What post-pandemic America will look like, especially for those under 40, is unclear at this time, but in his insightful new book, I can’t even: how millennials became the burnout generation, Anne Helen Petersen gives us many reasons to be concerned even with the election of Joe Biden.
As a major in the ’60s, I feel generational guilt whenever I compare my lot to that of today’s millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996). Without any virtue on our part, my friends and I got a good deal on everything from college admission to jobs, but we never transferred our good fortune to those who came after us.
COVID-19 has been a “great clarifier” for Petersen. What she means by that is that the coronavirus has illuminated, not caused, issues ranging from racism to unequal health care that currently haunt America. A COVID-19 vaccine will not cure these problems, nor end the burnout of the millennials who are at the center of I can not even. “The work was shitty and precarious before; now it’s more shit and precarious, ”says Petersen.
In his 1931 essay, “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” F. Scott Fitzgerald showed how it is possible to blend personal history and generational history into one narrative. Petersen, like a number of modern American writers, took advantage of Fitzgerald’s example. She is a thoughtful supporter when it comes to her generation. I can not even is the perfect companion to the brilliant millennial comedy of the streaming service Hulu Pen15.
I have taught college-aged millennials for over two decades, and never understood the resentment directed at their generation. But there is no denying the resentment. When in 2013 Time published a cover story titled “The Me Me Me Generation,” it captured the widespread aversion of millennials. A poll taken a year later showed that 71% of Americans saw Millennials as “selfish” and 65% saw them as “entitled.”
On the other hand, as a university professor, I was struck by the vulnerability and kindness of my millennial students. I remember their shock of September 11, the willingness of a number of them to travel to New Orleans in 2005 to help rebuild homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and the debt that so many people have contracted to pay for their university studies.
Millennials are, according to the Pew Research Center, the first generation in American history to enter adulthood in a worse economic situation than their parents. Yet millennials have largely not succumbed to a politics of resentment. They are true progressives, with 64 percent supporting an activist government that helps solve problems and two-thirds saying black people are treated less fairly than whites.
Petersen emphasizes the vulnerable side of the millennial experience. The burnout plaguing America’s 73 million millennials, the nation’s largest generation, comes from so many directions, Petersen argues, it’s hard for millennials to believe they can ever be in control of their own. life.
Millennials became resume makers in their teens as they struggled to enter college, then found that once in college, resume building continued at a more frantic pace as they were struggling to complete their internships. Even the digital revolution hasn’t helped millennials. They have become attached to their smartphones, Instagram and Twitter. Petersen reports that, on average, Millennials check their phones 150 times a day – a number I find easy to believe. When the millennials I’ve taught got smartphones, the first thing they did after class, even if they were waiting to talk, was check their phones for messages.
““Precariat” is the term Petersen most often uses to describe today’s vulnerable millennials.“
The nature of the work that many of them now make these cultural issues complicated for millennials. For those at the bottom of the economic ladder, low-wage jobs made it impossible to save, but more prestigious jobs also became unstable. An entire subset of highly skilled workers now hire themselves as independent contractors and face the burden of purchasing health insurance on their own and being quickly made redundant if the company they work for decides to cut back. workforce. In 1980, 46 percent of workers in the private sector were covered by a pension plan. By 2019, that number had fallen to 16%.
“Precariat” is the term Petersen most often uses to describe today’s vulnerable millennials. Assistant professors, freelance writers, and Uber drivers are part of this group. Petersen sees their lives built around fear and exhaustion, even when they are working. Those who make up the precariat can, they know, be back in the unemployment line at any time. This is why so many of them have become risk averse and are willing to take jobs that do not require the education they have sacrificed so much for.
When they graduated from college, most of my millennials found that the only way to live off what they were earning was to live in an apartment with three or four friends. Under these circumstances, many concluded that returning home to live with their parents while saving money through a starting job was the best choice.
Petersen, who holds a doctorate. from the University of Texas at Austin and former cultural writer at BuzzFeed, does not consider himself to be safe from burnout. She points out how long it took her to get a 401k and buy a house, and in her final chapter, she reveals that she made the decision not to have children.
She accepts the compromises she made. Her argument is that millennials like her are in trouble if they continue to blame themselves for what are large-scale societal failures. While acknowledging the particular hardships that the Great Recession of 2007-09 brought to him and his fellow Millennials, Petersen believes the issues millennials face are likely to spill over into Gen Z (those born after 1996).
Petersen’s response to millennial exhaustion is that his generation is working with others for social and economic change. “We can recognize that it is not enough to try to make things better for ourselves. We have to make things better for everyone, ”she insists.
What exactly this collective effort would look like in practice Petersen never says so, but we do have an idea of what she has in mind when we turn to her praise of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. President Franklin Roosevelt. For Petersen, the New Deal protection unions embody the good that can happen when the government seeks to balance the economic scales by giving workers the power to collectively fight their employers. Healthcare, overtime pay and safety rules all result from unionization, Petersen argues.
““Our anger is barely contained. Underestimate us at your peril: we have so little to lose.“
– Anne Helen Petersen
Roosevelt is a natural connection to the present for Petersen. “This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny,” Roosevelt declared in 1936 when he was nominated for a second presidential term. FDR was sure he could make this rendezvous with fate benefit the generation suffering from the Great Depression, just as Petersen believes his generation is now ready to fight burnout.
“Our anger is barely contained,” Petersen warns on his last page. “Underestimate us at your peril: we have so little to lose.” The good news for millennials is that Gen Z, their highly diverse successor generation (made up of just 52% non-Hispanic white), appear to be allied with them thanks to the impact of COVID-19.
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