Anne Helen Petersen and the “Burnout Generation”


Anne Helen Petersen knows a little about Generation Y. She is one of them. And when his BuzzFeed article, “How Millennials Came the Burnout Generation,” went viral in 2019 – surpassing seven million readers and becoming the most read article of the year on the online news platform – she knew she had hit a nerve.

The essay became the source for his 2020 book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, detailing the challenges for children born between 1981 and 1996.

Based on a national survey, historical and academic research, hundreds of interviews with Millennials and her own experiences, Petersen, MA ’07 (English), argues that although she is characterized by the media as Lazy, Millennials are, in fact, confident, ambitious, and achievement-oriented.

This nurtured and groomed generation did everything they were told, but through no fault of their own, things turned horribly wrong.

Burdened by decades of bad economic policies, crippling college loan debt and the worst job market since the Great Depression, countless overqualified millennials mired in low-paying jobs have postponed milestones like saving money , buy a house or have children.

“What happened with Generation Y,” says Petersen, “is a story of gradual accumulation. It’s not like a mass tragedy that happened at the same time. The policies put in place to achieve this were implemented when we were children or even before we were born. It was kind of a slow motion crisis.

“There is only a little that people can handle. People can break. You can bend and bend and bend to this idea of ​​productivity and insecurity and debt, but at some point it breaks people. ”

As a graduate student at the University of Oregon, Petersen and her cohorts used as a mantra a phrase that would later appear in her book: “All that is good is bad.” All that is bad is good. Even though they felt bad about constantly working, they convinced themselves that it was good and that leisure was bad.

“We felt guilty,” says Petersen. “We said it as a joke, but it was still really true.”

The coronavirus pandemic – what Petersen calls the “great equalizer” – has not only supported this struggle between work and play, but has also exposed decades of systemic racism and exposed the precariousness of the US economy, says -it. As businesses close their doors, the reality of the types of jobs held and the number of jobs it often takes to make ends meet has brought issues of gender, race and class to the fore.

In her book, Petersen, a Millennial herself, says the generation is mistakenly called lazy and upright.

“What COVID has done, not only for millennials, but for society, has given us that moment of clarity, a real moment of pause,” says Petersen. “All of these things that I talk about in the book were apparent before, but Americans are very good at sweeping things under the table instead of tackling some of the bigger issues that we have, and that’s certainly true in race, and this is certainly true of economics and equality.

From the pandemic, the concept of the hybrid workplace and the future of working from home have sparked a collaborative book project between Petersen and his partner, Charlie Warzel, a tech writer for the New York Times, which is slated for release in the end. of the year. Petersen contributes to The Times and other publications and produces Culture Study, a weekly newsletter on the Substack publishing platform.

She wanted to become a professor of film studies, but the recession and the downturn in the university job market caused her to revisit an interest in popular culture and celebrity studies cultivated at UO.

Petersen keeps in regular contact with the head of the film studies department Priscilla Peña Ovalle, the former advisor Michael Aronson and the professor Emerita Julia Lesage of the English department, who, she says, “always reads everything I do.” write ”. She was also inspired by Professor Emerita Kathleen Karlyn, of English and Film Studies, to write two books: Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema (2014) and Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman (2017).

“It [Karlyn] was incredibly influential, ”says Petersen. “The very first class I took at the University of Oregon was called Female Stars, and it opened my eyes to how female celebrity works and celebrity studies, which has become my final study goal. ”

Changing careers has been great for her, but is she still exhausted? Sometimes. Is she following her own advice? Not always.

Petersen admits there are no easy answers or quick fixes to an entire generation’s problems, but the book was never intended to provide millennials with a self-help list to avoid burnout. professional.

Yet it is a start. By acknowledging the issues, providing historical context, and offering a call to action that doesn’t have to be like this, millennials can take action to change behavior.

The pandemic has brought to light serious issues beyond burnout, and Petersen hopes millennials will also seize this opportunity to stand in solidarity with others and work for real change.

“I hope people are crazy,” she said. “And I hope we can keep that feeling long enough to build the political will to make even bigger changes.”

–– By Sharleen Nelson, BS ’06 (journalism: magazine, editorial), University Communications

Photo by Eric Matt

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