Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials

272 PP.; $16.50 (HARDCOVER) $13.99 (KINDLE)

Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials by Malcolm Harris is an unusual work of social criticism. Most books in the genre, after their tours of human misery and exploitation, end on a bright note by offering potential solutions. But Kids These Day doesn’t.

In fact, Harris ends the book by casting aspersions on this industry practice. 
Tail-ended solutions, Harris writes, “usually function as a cop out” for both author and reader. Hope is offered instead of despair, even though the situation clearly calls for the latter. What’s more, for all the talk of wanting more constructive solutions and less “mere complaining,” when constructive solutions are put forward they’re almost always greeted with sectarian denunciations—or, as Harris calls them, “a string of all-purpose objections that leads nowhere.” Harris’s book is thus both a symptom and diagnosis of the millennial character. Dissatisfied with nowhere, it chooses nothing.

Younger generations have always had the anxieties of older generations projected onto them, and for millennials it’s been no different. (Full disclosure: your reviewer is a member of the millennial generation.) For example, we’re accused of being coddled from an early age—a favorite media trope is to find troubling the proliferation of participation trophies over the last thirty years. But, as Harris (a millennial himself) correctly stresses, we weren’t “giving trophies to ourselves.” It was adults passing them out, and it was largely adults who needed the emotional stimulus of what those trophies represented.

In the United States, competition and the start of “getting on the right track” begins earlier and earlier in children’s lives. Seven-year-old boys excited about baseball are forced by their parents to practice five or six days a week. Girls who can’t sit still in class are given medication for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) out of fear that the long-term academic consequences of their behavior will soon be irreparable. Harris gives extraordinary examples of children regimented almost from birth to be brilliant violinists or pro-caliber quarterbacks. He also quotes from a 2014 letter sent from a New York elementary school informing parents that the school’s kindergarten play was canceled due to time constraints: “We are responsible for preparing children for college and career…and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers, and problem solvers.” So no costumes or make-believe for them.

It’s news to no one that economic inequality in this country is bad and only getting worse. Although worker productivity has tripled since the 1970s, real wages have stagnated and in some instances even declined. Harris believes this “disjuncture is perhaps the single phenomenon that defines [m]illennials.” According to Federal Reserve numbers, rental income (stocks, real estate, etc.) is taking more and more of the surplus from the regular production-consumption economy; and those numbers don’t include unconventional rental incomes from the digital sector like service and platform providers. Making money rather than just earning it is becoming essential to economic security. “The American dream isn’t fading,” Harris writes, “it’s being horded.”

These cultural and material circumstances have had predictable psychological effects on millennials. With less free time than prior generations—time spent on homework and “extracurriculars” tripled in the 1990s and early 2000s—many of us have fallen for the unending tyranny of self-advancement. We’re taught to treat ourselves “as investments.”

In school, you’re warned that any misdeed will go on your “permanent record.” And with the advent of digital record keeping, there are now hundreds of different types of permanent records about you. A great plethora of state and corporate entities now monitor and (attempt to) control your behavior. Harris doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that mass incarceration and citizen-surveillance took off at roughly the same time. Nor does he think liberal fashions about welfare and education are at odds with these malevolent forces: “Unfounded assumptions about government benevolence have allowed the state youth complex to mutate in this highly aggressive form.” In other words, therapeutic liberalism and law-and-order conservatism scarcely differ in worldview—only in tone and conventionality.

Our cultural obsession with “employability,” in which people “are taught that the main objective while they’re young is to become the best job applicants they can be,” has pacified an entire generation on both a personal and organizational level. As Harris bluntly puts it, millennials “have been structurally, legally, emotionally, culturally, and intellectually dissuaded from organizing in their own collective interest as workers.”

Millennials are less likely to join a union or pay union dues than their older counterparts. Most either haven’t been convinced that there’s a benefit in doing so or are too afraid of the potential repercussions. Also, with more jobs being temporary (or at least feeling temporary), there’s an impulse among employees that, since they’ll be gone soon anyway, organized actions aren’t worth the hassle.

Free labor is also a pervasive economic phenomenon among millennials. What Harris calls “the pedagogical mask”— whereby work is unpaid because the benefits for the worker are supposed to derive from professional experience and promotion rather than monetary compensation—is “central to understanding the American economy.”

It’s how the NCAA justifies not paying college players: “They’re student athletes after all.” Despite the fact the NCAA is a multibillion-dollar organization. It’s also how companies, especially for white-collar jobs, can convince the young unemployed to take unpaid gigs: “You’ll be gaining valuable experience and it’ll look great on your resume.” Even advocates for the intern system admit it doesn’t noticeably increase chances for a better job.

Most of Harris’s social analysis is commendable. He is excellent at finding metaphors and analogies that clear up sentimental ambivalency. He likens the student loan system to a bond market where “college admissions offices are the rating agencies for kids, and once the kid-bond is rated, it has four or so years until it’s expected to produce a return.” The federal government makes a decent profit from student loans, so Harris isn’t surprised to find lawmakers of both parties preaching the merits of higher education. “More college access…means more debt,” which means more debt payments going to the government.

There are, however, some underwhelming portions of the book. For example, in the final chapter Harris makes a series of dystopian predictions based on the societal path we’re already on.

Some of these predictions are genuine forecasts of where we aren’t yet but could easily end up. A future where “reality is itself a privilege” is not only disturbing but already openly discussed among wealthy technologists. It’s been proposed that society might be better off if prisoners were hooked up to virtual reality rather than simply encaged in large, expensive facilities. (Although one suspects the industries that depend on prison labor—textile, construction, food processing—might disagree.)

Other of Harris’s predictions, however, are less a continuation of the path we’re on and more a matter of things that have either already happened or are currently underway. Harris worries about a “misogynistic backlash” brought on by female liberation and male economic uncertainty. “Hatred for women will acquire a countercultural sheen” and “replace hatred for Jews” in right-wing populism. But this to a large extent has already occurred. For decades, anti-feminism has tried to culturally coordinate itself as “edgy” and “transgressive.” If in the last five years it’s been more successful at doing so, it would’ve been worthwhile for Harris to ask why.

It’s in this field of sex and sexual politics where Harris’s analysis is least relevant. By all reports, teenagers today are having less sex than generations before them. Harris translates this as “teens are waiting longer to have sex” and suggests this is perhaps because of depression—with either the affliction itself or the medication taken to treat it stunting sexual libido—or because children nowadays are more supervised and don’t have the opportunities for sex like they used to.

The idea of a sexual hierarchy—where, since the 1960s sexual revolution, men at the top are having sex with more partners while men at the bottom are having less sex all around—is much more interpretive and experiential than either of Harris’s explanations. Specifically, it makes intelligible why anti-feminist sentiment has become more widespread as of late.

It won’t do to merely say, as Harris does, that the ruling class seeks to divide us by propagating this anti-feminist sentiment—although they certainly do. The Mercers funding Milo Yiannopoulos’s reactionary pomposities across colleges and the media is an obvious example of them doing so. To make sense of the contemporary ideological landscape requires not only a recognition of this though, but a correct understanding of why particular forms of divide and rule work and others don’t—which Harris seems to lack.

Nonetheless, the shortcomings of Kids These Days are minor compared to its virtues. Simple prose and political common sense go a long way, and if Harris doesn’t feel obligated to offer radical solutions, he still at least feels obligated to fight on: “Either we continue the trend we’ve been given and enact the bad future, or we refuse it and cut the knot of trend lines that define our generation. We become fascists or revolutionaries, one or the other.”

Harris’s reputation as a bourgeoisie in anarchist robes shouldn’t stop anyone from reading his book. Nor should the fact that he’s likely our generation’s Dotson Rader (a prominent figure in the ’60s youth movement whose inclinations for personal celebrity eventually led him to mediocrity and quietism). Still, if Harris isn’t long for this radical world, we should enjoy his astute political writings while we have them. Kids These Days should be read by anyone who agrees with him that there’s no escaping responsibility: things either stay the same or we change them.