Tag Archives: social psychology

Book Review: Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen

Put down your avocado toast and close that Zillow page — the latest salvo in the intergenerational war between boomers and millennials is here, and you don’t want to miss it. In Can’t Even, media scholar (and millennial) Anne Helen Petersen offers an insightful treatise on the “burnout generation” that is a far cry from the essentialist portrayals of both generations that dominate the current discourse.

Rather than dissect who is to blame for the plight (and it is a plight, histrionics aside) of millennials, Petersen offers a moving discourse on why the kids are not alright and, even more importantly, why they are not, despite how they’ve been characterized, the spoiled, lazy, feckless generation.

“Okay, boomer, sit down and read” is an apropos prescription for this book.

In 2019, Petersen published a Buzzfeed article titled “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” which drew millions of readers. Wry title aside, Can’t Even, an expansion of that earlier piece, is well researched and sobering in its findings. The book examines a variety of areas of millennial lives, including work, education, social-media culture, relationships, and parenthood, zeroing in on issues like student debt, workplace burnout, and millennials’ astronomical levels of anxiety and hopelessness.

The section on millennials’ childhood is especially engrossing. Petersen uses the concept of “concerted cultivation” to explain how the parenting style of the previous generation sowed the seeds of the thorny relationship between millennials and work. Dispelling the popular trope of millennials refusing “to adult,” the book illustrates the very opposite: that millennials have been adulting since they were kids:

“The child’s schedule takes precedence over parents’; the child’s well-being and future capacity for success is paramount; baby food should be homemade; toddler play should be enriching; private tutors should be enlisted if necessary…Every part of the child’s life should be optimized to better prepare them for their entry into the working world.”

And, of course, the first step toward that world is education. Here, too, Petersen is masterful in foreshadowing the inevitable burnout. She describes millennials as the “first generation to fully conceptualize themselves as walking college resumes.” Because — you guessed it — getting into college (let alone paying for it) isn’t as easy for them as it was for boomers.

Getting a job isn’t as easy, either. Can’t Even offers an excellent analysis of how millennials graduated into the “worst job market in 80 years,” one with an excessive list of demands:

“To be valued, you need plans, lengthy resumes, ease and confidence interacting with authority figures, and innate understanding of how the job ladder works. You need connections and a willingness to multitask, and an eagerness to overschedule.”

Not to mention that being groomed to find a job one is “passionate” about created a toxic mentality disconnected from the realities of the working world. Fracturing the cliché that millennials heedlessly hop from one job to another, Petersen shows how it was boomers who instilled the “one’s work is one’s identity” mantra into their children. With that conflation came the predictable — and incredible — stress millennials feel about their careers.

One thing missing in Can’t Even is a broad discussion of how class factors into the boomer/millennial dynamic; the author only briefly suggests that concerted cultivation is, in part, a reflection of class anxiety. That is, while only wealthy boomers may have been able to afford things like private tutors, less-affluent boomers could at least sacrifice all their time and limited resources in the name of their child’s future success.

Speaking of time, Can’t Even presents a thoughtful commentary on free time. Connecting it to the groan-inducing “unstructured free time” term from child psychology, Petersen’s conversations with adult millennials are moving and unsettling. These people can’t even have fun: “Any down time began to feel like I was being lazy and unproductive, which in turn made me question my self worth,” one subject shares. So much for the popular image of the carefree, brunchin’ millennial.

The moments when Can’t Even grapples with the burnout that has now become the hallmark of the millennial generation are insightful and leave the reader hungry for more. I, for one, would’ve been happier with fewer statistics and more of those first-person testimonials. Nevertheless, like a good millennial, Petersen has done her homework.

Can’t Even is a must-read both for millennials and the generation that made them. In the immortal words of Tupac, “I was given this world; I didn’t make it.” This book illustrates exactly that: that millennials are living in a world that’s a far cry from the one they were groomed to inhabit. And all that hard work they were taught would lead to a better life has led, instead, to nothing but a need to work even harder.

Book Review: The Secret Life of Pronouns by James W. Pennebaker

My review for Rappahannock Magazine

What’s in a word? Apparently (or maybe not so), a lot argues Dr. James W. Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, in his book The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us. Pennebaker is a psychologist—as such, he is not interested in the study of language for its own sake but rather in how language gives us an insight into our psychological states. While discourse analysis presently seems to be the realm of communications scholars and anthropologists, Pennebaker breaks with that pattern and offers a rather unique and lively take on a research method that has been used far too long to be novel per se. The Secret Life of Pronouns reads like a sleuth piece (all the more amusing that his research assistant is named Sherlock Campbell)—it wryly reads in a “bet you didn’t expect this” way, all the more so because the book is focused on function words, which lack the pizazz of style words. “Style” or “function” words, along with pronouns, include articles, prepositions, auxiliary verbs and conjunctions — all of the connective tissue of language. The nuts and bolts, if you will. People are reasonably good at picking up on “content words”: nouns, action verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. “Function words are almost impossible to hear,” Pennebaker explains, “and your stereotypes about how they work may well be wrong.” These sneaky lexicon bytes offer an interesting look at our individual psyche and identity, the book demonstrates. Pennebaker and his team created a computer program named LIWC (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count). His initial interest was in the use of function words, particularly pronouns, as an indicator of improved mental health. Recovery from trauma seemed to require a kind of “perspective switching” that shifts in pronoun use could indicate. The Secret Life of Pronouns is rife with curious discoveries—for example, Pennebaker reveals that Secretary of State John Kerry’s advisers made that mistake during the 2004 presidential race in encouraging him to use “we” more often so as to appear more personable. Kerry was already using “we” too much and unlike with every day people, “When politicians use them, we words sound cold, rigid and emotionally distant.” Or the book opines on why some cultures drop personal pronouns and others don’t (for example, in Spanish, Yo estoy triste vs. estoy triste)—maybe because more tightly knit collectivist cultures tend to drop pronouns, whereas individualist cultures keep them. In the chapter on analysis of poets’ work, Pennebaker discovers that the chairwoman of the “Depressed Poets Society,” Sylvia Plath, uses a lot more “I” words in her poetry, as though taking us closer to the edge of her personal melancholia. The book also uncovers the strong effects that factors such as gender, age, and class have on our language. Women use “I” words a lot more than men and they use cognitive words and social words at much higher rates as well. “The person who uses fewer I-words is the person who is higher in the social hierarchy”—in other words, when people converse with higher-ups, they felt diminished and compensated for that by focusing on their agency. Women, younger people, and people from lower social classes more frequently use pronouns and auxiliary verbs. Lacking power, he argues, requires a deeper engagement with the thoughts of one’s fellow humans. Pennebaker even discusses “language style matching,” which should pique the curiosity of most online dating hackers out there! The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us is incredibly comprehensive in scope, yet written in an accessible, charming way that will make an armchair psychologist out of you. This is not the stuff of stodgy discourse analysis your college professor may or may not have purveyed. Pennebaker also explores how writing can be used to improve mental health. Three aspects of emotional writing are associated with improvements in people’s physical and mental health: 1) accentuating the positive parts of an upheaval, 2) acknowledging the negative parts, and 3) constructing a story over the days of writing. Also, the more people changed in their use of first-person singular pronouns (e.g., I, me, my) compared with other pronouns (e.g., we, you, she, they), the better their health became, again illustrating that an internal focus is not necessarily a bad thing for depression; the flip side of anger turned inward is the “I am capable” more agency-driven aspect. The book will truly leave you dazzled by computational linguistics (yes, dazzled)! For example, Pennebaker’s work proves that lying shows rather clearly in people’s words, and that Paul McCartney proved to be a more creative writer than John Lennon. McCartney’s lyrics were far more flexible and varied both in terms of writing style and content than John Lennon’s.