Burnout is a one-word descriptor that Petersen argues is capacious enough to encapsulate an entire generation’s crisis—even if it affects individuals and groups in wildly different ways ... Over the course of nine bleak chapters, Petersen seeks to show, basically, how much worse things are for millennials than even they might realize ... Although Petersen’s synthesis of the existing literature is cogent and clear, and although her anecdotal reporting nicely complements the studies she cites, little of what she writes is new or surprising. What is new is her argument that all of this—the need to work constantly, which began for millennials in childhood and never stopped—can be summed up with a diagnosis of 'burnout.' Our generational affliction is more than poverty or precarity; it is endless fatigue. Can’t Even is convincingly argued, but it raises a question: Is a psychological diagnosis really appropriate for such a varied, and fundamentally economic, affliction? ... Does the pressure a BuzzFeed writer feels to constantly post on social media and Slack really stem from the same condition that makes so many fast-food workers so tired and harried that 79 percent literally burn themselves, according to one 2015 study cited by Petersen? ... In spite of these critiques, Can’t Even is a powerful book. Petersen ably blends scholarship and reportage, but her most important intervention is her relentless empathy.
It is my sincere hope that millennials will read Can’t Even ... well-researched ... a sharp critique of boomer parents and employers ... readers don’t need to be personally burnt out for Can’t Even to resonate. If social media or the gig economy touch your life in any way, there’s something to chew on here. Fortunately, Petersen doesn’t offer any 'hacks' or 'tips' to pare back our busy lives. Instead, she advocates for societal self-reflection and an assessment of our values to spur change: Do we really want to live this way?
... a brisk, impassioned addition to an emergent mini-genre of journalistic nonfiction: books that rigorously describe and critique a single manifestation of late capitalism ... Petersen is quite clear that readers do not have the power to save themselves from burnout. Eliminating it will be 'a structural battle,' which means 'the only way to move forward is to create a vocabulary and a framework that allows us to see ourselves — and the systems that have contributed to our burnout —clearly.' This is a smart and attainable goal and one that Petersen succeeds in identifying ... relies heavily on personal testimonies that come from a diverse but still white-skewing group of interviewees who are nearly all women. Odd as it is to write this phrase, the male perspective is sadly absent here, which has significant implications in terms of race and class. For instance, Petersen never considers the effect of police brutality on Black men's burnout, or burnout in communities where traditionally male jobs — coal mining, say — have dried up. She is also prone to overfocusing, in various guises, on 'the 'obnoxious' task of maintaining appearances,' which, while onerous and a sure source of burnout, may not have merited more airtime than, say, the burnout-inducing effects of worse-than-obnoxious tasks like feeding children while living in a food desert ... Petersen might remind me here that '[t]here's no burnout Olympics' — true, but it bears noting that better research and prioritization would have strengthened Can't Even as both a portrait of burnout and a call for solidarity. Still, the book is effective, if imperfect, in both roles, and its flaws may serve to invite more writers into the necessary conversation Petersen has begun. She plainly hopes so. Burnout, Petersen argues, will end only with sweeping labor-policy changes, meaning that it will end only when we 'vote en masse to elect politicians who will agitate for [reform] tirelessly.' Can't Even offers more than enough motivation to cast such a vote.