Although she is one of the most intuitive reporters who best understood internet sociology and culture in the last 15 years, Anne Helen Petersen (Idaho, 39) is still surprised, in a conversation via Zoom, when mentioning the explosion of her text about the inability to carry out simple tasks, such as taking the boots to the shoemaker, making an appointment with the dermatologist or vacuuming the car. Your essay titled How Millennials Became the generation of ‘burnout’, published in 2019 on Buzzfeed, has been read over seven million times in English, reaping millions more readers when translated into multiple languages. An interesting expanded version has just been published under the title of I can’t take it anymore don’t take it anymore (HarperCollins, 2021), an exhaustive investigation and analysis that contextualizes generational fatigue and offers keys, and lots of data, to understand what we are talking about when we refer to a generation burned (or ‘exhausted’). About why social networks are so exhausting, how leisure has disappeared from our lives, why raising children is an obstacle course in this scenario of uncertainty, and how the working culture was lost – or how she herself writes in its pages, “before work was shit and precarious; now it’s even more”.
Converted into one of the most valued journalists on the Substack newsletter platform with her weekly newsletter Culture Study, dedicated to sociocultural analysis —a The New Yorker found that his exclusive hiring was one of the most expensive on the site, along with that of journalist Matthew Yglesias—, Petersen comes to tell us that in this Pandemic of tiredness it is not his fault, but the system’s. And if a young woman from Montana gained so much repercussion around the world for a text about her inability to fulfill small tasks, it’s for something: “I think that if the essay went global and ended up in a book, it’s for something that affects everyone us, no matter where we are from: we all live under the rules of capitalism”.
Question. It is not the first time that society is tired. You say that the so-called syndrome burnout, or exhaustion, was first detected in 1974 and that this has been a cyclical sensation in the face of changes, from the “melancholic tiredness of the world” diagnosed by Hippocrates to the “neurasthenia” that, in the 19th century, afflicted individuals run over “by the rhythm of modern life”. Why does she look different now?
Response. Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents went through hardships such as war, illness, very intense physical work and countless factors that lead them to tell us: “You have no idea how hard this was; for you everything was easier”. Here, no one denies that life is currently much less arduous in many respects, but it is also more complicated. There are many factors that put pressure on individuals, such as consuming news all the time or having to represent our lives all the time, not only at work, but also on social media. I know if you tell your grandfather “I’m exhausted with how to present myself on Instagram”, he will tell you, “What kind of problem is this?”. Basically, this constant self-representation is in fact exhausting, forcing you to conceive yourself at all times as a commodity and to think about how your value/persona fits into the market.
FOR. You say we are the generation that overthrew the myth of meritocracy.
A. I think the millennials have realized that no matter how hard you make an effort and follow the right path, things can change very quickly and you will be replaced unless you come from a very wealthy and powerful family. You may have gone to the best schools, worked hard, got a job and worked hard, but that doesn’t guarantee success or stability. And this has little or nothing to do with the individual, and more to do with the systems that put him in that position of vulnerability.
FOR. But whoever criticizes this is called soft and ‘mimicking’. In the book you include a viral tweet about this generational war: “The baby boomers they did this by leaving only a piece of toilet paper on the roll and pretending that it was not their duty to change it, but with a whole society”.
A. You millennials we’re accused of being pampered, of thinking we’re special, but that statement somehow erases the way we got here. Who told us we were special? Who built us this way? If our grandparents and parents told us that we were so special and valid, why don’t I have this unique and perfect life that I should have achieved after I’ve done everything I’ve just been asked to do? Then they come and tell you: “You are a naughty girl”. This is part of the resentment we now socialize. We were raised thinking that we would progress like our grandparents and parents, but the mechanisms that made the middle class robust have weakened or been eradicated. The toilet paper metaphor could also be applied to the ladder: they climbed one, and when they reached it, they threw it on the floor, and now on top of that they are shouting at us: “Why don’t you have the strength to jump and get here?”.
FOR. Do you think that no one else has free time or hobbies if they cannot be capitalized.
A. Even though we work remotely, at home, we always have this feeling that we should be working and that if, for example, we develop a hobby, it is because we are not working hard enough.
FOR. You say you hear a podcast, reading a book or watching a series is unpaid work.
A. Yes, it’s part of our continuous improvement of the me. It’s great that people want to learn and know more, to be curious after all. For this reason, books have been read all their lives, but the difference with this generation is that now all this consumption also serves to compartmentalize markers that define our social representation. You need to say it out loud, scream, “I’m listening to this podcast”, has to represent their cultural level. Many times you don’t listen to it because you like it or because it interests you, but because basically it’s duties.
FOR. Has enthusiasm and devotion for what we do been instrumentalized to explore us further?
A. Yes, especially in creative environments, the ones that defined this generation. In the United States there is this idea that everything you do, from childhood to adulthood, has to be used in your curriculum. His life is instrumentalized, from his extra-school activities to his hobbies, to have a successful future. If it doesn’t fit the curriculum, it’s not worth it. There is no room for non-monetizable creativity. It’s really terrible to think that our life is conceived, from an early age, as human investment capital.
FOR. Maybe that’s why this generation rebels against work and relieves itself with memes and content that demonizes you?
A. We are not the first generation to do this, but I believe we are a generation that is rediscovering their labor rights, or what unions are for. In the United States, we have gone through 75 years of union detachment and little labor solidarity, but this decline in our conditions has led to greater awareness in favor of unionizing. We understand, for example, that if the caregivers of children are not paid decently, this will make it impossible for the parents to go out to work, because there will be no caregivers. Someone was right to tell me that we are experiencing a kind of informal strike against work. It’s not coordinated, but it’s definitely happening.
FOR. you went through a burnout without being aware of it. After writing this book, while publishing for more vehicles, sending your newsletter weekly and preparing another book on work culture, and knowing all the theory you know, hasn’t it run out again?
A. Now I handle it much better, I already know where I am. I also impose barriers: I don’t travel for work as much as I used to. Being able to settle in my space helps me a lot.
FOR. You say that neither meditation nor a mask of self-care will save us. What will save?
A. A structural reform of the system? Capitalism leads us to believe that this is how things are. But it doesn’t have to be. Using Instagram less and applying cream can alleviate in a way, but we must think about work collectively to achieve change.
Support our journalism. Subscribe to EL PAÍS by clicking here
sign up on here to receive the daily newsletter of EL PAÍS Brasil: reports, analyses, exclusive interviews and the main information of the day in your e-mail, from Monday to Friday. sign up also to receive our weekly newsletter on Saturdays, with highlights of coverage for the week.