Gen Vexed

Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials BY Malcolm Harris. Little, Brown and Company. Hardcover, 272 pages. $25.

The cover of Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials

The most essential passage in Kids These Days, Malcolm Harris’s new book on the “making of millennials,” does not appear until its 113th page and is not really about millennials at all. “When history teachers talk about government policy decisions, they tend to use the progressive frame: The government improves things over time,” he writes.

While liberals think conservatives slow down or rewind progress, and conservatives are only willing to accept government policy forty or fifty years after its implementation (at which point they want an equal share of the credit), both agree that America is improving itself and improving the world as it goes. This simplistic historical perspective doesn’t jibe with reality: Somehow, things got worse.

Kids These Days is about what got worse. It is a book about late capitalism, or at least capitalism, lately, about how the economic and political forces that have dominated the past thirty years of American life have conspired to produce a generation more managed, exploited, and uncertain than those that came before. It is a book about millennials, but
for Harris millennials are only the symptom: They are what happen when you bring up an entire generation under the demands of a precarious economy. Despite the relentless, if divergent, optimism of America’s sanctioned political actors and institutions, even today’s winners are less secure and stable than those of the twentieth century’s economy. Some have adapted better than others—securing good diplomas and stable jobs, even a mortgage or some savings—but, as Harris writes, “Adapting to a messed-up world messes you up, whether you remain functional or not.”

Harris’s approach is simple. So simple, in fact, that it is difficult to believe nobody has written this book before, although it is fortunate that Harris—who manages to be quick and often funny without sacrificing rigor—is the author who ultimately took up the task. In fewer than three hundred pages, he surveys the myriad hot takes on millennials—they’re lazy, they’re entitled, they’re narcissists who buy avocado toast instead of homes, slacking on Snapchat at their unpaid internships—and asks, “Why?” That is, What actually happened to you materially, politically, and socially if you had the poor luck of being born between 1980 and 2000? What kind of education system and labor force and nation raised you? In keeping with his materialist outlook, Harris argues that society molds each generation to fit its economy, to produce the kinds of debtors and workers required to service the needs of its most powerful members. What, then, were the economic factors that shaped millennials?

The answer, Harris writes, is that American capitalism has exhausted most avenues for growth. Industrial production, once the basis of our economy, has been outsourced and automated. What remains is a polarized workforce based on low-skill “bad jobs” in the service sector and increasingly scarce high-skill “good jobs” in technology, media, and other professional fields. Because the nationalization of student debt has made loans impossible to escape, the job market has never recovered from the 2008 recession, and a concerted bipartisan effort has all but destroyed organized labor, even the “good jobs” aren’t so good anymore—and the competition to get one is more brutal than ever. “Over the past forty years we have witnessed an accelerated and historically unprecedented pace of change as capitalism emerged as the single dominant mode of organizing society,” Harris writes in his introduction. He continues:

It’s a system based on speed, and the speed is always increasing. Capitalism changes lives for the same reason people breathe: It has to in order to survive. Lately, this system has started to hyperventilate: It’s desperate to find anything that hasn’t yet been reengineered to maximize profit, and then it makes those changes as quickly as possible. . . . In order to fully recognize the scope of these changes, we need to think about young people the way industry and the government already do: as investments, productive machinery, “human capital.”

The story of Kids These Days is the story of this “human capital,” and of millennials as the products of an economy designed to cultivate that capital at every stage of life. It begins in childhood, when kids corralled by standardized tests, psychiatric intervention, and punitive zero-tolerance policies—backed up by armed police stationed in public schools—must work harder than ever to appeal to an increasingly selective and expensive set of universities thought to improve job prospects. (“Risk management used to be a business practice,” Harris writes, but “now it’s our dominant child-rearing strategy.”) For those who evade draconian disciplinary measures, imprisonment, or poverty, the process continues at the university level, where students take on massive debt obligations—essentially, capital investments in their future earnings—and then compete (often without success) for jobs that can pay off those loans. Finally, millennials enter the workforce, where unpaid internships and low job security shift the cost of training onto employees, and each individual learns to see her peers as competitors who will seize any opportunity she passes up. The losers of the new economy are relegated to poverty or prison. The winners never get to stop watching their backs.

In the second half of the book, Harris rounds out his story with examinations of the role of the federal government (largely serving to guard the interests of baby boomers through a safety net heavily slanted toward the protection of programs like social security) and of how the story of human capital plays out in particularly visible fields (sports and entertainment, mostly). Finally, he turns to the social-media networks and pharmaceutical remedies that keep all this churning: considering how they keep people competing at all hours and at maximum achievable efficiency, in full view of their peers. Where the first half of the book charts the precarious course of even the most successful millennials, the second half explores the particular methods and trends of policy and culture that ensure that course.

If I have one major reservation about Kids These Days, it’s to do with the end of the book, when Harris transitions from diagnosis to something vaguely like prescription. After a brief, somewhat undercooked sketch of apocalyptic future possibilities based on the trends he’s observed, Harris turns to potential solutions, which he knows is a dangerous move. “In the conclusions of books like this one, authors tend to land on some sequence of these moves: Buy It! Vote It! Or Give It! Protest It!” he writes (his metaphor for quick fixes here is the children’s game Bop It). “No matter how deep and intractable the problems laid out by the writer, some combination of these tactics sounds like it should be able to address them. At the very least, calling out some progressive Bop It moves gives a bummed-out text an end that’s distinct from the preceding pile of despair.”

Harris refuses to call out any moves, instead taking the reader through the possibilities—purchasing, voting, donating, and protesting—then putting down any choice as the wrong one, arguing in a few paragraphs why each is nearly futile. Of protest, for example, Harris writes that “there’s nothing in our recent history that suggests to me that a movement of expressive street demonstrations could outlast the cops and remain effective. Hell, the Iraq War still isn’t over, and I started protesting that in ninth grade.” The whole Bop It enterprise is worthless, “a string of all-purpose objections that leads nowhere,” according to Harris. “Anyone who invites you to start playing is clueless, disingenuous, or both,” he writes. “The only way to win is not to start.” But what alternative is there? Harris tells us that “it is up to the Millennial cohort to make something else of what’s been made of us,” but what that means, or how Harris believes it can be accomplished, is beyond the purview of this book.

Perhaps Harris is right. It’s not clear what can be done, and it’s possible that nothing can be done at all. But I wish, at the close of such a strong book, that he had either given hope a longer hearing, or else committed entirely to fatalism. I’m a millennial myself, only a couple of years younger than Harris. I know that in politics there are few things more essential than optimism of the will, the belief that it is possible to bring about a better world. But I often have trouble believing it: not now, not with the planet on such a short fuse, not with the weakness of the Left and the strength of the forces arrayed against it. I suppose I was hoping Harris might shake me from my nihilism, but he hasn’t here. All that feels left for us after Kids These Days is the dying world we kids are heir to, the empty struggle over the widening pit, each of us tending to our precious human capital until the end.

Emmett Rensin is a writer living in Iowa City and a contributing editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.