March 4, 2021
ART

Work Sucks: On Anne Helen Petersen’s “Can’t Even”

By Cord Brooks IN MAY OF this year, The Washington Post published an article, damningly titled: “Millennials are the Unluckiest Generation in U.S. History.” The piece seemed to tell a truth that our cohort knows all too well: that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought not just an economic recession, but a regression. There were as many jobs in the spring of 2020 as there were in the fall of 1999. For those of us born between the years of 1981 and 1996, it is as if the post-crisis “growth” of the past 10 years never even happened.
In Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, Anne Helen Petersen explores the psychic dimensions of existing within this economic depression. According to Petersen, the main difference between millennials and the rest of the precariat is that we once had such great expectations. Molded in the mythos of meritocracy, our generation was raised to believe that we could beat bad circumstances and secure personal stability — if we simply worked hard enough. This happy ending has not materialized for most of us, and there has been extensive emotional fallout. Although it may seem commonplace to say that political-economic conditions can have psychological consequences, it bears repeating in the face of an endless stream of think pieces blaming millennials for killing Applebee’s or bemoaning our entitled attitudes. Growing up in the age of the shrinking security, multiple recessions, and endless austerity has given this cohort a case of permanent anxiety. Fear is a natural feeling in a world without a social safety net; helplessness is an inevitable experience in an era of at-will employment. For this generation, despite our once high hopes, there has been no otherwise. Now, as Petersen writes, “We don’t expect jobs, or the companies that provide them, to last. […] We’ve been conditioned to precarity.”
Petersen’s book speaks in conversational tones to Mark Fisher’s idea of “capitalist realism.” Capitalist realism conditions us to feel as if our existing reality is inescapable, it is “a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture, but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier threatening thought and action” Even though Petersen does not engage with his work, Fisher’s definition provides a good touchstone for her identification of burnout as the signature affective symptom of millennial life, because her salient point is that millennials experience burnout as a necessary state of life under capitalism.
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First diagnosed by German American psychoanalyst Herbert Freudenberger in 1974, burnout manifests as profound physical and psychic exhaustion resulting from overwork. Exhaustion is not a new phenomenon, and has been known variously — as acedia, neurasthenia, or even ennui — throughout history as a symptom of modern discontent. What makes burnout unique is its undeniable relation to labor and its severe ubiquity. According to Petersen, everybody is burnt out, and this feeling is “foundational” in today’s workplace cultures. From doctors to delivery drivers, from artists to academics, from gig workers to Google employees — 73 million millennials work extremely hard, but nobody ever feels that they are working hard enough to succeed.
To trace how and why millennials are so especially stressed, Petersen provides a sort of sociological history, going back in time to the Greatest Generation and then to their children, the baby boomers. Born in the wake of robust government and regulated growth and coming of age in the era of union busting and wage stagnation, the baby boomers — our parents — serve as a primal scene of class anxiety in the age of personal responsibility. As corporations quietly restructured pensions and governments loudly promoted perseverance, members of the political and corporate elite started “pulling the ladder up behind them,” by eliminating welfare, criminalizing poverty, and otherwise eroding the social fabric. In highlighting the “proximity to levers of power and cultural visibility” particular to this class, Petersen echoes Barbara Ehrenreich’s idea that it is the mostly white, male elite that engineer economic anxiety, and then turn around and exploit it for political gain. By emphasizing the economic narratives underpinning cultural shifts of the ’80s and ’90s, Petersen moves in the opposite direction of wrongheaded accounts (such as J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy) that blame economic decline on things like waning masculinity or dwindling religion, rather than free market fanaticism or corporate greed.
By writing an economic genealogy of the boomer generation, she grounds her argument about millennials in an intergenerational transference of class anxiety, demonstrating the historical aspect of contemporary exhaustion. Petersen shows that rather than fighting for social justice and work protections, many boomers responded to changing material conditions by “doubl[ing] down on what they could try to control: their children.” By surveying a range of raced and classed respondents, Petersen connects the bourgeois core of boomerism to millennial malaise and finds “busyness,” “concerned cultivation,” helicopter parenting, and other optimizing practices at the heart of the intergenerational link. This rat race to raise the most successful generation led to the elimination of leisure from many aspects of childhood, breeding insecurity and instilling precarity in the efforts to pass down middle-class status. One generation’s aspiration becomes another generation’s anxiety.
The argument would certainly be merely psychological if it ended there, urging us to kill the overbearing parent in our heads. Generational arguments are often criticized for being reductive or schematic. But Petersen’s book attempts to give more material context to what has been a mostly emotional argument. To paraphrase Marx: Millennials do not make their own history, and they definitely do not make it as they please, under self-selected circumstances or otherwise. And not only do boomers weigh like a nightmare on our brains, but they aren’t even dead; they are alive and, in many cases, fucking us over as bosses and politicians or fretting about us as parents. This preoccupation with parenting — and its material and political motivations — is thematically threaded through the entire book, allowing the author to demonstrate that feelings are in direct relation to economic forces, especially in the supposedly private space of the nuclear family. For Petersen’s point is this: while every generation has its traumatic conditions, the economic and psychic cruelties of late capitalism are distributed unevenly across the spectrum of wealth, which also correlates with age. Age, in other words, is one modality by which class is lived.
The strongest chapters of the book, chapters four through eight, systematically link the phenomena that make burnout a collective reality: the historical erosion of labor protections and the cultural ascendance of the dream job and “passionate” work; the historical ascendance of gig work and the contemporary permanence of surveillance culture and time theft. Each chapter in this trajectory takes a stance that follows from the previous one, approaching a critique of late capitalism in cheeky titles such as “Do What You Love,” “How Work Got So Shitty” and “How Work Stays So Shitty,” “Technology Makes Everything Work,” and “What is the Weekend?” In these chapters, shittiness does not just apply to the work experience of freelance writers and precarious academics; they are features of any position that occludes matters like labor and compensation and instead highlights the uniqueness of the person who applies.
Petersen presents a staggering account of the manufactured supply-and-demand problem that allows companies to spin terrible options into tempting opportunities, menial jobs at minimum wage and no benefits titled “Customer Support Hero” or “Rockstar Repairman.” Between the years of 2006 and 2013, there was a more than 2,000 percent increase in jobs described by the word “ninja.” This factoid illuminates the error in the Washington Post article with which I began: although in the years after the 2008 financial crisis there seemed to be an enormous surge of jobs that have now disappeared due to the pandemic, they were mostly like this — shitty, precarious, and still incredibly competitive. Under the guise of flexibility and fun, work has been rebranded as a place of personal expression, so that workers can be asked to do more while their employers offer even less. The deliberate destruction of unions and the accompanying cultural recasting of unionized work as “distinctly uncool” (who wants protections when you can have perks) means that the most toxic aspects of overwork culture become the signs of fetishistic pursuit of the good life. Work, thoroughly depoliticized, becomes a site of individual, personal, and isolated struggle. It’s your problem, and all you have to do to fix it is work harder.
These chapters, which explore exactly how cultural attitudes around work are symptoms of material transformations led by McKinsey consultants, are promising beginnings. But while these parts of the book, and the viral Buzzfeed essay that made the book possible, succinctly grasp psychic problems as political-economic ones, the buck stops there. “This isn’t a knock against capitalism so much as this particular type of capitalism,” Peterse
n caveats, “one whose goal is creating short-term profits for people with no connection to the product or the laborers behind it.” This sentence prevents Petersen from reaching for any radical suggestions beyond bringing back unions or reforming corporate practices. Capitalism fundamentally requires the oppression and exploitation of workers to create value. And while unionization and regulation will certainly cause real changes in quality of life, work will be shitty as long as capitalists are still skimming surplus value for outsize profits. We require, today, a vociferous and uncompromising critique of capitalism, and a shared understanding that its bugs are features. Petersen aptly diagnoses a widespread feeling — the wild popularity of her original Buzzfeed article proves as much — but does not quite get around to prescribing a meaningful remedy besides the gentle reminder that the personal is political.
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This dwelling with diagnosis results in part from an overreliance on an affective analytic. The chapter on technology illustrates this point: Petersen narrates in the first person for three pages, detailing her everyday inundation with technology: “I get out of bed and yell at Alexa a few times to turn on NPR. I turn on the shower. As it warms up, I check Slack.” This autofictional style is meant to demonstrate to her reader just how busy Petersen is, and where the lines of work and leisure blur permanently. This is certainly persuasive, even relatable. But it hints at this issue of the book writ large: the reliance on affective “burnout” as a site of social knowledge means that Petersen’s experience is simply one example of an experience everyone is having. In other words, there is a pervasive assumption that emotional experience leads straight to an enlarged understanding of immiseration. Returning to her earlier claim about how this feeling is foundational, we can see that this one-to-one analysis flattens important distinctions in how those from different class or race backgrounds experience burnout, even as it acknowledges that other races or genders might be at a greater disadvantage. The sociological rubric of the book collates and collects examples of people suffering from burnout, but this set of connections does not capitalize on or collectivize the original insight: that a set of unique conditions have caused work to be an unbearable problem that our generation is in a unique position to solve.
Ultimately, the organization of this book formally repeats its political problem. Because Can’t Even bookends the central, anti-capitalist argument within something closer to memoir, there is a distinct dissonance between shared sensibility and personal revelation. Encasing generalizable economic theory within the shell of particular experience — moving from one’s childhood, to everyone’s childhood, to the exhausted and exhausting labor landscape, back to personal troubles — results in the force of Petersen’s argument being constantly hamstrung by its own situation. A telling example is the chapter on parenting, which correctly characterizes parenting as a form of uncompensated work and stresses that “[t]he causes are systemic,” but is then oddly followed by Petersen’s personal choice to not have children in the conclusion. This doesn’t mean that the book fails just because it only centers the experience of white, millennial, middle-class people like Petersen — although this is certainly a point of critique. It means that the book doesn’t quite cohere around what is to be done, because it does not work beyond the limits of this perspective to balance both how burnout might be unequally felt or unevenly experienced and how it can still be a useful organizing tool for the current political moment. An affect like burnout should be analyzed as equal parts structure and feeling, or it risks excluding those who suffer the most from capitalism’s excessive cruelties.
This is why the fiery injunction to “Burn It All Down” in the conclusion falls slightly flat, and some of the final gestures toward a “reckoning with burnout” and a “recommitment to and cherishing of oneself” offers a frustrating politics of refusal. While this book admirably articulates a pervasive experience, and finds it hiding in every aspect of workplace culture and leisure time, it does not quite move beyond reframing the unsurprising insight that work sucks. The solutions it ends up identifying as unsatisfying, such as “handy checklists” and “extensive, detailed policy solutions,” are indeed just that. According to the conclusion, there isn’t really any individual solution to burnout, except for “solidarity.” But solidarity, to Petersen, is still defined within the limits of our restricted political imagination:
We can unite in our resistance to the way things are. We can refuse to blame ourselves for wide-scale societal failures. […] We can recognize that it’s not enough to try to make things better for ourselves. We have to make things better for everyone. Which is why actual substantive change has to come from the public sector — and we must vote en masse to elect politicians who will agitate for it tirelessly.
While Petersen tries to conjure a dynamic vision of collective resistance, the first-person plural of this paragraph stays in the realm of recognition, resistance, and refusal. It is very, very hard to get people to see themselves as workers, and then as exploited workers. It is harder to get them to act on that recognition and stand in solidarity with others, on the picket line or otherwise. Harder still is the work of building a movement that goes beyond the ballot box. In many cases, refusal and resistance are luxuries that only a certain class can enjoy; in every case, electoral advocacy can only be one strategy among many. If part of the current political deadlock arises from a widespread refusal to see work as a site of political contestation, then work must be reactivated as a site of collective action and lasting changes. Can’t Even covers how work always felt bad, why it has gotten worse, and what could be better. But beyond seeing these problems as structural, we need to organize to end exploitation. If “we have so little left to lose,” as Petersen daringly writes, we might as well approach the limits of what is beyond both work and our bad feelings, together.
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Rithika Ramamurthy is an English PhD Candidate at Brown University, the president of the Graduate Labor Organization, and the co-chair of Reclaim Rhode Island. She is on Twitter @rithika_ram.
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