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Locally Writ: Anne Helen Petersen’s new book addresses the ‘millennial condition’

For author and journalist Anne Helen Petersen, writing was not a career she consciously pursued from childhood, but it nonetheless came to her.

Petersen will discuss her book, “Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” in a virtual gathering of the Northwest Passages Book Club with reporter Arielle Dreher at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Growing up in the Inland Northwest, Peterson believes she was spared at least some of the burnout-inducing childhood experiences to which her East Coast colleagues were subjected, a topic she hopes to cover during the Northwest Passages Book Club event.

Petersen’s mother, a math professor and a talented writer herself, instilled a love of logic and reasoning in her from a young age but enlisted the help of an English teacher friend to instruct Petersen in the finer points of writing.

“She would come and sit with me and write for half an hour to an hour once a month or so,” Petersen said. “I don’t really remember what I wrote, but I remember that it felt important.”

A group of her friends from Camp Spaulding were frequent pen pals, she said, remembering long letters that turned into longer emails.

In college, Petersen took an interest in academic writing, which she would continue to pursue as a professor at Whitman College. She started a blog covering her dissertational research into the history of celebrity gossip.

When you’re setting out to earn your doctorate, she said, you have to find a question or a corner of history that hasn’t been exhaustively excavated.

“That was the one for me. So I got to do a lot of groundbreaking – I don’t think that people think of celebrity gossip as groundbreaking, but there had never been a real historical look at how gossip had worked, and so I was able to dig into that in really interesting ways.”

“I was hardly getting paid anything at all, so that was just a fun thing to do on the side,” she said.

That side hustle came in handy when she left academia and started writing at Buzzfeed. She has since left Buzzfeed to publish her own newsletter, “Culture Study,” on substack.com.

Petersen’s latest book about millennials expands on a series of widespread societal issues she first covered in an article for Buzzfeed titled “The Burnout Generation.”

In the article, she writes: “Burnout and the behaviors and weight that accompany it aren’t, in fact, something we can cure by going on vacation. It’s not limited to workers in acutely high-stress environments. And it’s not a temporary affliction: It’s the millennial condition. It’s our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives.

“Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it – explicitly and implicitly – since I was young. Life has always been hard, but many millennials are unequipped to deal with the particular ways in which it’s become hard for us.”

After writing the extended version, Petersen has started to find a happier balance between work and leisure, but she believes that society will have to shift before that balance is possible for millennials at large and the generations beyond.

“(With) the success that I’ve had, I don’t have to deal with balancing doing this thing that I love with getting paid (very little) and having no safety net and no benefits. I don’t think that that should be ‘privilege.’ I don’t think that doing a job that pays you a living wage, and … not resenting or hating every single day should be a privilege. That should just be something that is afforded to people who live in one of the most developed and richest countries in the world.”

Petersen said she hopes readers take away the idea that the status quo doesn’t need to be the default.

“As humans, we are incredibly accommodating when things shift. We will adapt to it, we try to make our lives work around it instead of resisting it. Now, especially during COVID, we have made a whole lot of adaptations just to survive, and it’s important to have the ability to see very clearly that it doesn’t have to be this way both in terms of our larger society and the more specific kind of COVID-related issues. We can fix it … it’s not so lost.”

To aspiring writers, Petersen offered the following advice.

“Even if you love writing, it’s still not worth feeling like you are drowning every day. So if you’re trying to make it your main career and you are just getting by and you feel like it’s never going to change, that doesn’t mean that you’re a bad writer. That means that the system is not supporting writers.

“So find some other job or income stream that gives you a level of stability, and then you can continue to work on that thing that you love in your spare time for pay or not for pay. Getting paid for something does not make that work better or worse.”

Petersen’s “Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation” is available for purchase at Auntie’s Bookstore. For information about the Northwest Passages Book Club event, visit spokesman.com/northwest-passages.

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