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Can't Even

How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation

By Anne Helen Petersen
  • Read in 12 minutes
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  • Contains 7 key ideas
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Can't Even by Anne Helen Petersen

Can’t Even (2020) is an attempt to explain and defend the generation that became the world’s punching bag: the millennials. Arguing against accusations of laziness and entitlement, it suggests that millennial exhaustion is a natural response to the messed-up world they inherited.

Key idea 1 of 7

Micromanaged childhoods laid the foundations for millennial burnout.

When you think back on your childhood, what kind of atmosphere do you remember? The answer to this question says a lot about when you were born.

For example, do you remember a permissive environment – one where you were free to roam around and entertain yourself? Or were you on a tighter leash, with an adult keeping an eye on you and watching out for any signs of trouble?

For millennials – that is, people born between 1981 and 1996 – a childhood of the more supervised and restricted variety was much more common. 

That seemingly insignificant fact can tell us a lot about millennials’ troubles today.

The key message here is: Micromanaged childhoods laid the foundations for millennial burnout.

One reason that millennials’ childhoods were so tightly controlled was money. That’s because rising income inequality in the last decades of the twentieth century had a knock-on effect on parenting styles.

In a financially uncertain world, many parents grew anxious about their children’s future career prospects and began to conceive of childhood in a new way. No longer a carefree period of fun, play, and basic education, the childhood years began to be seen as serious preparation for adult life. 

So instead of throwing a ball around a vacant lot, millennial children were enrolled in high-stakes group sports. Instead of discovering the arts on their own, kids were shuttled from piano practice to dance class. The focus shifted from enjoyment to accomplishment, and fun took second place to personal improvement.

But it wasn’t just a question of high expectations and jam-packed schedules. There was also a change in the amount of freedom that children were given in their daily lives. The cause? Fear. 

In the early 1980s, the mainstream media began to give child abductions unprecedented prominence in news reporting – and parents reacted with alarm. Never mind that there was no actual spike in crimes against children; the attention that child abductions received led to the age of “stranger danger” – and convinced parents that their kids had to be kept on a very short leash.

So what happens when a generation of micromanaged children reach adulthood? Well, you get millennials. Their single-minded focus on productivity and self-improvement originated in hectic and ambitious childhood schedules – and their struggles with “adulting” reflect the hypervigilant parenting that stifled their self-reliance as kids.

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