to be this way. Petersen offers a meticulous, but extremely readable, analysis of U.S. labor history and contemporary culture that can help to map our way out of the malaise.

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September 22, 2020)

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Katie Smith

Katie Smith is a Philadelphia-based writer. Find her on Instagram @saddy_yankee for cat pics.

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