Emotions on Strike

Emotions on Strike

Burnout is not a problem we can individually solve. It is a symptom of a world set up to exhaust us to the point where we cannot resist.

Illustration by Anna Sorokina

It’s the feeling of staring at a blank wall and wanting your brain to spark but not knowing how to make it happen. Or the feeling of trying to smile and knowing your eyes don’t match (a feeling made worse by going about masked, knowing you have even less ability to fake it). Or maybe it’s the endless stream of tasks that used to seem like checkpoints on a road to somewhere but now just feel like a perpetual, joyless game of whack-a-mole. It’s the gap between promise and reality, the feeling that your feelings themselves have gone on strike. It’s burnout.

The word dates back at least to the 1970s, but it’s become something of a buzzword in recent years, and even more recently has been attached in particular to millennials, after journalist Anne Helen Petersen wrote a viral 2019 Buzzfeed article on the subject. In Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, Petersen uses her personal story as a jumping-off point and attempts to generalize outward. Like other authors propelled from viral article to not-really-advice book, Petersen responds to some of her critics in an attempt to build a stronger, deeper case that she’s writing about a pervasive social problem. “It was about a work ethic and anxiety and exhaustion particular to the world I grew up in,” she writes, “the context in which I applied to college and tried to get a job, the reality of living through the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression, and the rapid spread and ubiquity of digital technologies and social media. In short: It was about being a millennial.”

Petersen is not the first to argue that the millennial generation faces a particular set of pressures—Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days detailed the way changes in capitalism have heaped expectations on millennials to develop their “human capital,” and Keir Milburn’s Generation Left argued that all of these changes have shaped millennial politics into something with incendiary potential, precisely because millennials have so little to lose. Petersen cites Harris, along with several other researchers and theorists, to defend millennials against the everlasting arguments that they are a generation stuffed on avocado toast and irresponsibility, waiting for a good life to drop into their laps, and to explain why “burnout” is suddenly the term on everyone’s lips.

Despite some gestures toward those outside of the college-educated professional track, Petersen’s book is really about the shifting expectations of a middle class in crisis. As Barbara Ehrenreich has pointed out, the middl...