Burned Out? These Books Explain Why You Feel That Way

Posted by Cybil on September 15, 2020
Last year, Buzzfeed culture writer Anne Helen Petersen struck a chord with her viral article “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.” That article led to her writing her latest book, publishing on September 22, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation

Petersen is a former academic who received her Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin, where she focused on the history of celebrity gossip. Her previous books, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud and Scandals of Classic Hollywood, were featured on NPR and in Elle and The Atlantic. 

Petersen is sharing the books that she says are the “skeleton keys” to understanding burnout. 

I’m an academic by training—so when I decided to expand my BuzzFeed article on millennial burnout into a full-length book, I immediately started creating a burnout library. Search “burnout” and you’ll get a dozen self-help books attempting to solve it, but solutions—at least the way these books were offering them, with a focus on personal habits—have never been my focus.

To figure out how we, as a society, can fix burnout, I had to figure to out how we, as a society, got to this point.
In practice, that meant reading a ton of economic history, a bunch of sociology, and a preposterous amount on parenting practices. There were so many nooks and crannies to explore: I read six books on the history of leisure time. I read four from the late ’80s and early ’90s on the rise of the “workaholic.” I spent a whole day just learning about “milk carton kids” and the early ’80s paranoia about missing children.
Sometimes I was trying to excavate the dominant message at a given point in time about work, productivity, and preparing your children for success. Sometimes this reading felt dry. But most of the time it felt like discovering, page by page, how I became who I am—and so many in our generation became who we are—today.
The books listed below all felt like skeleton keys: Each unlocked the concept of burnout in a way that no book with prescriptions or habits or new routines ever could.

I cannot express how obsessed I am with this book. I try to force it on every person I know. As Lockman puts it, “the optimistic tale of the modern, involved dad has been greatly exaggerated.” But the book doesn’t shame fathers so much as make it incredibly clear—through a mix of data, surveys, analysis, and interviews—that what we’ve come to understand as an equitable split of domestic labor is, in nearly all cases, wildly inequitable. All the Rage makes it impossible to unsee that inequality. It makes mothers feel seen and fathers see clearly and provides a common language for all of us, even nonparents, to think through how and why domestic labor gets divided the way it does. (Pro Tip: If you’re a dude looking to give your partner a gift, buy this book, then actually read it.)

When I first published my article, I heard from hundreds of boomers: “We were burned out too,” they wrote (or, often time, wrote-yelled in caps lock). This book, originally published in 1989 and reissued in 2020, traces the way in which boomers, much like millennials, were reared for a life of middle-class stability, only to have it yanked out from under them when the so-called golden age of American capitalism began to falter in the mid-’70s, creating a widespread anxiety that will feel very familiar to any middle-class millennial. If you’re related to a boomer, this book will explain so much; if you’re a boomer yourself, it will explain even more. Written in the always highly readable, incisive style that Ehrenreich is known for.

Part of burnout is feeling like you’re working all the time. But part of it is feeling like the time you’re not working—your so-called leisure time—you’re not actually relaxing, but working in a different way. You’re filling your off hours with edifying podcasts, trying the newest Alison Roman recipe, keeping up with the low- and highbrow shows everyone’s talking about—and talking about it on social media. You’re doing a cool hike outside, taking care of the mini-vegetable garden on your terrace, going to the farmer’s market, planning your (eventual, post-COVID) vacation—and documenting it on Instagram. Modeling educated, aspirational middle class-ness, in whatever specific iteration you choose, has become exhausting. Currid-Halkett outlines the history of this sort of performative leisure, connecting the dots between our obsession with documenting hobbies and generalized class instability and anxiety. You’ll never think about your podcast habits the same way again.

This book is such an odd duck. It’s on Barack Obama’s reading list. It’s beautifully written and goes in such unexpected directions. My copy is dog-eared with underlines on every page. It’s about art history, and bird watching, and retraining ourselves to actually, truly, do nothing. I cherish it and every part of Odell’s vision of what we could be. Like everything I’ve recommended here, it won’t fix your burnout, but it will help you understand it—and your exhausted mind—in a different, unexpectedly soothing way. This book is a balm.

Which of these recommendations piques your interest? Let’s talk books in the comments!

Check out more recent articles, including:
36 New Memoirs to Read Now
30 Summer Debut Novels You May Have Missed
Diane Cook: What to Read When Dystopia Is the New Normal

Comments Showing 1-17 of 17 (17 new)

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message 1: by Joanna (new)

Joanna Just added The Sum of Small Things and Fear of Falling to my Want to Read list--the former to understand myself better and the latter to understand my parents better.

message 2: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Obie I've added most of the books above to my to-read list! And for those looking for even more, I'd like to recommend: Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle

message 3: by hanh (new)

hanh This is a more interesting good reads list than usual, thanks

message 4: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Not typically a self-help or non-fiction reader of this sort, but these all sound incredibly interesting, and I added most of them to my TBR list! Love these concepts.

message 5: by Val (new)

Val Burned out computers are scrapped (even if they not crash-prone supercomputers from the 1970s, or even 1950s.)

message 6: by Val (new)

Val Definitely not a good time to invite Elizabeth!

message 7: by Val (new)

Val Paul, you didn't think the rude French was aimed at you, did you

maybe it being French threw some of the group.

There is a difference between Damn! and Damn you!

message 8: by Val (last edited Sep 17, 2020 11:54AM) (new)

Val I am getting slower at noticing things, so can the conversation stay here or will you direct me elsewhere.

P.S. different computer, due to unfortunate coincidence, I have decided to ignore.

(customised check-a-trade)

message 10: by Michelle (new)

Michelle What a great list! Burnout is not a millennial phenomenon. I know people in their 70s who experienced burnout and retired at 65 even though they had planned to work longer, people currently in their 60s and 50s who have experienced it and would love to retire early, etc. I've experienced it three times due to incompetent managers. I am not a millennial.

message 11: by Saba (last edited Sep 19, 2020 11:10AM) (new)

Saba Ehtesham Thank you for posting this list. This is a crucial topic that many professionals can relate to regardless of their generation. It is especially more relevant with the impact of the global pandemic.

message 12: by Aura (new)

Aura Thank you, Goodreads, for this amazing post. I can't wait for Petersen's book to come out!

message 13: by strategian (new)

strategian Don't read this stuff, it's all just junk designed to sell you more products and prey on your insecurities. Go to your library and get a copy of Jung's Modern Man in Search of a Soul, then read The Brothers Karamazov. Will do 100 times more for you than this stuff. If you still feel discontent read Capital and then the Gospel of Luke. Cheers.

message 14: by Yan (new)

Yan A good list. Will be checking out these books!

message 15: by Collette (last edited Sep 20, 2020 09:57AM) (new)

Collette Greystone I had a hard time trying to decide which one to read, they all seem so negative.

I raised a millennial who sees this phenomenon everyday and really doesn’t understand why it effects so many. I recently published a book that gets into the reasons I think we see this in our younger generation but I provide ideas to help cut down on some of this....

OK, BOOMER: What We Failed to Teach American Millennials

justalittlebookish THIS list hits at such a perfect time! I have marked all of these books as must reads - which I will be doing in my non-leisure millennial free time

message 17: by Erin (new)

Erin Indra These all sound very interesting in the context of literally all of my close millennial friends presently suffering in similar ways (and presumably for similar reasons). I'm a firm believer in the importance of understanding what it is that ails you as a means of strategizing how to make it right.

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