The Better Work of Less Work

Our interview with Anne Helen Petersen: “The things that are most important in life are not good deals.”

Mockingbird / 9.8.21

Below is a condensed version of our interview with Anne Helen Petersen, which appears in Issue 18 of The Mockingbird magazine.

Does your life ever feel like one big to-do list? Maybe you have some table in your house covered with bills to pay, clothes to donate. And of course you have emails to send, texts to respond to. Probably the DMV is requiring something of you. You need to get an oil change, or the car’s nearly out of gas.

The seemingly endless list is made up of the smallest, simplest tasks, such that complaining about any of them can feel weak or lazy. Which is precisely how Millennials, for many years now, have been described. A 2018 Axios poll found that Millennials are readily characterized—by others and themselves—as “spoiled,” “lazy,” and “entitled.”

But Anne Helen Petersen would use a different word: “exhausted.” This was the subject of her 2019 Buzzfeed story, “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.” If the article’s viral circulation was any indication, it resonated deeply. A Millennial herself, Petersen observed the phenomenon from within it, channeling a level of empathy not seen from others who have attempted similar studies. She reported of young people navigating an increasingly complex, turbulent economy. She identified a context that millions had experienced but had perhaps never so clearly seen: a wicked combination of financial precarity, technological ubiquity, and a formidable social pressure to excel through it all.

In 2020, she expanded her article into a book, Can’t Even. “We’re asked to adhere to exacting, and often contradictory expectations,” she writes, with a distinctive bite. “We should work hard but exude ‘work/life balance.’ We should be incredibly attentive mothers, but not helicopter ones. We should engage in equal partnerships with our wives, but still maintain our masculinity. We should build our brands on social media, but live our lives authentically.” Is it any surprise that amidst all these to-dos, anything more—even something as trivial as responding to a text—should elicit a sigh of exasperation? “I just can’t with this.”

Here, Petersen discusses everything from burnout to Calvinism to “the hollow middle class”—her term for a social stratum riddled with insecurity and anxiety—as well as the big question of where people derive their value. Too often, both inside and outside the Church, the assumption is that it should be from work. Which, as Petersen shows, is a poor man’s savior.

MOCKINGBIRD

How’s your morning going?

ANNE HELEN PETERSEN

Good. I did a weird podcast earlier about the history of dogs. They had historians who were experts on dogs. And then there was me, as a dog lover. That was my role.

M

You have dogs?

AHP

Yeah, two dogs. They’re, like, a little bit dog-famous, slightly.

M

So how do you discuss Millennial burnout with people who aren’t Millennials or who don’t buy into the central conceit right away?

AHP

Tim Davis. From “I’m Looking Through You,” from Aperture Foundation, courtesy of Diane Rosenstein Gallery, Los Angeles.

I think older people have come to understand it more—especially people who have had to work during the pandemic—so it’s not as difficult to describe it, because you’re like, “You know how you feel right now? That’s burnout. You know that feeling that you’re doing everything all the time, but also your days blend into one another, and it’s like an endless to-do list, and there isn’t a real gradation between things that you like to do and things that you feel like you have to do? That’s burnout.”

The metaphor that I use is like, you run and you run, and you hit the wall, and instead of stopping and relaxing, you scale the wall, and then you keep going. A lot of people can operate this way. You can still keep going through your days, doing the things that you’re called upon to do as an adult in the world. But you get more and more exhausted, and the exhaustion settles in, in this bone-deep way.

M

Have people responded to that by saying you’re just complaining?

AHP

When the initial article came out, in January 2019, there was some pushback from Boomers. I got some emails along the lines of, “You think your life is hard? Imagine what it was like going to war and going through the Great Depression.” Which is interesting, because when Boomers are emailing that, what they’re actually describing is their parents’ generation. They’re describing the Greatest Generation. They’re not describing their own lives.

In the book, I tried to excavate where some of this response is coming from and point to all of the ways in which Boomers and Millennials are actually pretty similar. There are clearly different things that have fueled the particular brand of Millennial burnout—and I think our relationship to digital technology is a huge one of those things.

But Boomers have had to deal with a lot of very similar issues, but I don’t think they ever had the language to describe it as a social phenomenon.

M

Anxiety about staying in the middle class is a shared experience across generations.

AHP

Totally. And not falling. What we think of as the American middle class did not exist until the post-war period. But once it’s in place, and once millions of Americans, particularly white Americans, had access to it for the first time in the post-war period, there’s this feeling that you can’t go backwards.

M

Because there’s a morality associated with it, right? If you’re poor, then it’s your fault.

AHP

Yeah. You screwed up in some way. And oftentimes it’s so disarticulated from these larger shifts. I think about this weird moralizing that went on during the Great Recession about Millennials moving home to live with their parents. It was somehow this shameful thing instead of a clear sign of economic desperation.

It’s almost Calvinistic in a way. If you are not elect, then your life will evidence all the ways in which you are not elect, whereas if you are elect, then again and again you will succeed—when really what we’re talking about is privilege and luck.

M

There is such a religious subtext to the self-reliant mindset you’re describing. Christians might call it a works-based righteousness—that you can gain divine favor by working super hard. It’s a quest to feel justified, to feel enough. Is there a spiritual or existential motivation underpinning this tendency to perform work?

AHP

I think it has to do with these very old-school American understandings, like that working all the time is good.

Again, going back to this Calvinist idea, that hard work is somehow evidence of your moral fortitude. Your ability to keep working is your proof that you are a good person or are moving towards good-personhood. And we equate laziness, or a reticence to work all the time, with sloth and immorality and not being a child of God.

And that’s oftentimes how Americans conceive of poverty—not as though it is our duty to help the least of us, but as though these people made a bad decision, and they’re lazy.

I’ve seen this in communities where there is an eagerness to go serve at a soup kitchen, on the ostensible understanding that they want to help those who are less fortunate, but if you give someone at that soup kitchen an opportunity and they don’t take it, then that is evidence that they’re lost.

M

I actually do volunteer at a soup kitchen, and I’ve observed that sometimes volunteers come through who want to give just the least amount possible, like they prefer to serve gross food and limit how much they’re willing to offer, even when there’s plenty. It’s a fascinating dynamic. You supposedly want to take care of people, but you also give as little as possible.

AHP

Because they need to earn whatever they have, even if that’s soup with meat in it, right? I saw a version of that too. I did a big story on the refugee community in Dallas and how it was supported. So much of the support for the refugee community was through church organizations, and they put furniture in refugees’ homes through donations. And this woman who headed up one of these organizations said, “People donate the grossest couches, and they’re like, ‘This will work for the refugees’ homes,’” with little understanding that just because they’re refugees doesn’t mean that they don’t want a nice couch.

M

Is there any connection between class precarity and kids being raised as mini-adults? Do we feel that if children could be mini-adults, they could be safe from economic precarity?

AHP

Well, in the past it’s been easier for middle-class people to separate themselves from poor people: “That’s a poor person. I’m not that.” There was a clear delineation between what I was and what they were, but that line continues to disintegrate, and more and more people who might even own their house or have two cars and are making payments on them, they’re still part of the precariat. It doesn’t matter if you have an SUV. Your situation is still precarious.

And so a lot of the child-rearing strategies that have developed are means of trying to ensure that your kids don’t end up that way, don’t reproduce the same precarious situation that you have found yourself in. “How do I make sure that my kids actually stay in the upper echelon of the middle class and don’t fall into the precariat?”

These strategies are what sociologist Annette Lareau calls “concerted cultivation,” where you’re trying to teach children, in all of these different ways, to behave as if they’re readying themselves for the business world, readying themselves to network and to succeed at whatever cost. That includes things like formalizing play, shifting from unstructured “Go play outside” to “We’re going to have play dates, and you’re going to have eight activities that you go to all the time.” That sort of thing.

M

And a thousand extracurriculars or something.

AHP

The hard thing too is that the pathway—what we have decided is the pathway to the middle class—is actually broken, because all of those strategies are intended to get your kid into college, and a college education no longer actually ensures a place in the middle class. It’s difficult. It’s a contradiction that I think people are trying to process right now and don’t know what to do about.

College debt has become this albatross that makes it very, very difficult for people to do things like start businesses, take risks, move across the country to take a better job.

It used to be that workplaces would require a college degree in order to sort people, right? It was how organizations could say, “These are the people that we want to have applying for these jobs.” And now so many people have college degrees that it’s no longer a form of distinction, other than just to really unfairly discriminate against people who have not completed or do not have college degrees for entry-level jobs that do not require them, like office assistant positions.

It’s just a classist thing, like, “How do we get a smaller pool of applicants that we want to look at? We require a college degree.” But even now you see that job ads are requiring graduate work or six years of experience because the college degree is no longer sufficient in order to serve as that sorting mechanism. Anyone who has ever hired someone who hasn’t had a college degree knows that they’re actually just as smart.

What you’re paying for is a community, and you can find a community of knowledge in so many other ways.

M

I’m curious as to what you have in mind. I immediately think of church, or religious communities.

AHP

Church and religious communities, certainly, but also study groups, clubs, extended education stuff. There are so many places, online, even … like my newsletter, where subscribers meet virtually to discuss a given subject. There are countless ways to find communities of knowledge, but we’re so limited in the way that we conceive of them. We almost always tether them to school in some capacity.

From a religious perspective, this is especially true of people who take on loans to go to seminary. Seminary is so expensive! And then, as pastors, they’re in these jobs that don’t pay enough, so they’re like, “How is my kid going to go to college?”

M

Yeah, it’s a classic example of where Christianity would like to think that it’s different from the world, but it’s just replicating the same problems, and maybe is actually worse.

One thing that’s important to discuss is this idea of “human capital,” which you mention in your book. I’ll let you describe what you mean by that and how that plays out.

AHP

That term comes from Malcolm Harris. It describes the way that we think of ourselves as basically objects that have market value. So you can build human capital—your value as a human—by having an internship or by your ability to work without complaining.

And I think that it is just so fundamentally at odds with how Christianity calls us to conceive of ourselves, right? Because within this framework, someone who is disabled has essentially no human capital. That person is worthless in American capitalist society. And, honestly, that is how we oftentimes treat people who are disabled.

I think there’s a real struggle between the words of the Gospel and what capitalism tells us about how we should think of our value in society.

M

Why do you think it’s so hard for us to believe that humans are inherently valuable, rather than units of earning potential? Is it capitalism?

AHP

I think Jesus would hate capitalism. It is so extractive. It is so manipulative. It really does, I think, boil us down to our individual capacity to provide economic value to others and not all of the things that I think actually matter, in terms of care, compassion, empathy. These are things that are fundamentally undervalued in our society. You can see that in the way that we actually pay people, too.

We are constantly undercutting the value of care. I mean teachers, early childhood care workers, nurse’s aides—all these different professions are actually providing essential care. But we have decided that somehow those jobs are not valuable parts of society.

M

If you were going to monetize a hobby, what would you do?

AHP

I have tried to consider my hobbies things that I’m not trying to be good enough at that I could ever sell them. For example, I have a vegetable garden, and I’m just a bad vegetable gardener. Part of it is that I live in Montana, and it’s really hard to grow vegetables here. The seasons are super weird, and it rains all of July, and everything gets waterlogged, and you get all these bugs, and there are deer everywhere that eat everything.

But I also take pleasure in hanging out in my vegetable garden and watching stuff. I don’t need someone to pay me $0.50 for my zucchini at the farmers market for me to feel like it’s valuable. And I think sometimes when we do put a price tag on our hobby, it makes us feel like it’s not worth it, or it could be worth more. The number of hours that I put into growing that zucchini is not worth the $0.50 that I’m getting at the farmers market.

You can’t think of it that way. It doesn’t work. The things that are most important in life are not good deals. They are not profitable.

M

That’s such a beautiful way of putting it. I feel like that’s a spiritual assertion in itself, to say that the most valuable things in life are not necessarily quantifiable.

AHP

Totally. They’re not schedulable, either. As our schedules have filled with work, we try to balance them out by packing in social time, like, “Oh, okay, well, I’m going to spend an hour with my friend during this block of time.” But it’s not nourishing enough. You have to have actual intimacy, which comes from spontaneity and from regularity. Those are all things that make us feel part of a community.

M

I’m reminded of one of your newsletters, where you’re describing the future of working from home. On the one hand, it might be lonely to work from home and not go into an office from 9-5 every day to see your coworkers. But on the other hand, you could also live this beautiful life that is not all about work. Like, you could work from home, log on at an odd hour, finish your work, and then you have more free time to be with your neighbors or wherever you want to be, rather than living at the office.

Could you elaborate on that a little bit? Because it’s such an alternate way of thinking compared to the mentality of the Protestant work ethic, where you justify your life by being at work all the time and coming home late.

AHP

One thing that the Protestant work ethic fails to understand is that less work can be better work. Have you read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson?

M

I never finished it …

AHP

Ahh! She’s one of my favorite authors, in part because she’s from Sandpoint, Idaho, which is right near where I grew up. Her first book, Housekeeping, is set up there, so it’s a very evocative landscape to me.

But in her writing, which depicts a very mainline expression of Protestantism, the pastor character spends so much time in prayer, right? So much time is spent in contemplation, and then also talking with people, ministering to people, and in fellowship with people. That’s his job: being present with people and then also being present with God. And then there’s the one hour of being the actual pastor on Sunday.

If we think of that style of labor, there are a lot of things going on there that are not immediately identifiable as hard work. But what he is gaining—and offering—is insight, creativity, compassion.

Oftentimes we mistake being at your computer all the time with working—with good work. We see sheer hours “at work” as work. Whereas a lot of times work can look like rest. Work can look like taking a walk. Work can look like hanging out in your own brain and letting ideas kind of somersault around. But we have identified all that as laziness or fluff or whatever we want to call it. It is not immediately identifiable as work and is, as such, not valued.

But think about exercise science. You will not run your fastest race if you are training at peak capacity all the time. You burn out. Your body burns out. And our minds burn out, too. So if we actually want to do good work, we have to do less work.  

You can get your copy of The Mockingbird here!

Illustrations by Lehel Kovács.