When Anne Helen Petersen’s editor at BuzzFeed News suggested she was suffering from burnout, Petersen was taken aback and upset. But quickly those words rang true: she realized she had pushed herself to the limit on work and increasingly struggled to tackle basic tasks on her never ending to-do list.
And she would soon find out she was far from the only one hitting the wall. The story on millennial burnout that Petersen wrote for Buzzfeed in 2019 has been read more than 7 million times. Its impact led to her book Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, published last month.
Petersen joined Fortune features editor Kristen Bellstrom to discuss her investigation into millennial burnout for a From Day One's October conference. Bellstrom was quick to point out that Petersen’s book launch coincided at a time “burnout is front and center” due to the pandemic.
Together they discussed why burnout has come to afflict a generation, how it has long affected poor and minority communities, and the structural changes needed to address its prevalence.
The conversation kicked off with a definition of what burnout is: “It’s that feeling of running so hard, working so hard, you hit the wall, you scale the wall and you keep going,” Petersen said. “It’s a marathon on top of a marathon, like it’s never going to end.” She added later that “it’s directly related to precarity and economic instability in particular–so we adopt all these strategies, like working all the time, to cope with that instability.”
Millenials are not the only people who burn out, Petersen noted. But the generation has come to be defined by it due to their high-stakes childhood geared toward getting into college (“childhood as resume building,” as Petersen put it), followed by the amount of debt they’re burdened with after school. Because they graduated in the midst of the Great Recession, many millennials had trouble securing stable jobs. COVID-19 struck just as many millennials, now in their 30s, finally found some economic stability.
Petersen’s BuzzFeed article focused on burnout seeping into a predominantly white, middle-class population. Her book takes a deeper dive, showing how burnout has long defined poor, marginalized and minority communities. “I interviewed a ton of people about how their different backgrounds–where they grew up, whether English was the first language in their home, race, class, all those things–textured that feeling of burnout,” she said. “The thing about middle-class burnout is that you can always throw money at it … and that’s just not available to a lot of people.”
Bellstrom and Petersen got into how the prevalence of burnout affects the workplace, particularly in corporate America: “A burnt-out workforce is not a good workforce,” said Petersen. She noted that millennials internalize the need to be a responsive worker to prove their value–which can mean checking and answering emails all day. Managers and leaders should provide empathy and flexibility, modeling “unavailability” to break up a perceived 24/7 workday. “A lot of things you do as a manager–those trickle down to practices other people adopt as well,” Petersen said.
Bellstrom pointed out there’s growing awareness of burnout in Corporate America, even further emphasized by the pandemic. Petersen noted that in response to market instabilities from the 1980s into the 2010s, “companies, to figure out some sort of control, meant workers had less control.” That led to layoffs, outsourcing, and increased focus on core competency. “Work, for the worker, was less in control and more precarious.”
A culture of overwork and insecurity will require major changes to fix. “There are no easy answers,” Petersen said. She laid out smaller personal fixes, like restricting news consumption to the mornings and evenings, unplugging from the digital world through things like gardening, and directing energy toward helping others. But the bigger challenge lies in economic instability and decline of social safety nets. “You can’t fix that with an app … we have to think bigger, we have to think about the larger systemic fixes,” she said.
Their conversation touched on Petersen’s next project, a book being co-written with her partner, technology journalist Charlie Warzel, about remote work. “We’re looking at the ways ‘work from home’ can exacerbate a lot of problems already in place, the burnout already built into the structure,” Petersen said. “It can make work even more fluid into all these corners of your life–or it could actually help us decenter work, just slightly, from its place of prominence in our world.”
Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.