Log on, tune in, burn out

Boomers shattered long-standing institutions which had many virtues: church, the family and left- wing parties which defended

This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The United States, says the historian Niall Ferguson, is on the brink of “generational war”. For the New York Times’s Taylor Lorenz, we have already passed “the end of friendly generational relations”. According to these warnings, it’s the baby boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — who would be well-advised to start constructing bomb-shelters, and the millennials — 1981-1996 — who are expected to be signing up for battle, or at least to be publishing books along the lines of A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America (Bruce Gibney) and The Theft of a Decade: How the Baby Boomers Stole the Millennials’ Economic Future (Joseph C. Sternberg).

Yes, these are the broadest of generalisations. But the statistics speak for themselves. American boomers control more than half the country’s wealth; millennials own 4.6 per cent. In the UK, a typical millennial household would need to save for 19 years for an average house deposit; back in the 1980s, it was just three years. The young are also more likely to live in cramped housing with a punishing commute — and to have lost their jobs during the pandemic.

Sally Rooney’s characters limit their political engagement to attending the occasional protest and then going home

The rise of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn was, as much as anything else, the millennials’ attempt to take back control: both candidates promised a dramatic redistribution of wealth, enthusing younger voters and often appalling older ones. But the failure of those movements revealed millennials’ other misfortune: we’re just not very good at politics.

If there is a representative millennial novel, it is Sally Rooney’s Normal People, whose characters are desperately earnest about contemporary capitalism but limit their political engagement to attending the occasional protest and then going home. It’s emblematic of millennials’ meek acceptance of a world built by older generations that when rebelling against it, they couldn’t find a leader who was below retirement age. Yet the possibility of war still hangs in the air — partly because the generation after the millennials, Generation Z, may turn out to be rather more uncompromising (look at Greta Thunberg) and partly because the causes of millennial discontent are unlikely to go away.

Those causes have just been magisterially summarised by the American journalist Anne Helen Petersen in Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation (Vintage). Petersen doesn’t indulge in rants against boomers: they were, she believes, the first victims of those destructive forces which have accelerated to leave millennials in the state of twitchy exhaustion, economic insecurity, mental instability, political apathy, existential confusion and technological addiction which Petersen condenses into the term “burnout”.

Burnout isn’t the same as tiredness. A tired person can unwind over a shared bottle of wine, or curl up with a book, or take a holiday. But someone suffering from burnout can’t focus on the book, and discovers they’ve instead spent an hour mindlessly reading the internet; they can’t unwind in the evening because they’re expecting an update from their employer and on holiday they feel listless — shouldn’t they be working, or at least posting a few Instagram photographs to gain some likes? It is “a sensation of dull exhaustion . . . the flattening of life into one never-ending to-do list”.

A common charge against millennials is that they are lazy and unprepared for the real world. In one of the book’s many admirably honest moments, Petersen half-concedes the point:

No matter what I did, I couldn’t bring myself to take the knives to get sharpened, or drop off my favourite boots to get resoled, or complete the paperwork and make the phone call and find the stamp so that my dog could be properly registered. There was a box in the corner of my room with a gift for a friend I’d been meaning to send for months, and a contact lens rebate for a not-insignificant amount of money sitting on my counter. All of these high-effort, low-gratification tasks seemed equally impossible.

But then she supplies the deepest reason for this kind of inertia: not mere laziness, but something more insidious. “The truth was, all of those tasks would take away from what had become my ultimate task, and the task of so many other millennials: working all the time.”

Reading Petersen’s portrait of the workaholic millennial, I paused for a moment of self-reflection. It was 7pm and I was eating dinner with a book in order to review it — maximising the profitability of a time which I might have spent more restfully. Meanwhile my housemate returned from the kitchen to his room for an extra evening shift. I was reminded of how often millennials use the word “productive” as a synonym for “good” (“Bit of a rubbish day, not very productive”) — as though our self-worth is measured by our contribution to GDP. 

Someone suffering from burnout can’t focus on the book, and discovers they’ve instead spent an hour mindlessly reading the internet

To distract myself from this melancholy train of thought, I opened Twitter, where the millennial journalist Elizabeth Bruenig was answering a reader’s question about her preferred time to work. “i am literally always working,” Bruenig replied. “while dough is rising (rolls, pizza), i am working. while stuff is roasting, i am working. i’m often on the phone, doing interviews, while i’m actively cooking or folding laundry. when the kids nap, i work. when they go to bed, i work.”

Perhaps burnout is a condition particular to journalists, who are notorious for cannibalising their own lives in pursuit of copy. Is it more likely to occur in the lives of people journalists spend time with — urban professionals in “creative” and “fulfilling” jobs? Petersen answers that objection with an avalanche of data, studies and interviews showing that yes, burnout really is everywhere. 

The range of Petersen’s research is itself a tribute to the millennial appetite for work. Holly, a hotel receptionist, describes how her employer constantly changes her schedule — “which means a lot of cancelling plans on the fly, and coping with disappointment/irate family and friends because you’re unable to commit to anything except for the job”. Jimmie, who works 80-100 hours a week “patching together gigs” in website design and digital content, says he has “monetised almost every aspect of my life that isn’t being a parent, and I’m a couple medical bills away from starting a dad blog”. Meredith, the mother of a child with special needs, describes her life as “having a hundred balls in the air, and knowing you’re going to drop some of them, but not knowing which ones and how vital they’ll be and the fallout of dropping them”.

The blame for burnout, in Petersen’s book, lies with the growing economic insecurity of the last half-century. As shareholder profit became many companies’ raison d’être, workers faced pressure to work harder for less — less money, but also less security. It had been the unions’ job to protect employees’ interests, but as the unions were weakened, the worker had to stand alone; in other words, to compete every day against their fellows.

Overwork had ceased to be a misfortune and become an ideal

The process culminates in the Uber driver who has no guaranteed hours, no sick pay, no expectation of higher wages — and who can hardly strike or negotiate for any of these things: the next job will just go to a more compliant driver. In 2017 another gig-economy app, Fiverr, advertised for workers who “eat a coffee for lunch” and for whom “sleep deprivation is your drug of choice”. Overwork had ceased to be a misfortune and become an ideal.

Petersen builds an unassailable case that this culture has transformed, not just workplaces, but the shape of a life. Childhood starts to look like an anxious training ground for a life of graft. (“I wish that my parents would see me as a person, not as a resumé,” one anonymous blogger lamented after a frantic adolescence spent pursuing grades good enough for Harvard.) Education ceases to be about expanding the mind, but rather about maximising one’s always-uncertain chances of secure employment. 

Parenting, friendship, leisure — all are threatened by the empire of burnout, the voice in your head asking whether you are quite sure you couldn’t be squeezing in another hour of work. Even free time, now forced to justify itself, has to be optimized — I’ve got my 10k time down! I’ve listened to the podcast everyone’s talking about! I’m not wasting a second!

One of Andrews’s favourite satirical moves is to contrast the boomers’ earnest idealism with the world as it has actually turned out

Although the book hints that things don’t have to be this way — treating employees with dignity, for instance, can also be good for business — Petersen is reluctant to offer solutions. Her aim, she says, is merely to diagnose. But the diagnosis could go much further. In the late nineteenth century, Nietzsche was already complaining that Europe had begun to import the American vice, a “restless urge for work . . . ‘Do anything rather than nothing’: this principle is the rope with which all superior forms of culture and taste are going to be strangled.” 

Eventually, he warned, “no one will yield to an inclination for vita contemplativa without having an uneasy conscience and feeling full of self-contempt” — an exact description of burnout. But apart from a brief allusion to Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Petersen doesn’t examine how the West became so confused about the meaning of life that hard work could present itself as a plausible answer. 

The book’s conclusion — a call to “feel solidarity” and “vote en masse” for the right politicians — is typical of millennial politics, in its combination of passionate sincerity with blank uncertainty about the way forward. How did millennials get so demoralised? Burnout is only half the answer. The other half is harder to define, but the place to start is another recent book, Helen Andrews’s Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster (Sentinel). Unusually for a millennial, Andrews is a full-blooded conservative, the kind who still hasn’t forgiven second-wave feminism for undoing the nuclear family, or Dwight D. Eisenhower for using Suez to deliver the knockout blow to the British Empire.

Also unusually for a millennial, Andrews writes like a dream, and although nothing in this book quite matches her stupendous hatchet job on John Stuart Mill (American Affairs, May 2017), a more entertaining polemic is unlikely to be published this year. Andrews’s elegant but pitiless approach is here applied to six boomers: Apple’s founder Steve Jobs, West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, the peripatetic economist Jeffrey Sachs, the academic Camille Paglia, the racial justice campaigner Al Sharpton and the Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Successful radicals tend to be rooted in something — patriotism, a community, a religious or philosophical tradition

One of Andrews’s favourite satirical moves is to contrast the boomers’ earnest idealism with the world as it has actually turned out. On the expansion of universities, for instance: “Religion has historically been the place where classes below the upper middle can air their ideas about meaning and seek to integrate them with a greater tradition. The nice thing about church is, it doesn’t cost $50,000 a year.” Or on Camille Paglia, whose influential writings helped make pornography and prostitution respectable:

“One cannot make any kind of firm line between high art and pornography,” Paglia once told an interviewer. “Michelangelo is a pornographer.” While Paglia was busy descanting on the erotic qualities of the Pietà, men under forty were developing erectile dysfunction at unprecedented rates from watching too much Pornhub.

Paglia’s tragedy, for Andrews, is typical of the boomers: “They tried to liberate us, and instead of freedom they left behind chaos.” But the boomers she profiles are those with a hint of greatness about them, who only accidentally helped to demolish Western civilisation. Steve Jobs revered mid-century computer entrepreneurs like David Hewlett and wanted, like them, to build a venerable American company; instead, Apple became the vanguard of the all-consuming, job-outsourcing, economy-distorting tech industry. Aaron Sorkin believed ardently in the power of television to change the world, yet The West Wing only hastened the transmutation of politics into a branch of PR.

Above all, for Andrews, boomer idealism shattered longstanding institutions which, despite their faults, had irreplaceable virtues. Most obviously, the churches, the family and left-wing parties which defend the poor rather than lecturing them; also, less predictably, big-city political machines which, by marshalling support from immigrant communities, enabled a sort of informal local democracy. 

Meanwhile, the boomers’ embrace of TV and pop music has brought about “the death of both folk culture and high culture”. What remains for millennials? As Andrews portrays it, a wasteland in which “old-fashioned virtues like loyalty not only aren’t practised; they are no longer considered virtues. You can be loyal to an institution — employer, school, your country of birth — to the extent that it conforms to your values and not one iota more, and those values are of course subject to change according to the latest fashions.”

Perhaps that explains why millennials, for all their anger at the world, have so far proved unable to change it. Successful radicals tend to be rooted in something — patriotism, a community, a religious or philosophical tradition. The boomers took all that away and handed us an iPhone in exchange.

Speaking of iPhones, the one subject which these two books consistently agree on is Big Tech. As well as hoarding power and money for themselves, the tech leviathans have done more than anyone else to turn honest work into burnout; and their business model, of capturing and then selling off our attention spans to the highest bidder, is a threat to any sustained human endeavour. So here’s to the anti-tech backlash, a timely cause for both millennials and boomers. There’s nothing quite like a common enemy for healing divisions.

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