The Burnout Generation
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. Joe Biden humbly presents himself as a walkway, a span from here to there.
JOE BIDEN I view myself as a transitional president that want to transition to your generation. You're the best educated. You're the most open. [END CLIP]
JOE BIDEN I think of myself as a bridge. There's an entire generation of leaders. They are the future of this country. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD At one end, his so-called silent generation or lucky few. At the other, what is now the biggest population cohort, the millennials, whom you might call the unlucky many?
ANN HELEN PETERSON The stats show that we are the first generation to take a step back from our parents generation. And that's a pretty remarkable feeling.
BOB GARFIELD Anne Helen Petersen writes Culture Study on Substack. She's the author of Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. Now, with all the caveats associated with generalizing a cohort of 70 million individuals when and where you were born can obviously make a huge difference. If you go out in the rain, you're apt to get wet. And millennials have been hit with storm after storm.
NEWS REPORT Many millennials graduated into the recession, which is a really tough job market Back in 2008. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Compared to Gen X, twice as many millennials took on student debt to go to college or grad school. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Over 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment as a result of the shutdown. Millennials have been affected the most with layoffs and pay cuts, according to a Pew Research study. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD And the result being the flip flopping of the American dream. Downward mobility?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON I mean, most people in my generation feel like they have not arrived at the milestones of adulthood that were set forth for them. They feel like homeownership is out of reach, any sort of stability or savings - same with that. Some are waiting to find some sort of stability before they have children and feel like it's never going to arrive. Or they've had children and are really desperate for any sort of stability. And the average student loan debt among millennials is in the upper 30 thousands.
Some percentage of our listeners will hear that and they'll go: "whiny." Your generation is often caricatured as spoiled and lazy. This is a clip from Saturday Night Live, a sketch they called Millennial Millions.
HOST Now Kerry, this boomer is going to complain for 30 seconds, make it that whole time without interrupting. And the Social Security is yours.
CONTESTANT OK, that sounds easy.
HOST It sounds easy, but I know how you millennials love anything that challenges your world view. 30 seconds on the clock andm - GO!
BOOMER You young people have it so easy. You know, you sit around eating avocado toast, watching movies on the phone. I never had that. OK. I had to work. I mean, 8 million dollars is not what it used to be. So of course, I'm taking the Social Security.
CONTESTANT Sorry, I can't. You're taking this Social Security? You are rich!
HOST Oooo, Sorry Kennedy. You didn't keep your cool.
CONTESTANT It just feels so unfair.
HOST Well, maybe you can tweet about it, that'll solve everything. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD In January 2018, in an interview with the L.A. Times, even Joe the Bridge builder said that he's headed about up to here with the younger generation.
JOE BIDEN The younger generation now tells me how tough things are. Give me a break. [END CLIP]
JOE BIDEN I have no empathy works because here's the deal, guys. We decided we were going to change the world and we did. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD But you say that the stereotype, generally speaking, is the opposite of reality. What you see is burnout and not something that can be addressed with a vacation or lighting a candle and having a little me time. What does burnout look like and what are its causes?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON Burnout. Looks like the sort of exhaustion that comes when you feel like you have been running the marathon. You're about to finish it and someone puts forward a sign that's like, nope, you still got to keep going for seven more marathons. It becomes the backdrop of your life. The compulsion to work all the time to try to find some sort of stability, but also all of the other pressures to live like a balanced, socially presentable life, to provide your children with some modicum of the same sort of childhood that you had, but also do more parenting all the time, to pay off those student loans. All of those things are pressing down on millennials, and your entire life kind of flattens into this endless to-do list. There's no highs and no lows.
BOB GARFIELD It sounds like Sisyphus.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON Yes.
BOB GARFIELD Or what they used to call it the beginning of the baby boom generation, the rat race. How was it different from that?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON You know, I think the differences with the rat race, there would be some sort of stability. Even if you felt like there are still things that you were competing with your neighbors about in terms of lawn maintenance or something like that, like if you were considered by your income to be in the middle class, you weren't always worried about how much credit card debt that you had or how much student debt that you had. That's a huge thing that I think is hard to understand, that there are tens of thousands of millennials who pull down Middle-Class Salaries but still are really struggling to make ends meet. And it's not because they're spending all of their money on like televisions or whatever. It's because of the cost of housing and the cost of childcare.
BOB GARFIELD And you had a company pension fund that was solvent and the Social Security trust fund. So I guess there wasn't all this existential dread about where you would be in a decade.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON Yeah. You know, the greatest generation and boomers, their. Was a bit more a lot more in some cases, stability in terms of you would find a job and oftentimes work there for your entire life. You know, my granddad is part of the greatest generation, worked his entire life at 3M and then retired with a pension at age 55. And for a very long time, I found myself incredibly resentful of that. I was like, how is that possible? That's so lazy. That was my attitude until I rethought that and was like, oh, but actually that would have been amazing to have that sort of stability. Maybe you wouldn't have the liberty to seek out a new job every two to three years, which is something that a lot of millennials are familiar with. And the liberty they have to cash out your four one K in order to cover a medical emergency.
BOB GARFIELD With liberty like that, who needs tyranny?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON I know. So I think that a lot of times these things that are actually just characteristics of precarity are positioned for millennials as benefits. But I don't think it's actually a benefit.
BOB GARFIELD The baseline complaint, economic precariousness, job insecurity, impossible child care obstacles, the aforementioned existential dread they have riven parts of American society for ever. It's called poverty. Is it fair to say that it took a sinking middle class to awaken us to precarity?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON Absolutely. People in poverty have been burnt out for a very, very long time. And you're absolutely right that it has taken this shift to the middle class and specifically to the white middle class for this to feel like a national crisis or something that is a generational crisis.
BOB GARFIELD Your book, Its Genesis, was something you wrote for BuzzFeed two years ago, an article. And there was a response to that piece by a writer called Tianna Clark, who wrote about the specifics of black burnout.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON She said, burnout is something that I feel every day, but it's also not new to me. You know, black women choose speaking specifically about black women in this country who were born burnt out. And a lot of that has to do with generational poverty and struggle and discrimination, you know, that carries down. And it also just if you think that, you know, as a middle class white person that you are currently struggling to negotiate working from home or your work schedule. If you add on all of that, the burden in this particular moment of also watching people of your race get brutalized by police and also having to deal with micro aggressions in your workplace and also having to deal with all of the other overt and covert ways that racism manifests in our country. You know, that is it adding to the load in ways that is maybe very difficult for someone who is not experiencing it to understand.
BOB GARFIELD I wouldn't go back to the bridging of generations idea because you wrote briefly about the economic travails not of millennials, but of baby boomers, that with the election of Ronald Reagan, middle-class mainly white boomers burned that generational bridge or as you put it, pulled up the ladder behind us. Tell me how we did that.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON Boomers were also burnt out in facing precarity and they had decisions set out in front of them of how can we maintain some sort of stability that our parents enjoyed. That the greatest generation began to enjoy over the course of the postwar period. And largely the decision was to vote in ways that would disintegrate that social safety net that had protected them. To that point, instead of voting to grant more funding to state institutions so that the cost of tuition would stay steady instead of voting for politicians who would protect unions and the labor movement just generally so that workers wouldn't be exploited. They voted to weaken those protections and they voted for Ronald Reagan.
BOB GARFIELD Twice. By a large margins.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON Yes. So you bought the idea of Reaganism, of trickle down economics. In hindsight, what we actually needed to do was provide even more robust protections in every corner of our life. What would happen in our society if in the early 1980s there had been a move to make maternity leave mandatory and even paternity leave? How would that actually significantly shift the way that we grew up as millennials, the way that boomers experienced parenthood? And now what we're doing today? I mean, it feels almost utopian, but there are other examples of countries that have done this.
BOB GARFIELD I want to ask you about another lane in that bridge, and that's the boomer ethic that passed on what turned out to be a highly problematic template for how their children were to succeed in life. I speak of college as the gateway to everyone's future.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON Over the course of the 1980s and 90s, this idea that college could somehow put you on the path to stability became this accepted truth. And I think that for a lot of people, yes, going to college does set you up potentially for higher earnings. It does not necessarily set you up for stability. And I think that a lot of people who maybe didn't need to go to college, those people also accumulated significant amounts of student debt. And that has functioned as an albatross on the rest of their lives.
BOB GARFIELD And it's not just going to college. It's the college prep industrial complex that precedes it. And what you describe is kids not just in the middle class learning to burn out even before they graduate high school.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON What it was, is they were fashioning themselves into college resume from before middle school, even sometimes, and thinking of all of their activities as very instrumental. Right. As something that could be a line on that resume. Not something that you're doing just because, you know, you're a kid and you want to do things that interest you.
BOB GARFIELD Can't Even, is not a self-help book. You know, how to overcome burnout - five strategies for a happier you. But you do hint that this book intends to mobilize readers. How?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON So I think a lot of millennials have felt burnt out for a very long time, and that is the reason why my article resonated the way that it did. They did not have a word or language to describe what they were feeling. And they also felt very alone, that it was a personal problem, that they were somehow failing to not find relief from that exhaustion. And so what this book attempts to do is give us a framework for understanding that exhaustion and also to allow us to feel really mad. I don't think it's necessarily to be mad at boomers. It's just to be mad at society configured the way that it is. And for us to take that anger, and as a generation, you know, this is the value of the generational designation, is it allows us to feel like we have a group of people, we have solidarity with each other, even if the the types of burnout shift from person to person. And say it doesn't have to be this way. We want to change the way that it is now, not only for ourselves, not only for Gen Z, but for our own children.
BOB GARFIELD And so back to where we started. Joe Biden promises to build that bridge from his generation to the younger ones. If you were his civil engineer, what would you tell him to do with that bridge? Wait - I don't mean - what would you do with that bridge? I'll tell you what you can do with you're bridge.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON I would, I would have him focus on two things. One is finding immediate relief for parents right now that can be in the form of mandatory maternity leave and also paternity leave, because that's one of the few things that has actually shown to have lasting ramifications on the division of labor in the home in heterosexual homes. And then the second big thing, and this is, you know, doesn't it matter if you're a parent or not, is really thinking seriously about relieving or reducing student loan. And I think that that is sometimes the things that is hardest for other generations to understand, because either they didn't have it or they were able to pay theirs off. But that is the weight that is pulling down millennials in this moment.
And to offer relief would be a gift, but it would also be giving millennials permission to feel secure for maybe the first time in their lives, because it's not just the foundational economic insecurity that was occasioned by graduating into the Great Recession. It's also that we are hitting it again during what are supposed to be some of our prime earning years in our thirties. Right. And I think that, you know, if you look at our generation in 10 years, how are people going to think of our generation besides just screwed?
BOB GARFIELD Anne, thank you so much.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON It's been such a pleasure to be here.
BOB GARFIELD Anne Helen Petersen writes Culture Study on Substack and is the author of Can't Even Millennials became the burnout generation.
AIDY BRYANT SINGING: Now, who are the boomers? We-ell, their parents came home from World War Two when they had a lot of sex and they had a lot of kids. Then the kids grew up in a prosperous time where America was the only superpower left. Then they played all the music and they did all the drugs and they had all the sex and they all went to college and they got all the jobs and they made all the money and they bought the houses and they won't ever die. [END]