What’s Wrong with Millennials?

Everyone knows “what’s wrong with Millennials.” Glenn Beck says we’ve been ruined by “participation trophies.” Simon Sinek says we have low self-esteem. An Australian millionaire says Millennials could all afford homes if we’d just give up avocado toast. Thanks, millionaire.

This Millennial is here to prove them all wrong.

Kids These Days: Introduction

What is a generation? We talk as if they have breaks between them, like graham crackers or Hershey bars. But people don’t couple and have children on a staggered schedule; there’s a constant flow of newborns, with no natural divisions between Generations X, Y, and Z. What is it, then, that distinguishes someone born in one generation from someone born in the next? Is there a last baby on one side and a first on the other? Maybe it’s like the Supreme Court on pornography: We know it when we see it. At its most basic level, a generation is when a quantitative change (birth year) comes to refer to a qualitative change. Over time a society mutates, and at a certain point in that development we draw a hazy line to mark a generation.

Since they aren’t strictly defined, generations are characterized by crises, by breaks of one kind or another. Wars, revolutions, market crashes, shifts in the mode of production, transformations in social relations: These are the things generations are made of, even if we can only see their true shape in the rearview mirror. Every few decades American culture turns over, like a body rejuvenating its cells. But though reproduction is continual, the generations look at each other not over a line, but over a gap. The divisions are very real, even as they’re also imaginary.

Because the way generations are defined is so hazy, it’s easy to get away with less-than-rigorous analysis. If you say “the Selfie Generation,” you’re doing the work of defining and describing: The generation that takes selfies takes selfies. The few book- length considerations of Millennials— for our purposes I will mostly use this term to refer to Americans born between 1980 and 2000 (Reagan up to Bush II)—that exist are generally concerned with two things: young people’s intellectual degradation, and how to manage them in the workplace. Shorter- form articles hem and haw about young Americans’ romantic and sexual lives, our work ethic (or lack thereof), and especially our use of technology and the culture that has developed around it. Millennial stereotypes are just that, however, and stereotypes aren’t a good place to start.

What these media accounts fail to present, even when their conclusions don’t totally miss the mark, is a historical reason for what they’re describing. To understand the consequences of a generational shift, we need more than just the proximate causes of new culture and behavior; we have to pull apart the tangled nest of historical trends where they hatched.

No one chooses the historical circumstances of their birth. If Millennials are different in one way or another, it’s not because we’re more (or less) evolved than our parents or grandparents; it’s because they’ve changed the world in ways that have produced people like us. And we didn’t happen by accident: 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. 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. The rate of change is visibly unsustainable. The profiteers call this process “disruption,” while commentators on the left generally call it “neoliberalism” or “late capitalism.” Millennials know it better as “the world,” or “America,” or “Everything.” And Everything sucks.

The growth of growth requires a different kind of person, one whose abilities, skills, emotions, and even sleep schedule are in sync with their role in the economy. We hear a sweetened version of this fact whenever politicians talk about preparing young people for the twenty-first-century labor market, and a slightly more sinister version from police officers and guidance counselors when they talk about working hard, flying right, and not making mistakes. It’s tough love, and young Americans are getting it from all sides. This advice is uncontroversial on its face, but its implications are profound. 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.” If people have changed as much as other engines of productivity have over the past three or four decades, it’s no wonder the generation gap is so significant.

By investigating the historical circumstances out of which Millennials have emerged, we can start to understand not only why we are the way we are, but in whose interests it is that we exist this way. In the wake of Occupy Wall Street, the mainstream media seems to have discovered increasing economic inequality, dramatized in the vastly unequal division of postcrisis “recovery” income. When it comes to age, this inequality manifests both between and within generations. Young households trail further behind in wealth than ever before, and while a small number of hotshot finance pros and app developers rake in big bucks (and big resentment), wages have stagnated and unemployment increased for the rest.

In the shadow of this high-stakes rat race, child- rearing has gone from harm prevention to risk elimination. It’s no longer enough to graduate a kid from high school in one piece; if an American parent wants to give their child a chance at success, they can’t take any chances. Entire industries have sprung up to prey on this anxiety, from Baby Einstein to test prep academies. For children born on the wrong side of the inequality gap, an increasingly integrated youth control complex puts them at constant risk of criminalization, from the classroom to the street to their bedrooms. The result is a generation of children with an unprecedented lack of unsupervised time who have been systematically denied the chance to build selves without adult oversight.

If this sounds like it might be anxiety- inducing, it should. Longitudinal studies on young Americans’ psychological health reveal unprecedented changes. Young people feel—reasonably, accurately—less in control of their lives than ever before. Luckily, the silver lining of every twenty-first-century problem is a market niche, and youth psychosis is no exception. Long considered too indelicate a tool for developing minds, psychiatric medication has become part of a normal American childhood. Powerful pills can keep children who are at risk of malfunctioning under pressure operating on an ostensibly even keel. Depression and anxiety aren’t just threats to our psychic and emotional wellbeing; when people’s work depends on their communication skills and likability, mental illness is an error that must be corrected.

American kids spend more time on schoolwork than ever before, even though their skills with new technology make the performance of academic tasks like research and word processing much more efficient. A scholastic arms race has pitted adolescents against each other from a young age. For kids who have trouble competing—or ones whose fidgeting threatens the classroom discipline necessary for those who are—there are Adderall, Concerta, and other prescription uppers to keep them focused and productive. Of course, once the pills are on the playground, there’s no keeping track of them, and the market sets prices for these study aids just like anything else. In a reversal of the traditional ideas about childhood, it’s no longer a time to make mistakes; now it’s when bad choices have the biggest impact.

If a Millennial does make it out of childhood on the “right track” — avoiding both the school‑to‑prison pipeline and debilitating psychosis (or even suicide) — and into higher education, there’s no finish line. It’s more like “Pass Go, Pay $30,000.” The average college student takes out tens of thousands of dollars in loans from the government to go to school—tenacious debt it will likely take a decade or more to pay off, and on which default isn’t a practical option. But with higher rates of enrollment, it’s not enough just to attend college, especially given the costs; a degree has become a prerequisite, not a golden ticket. Meanwhile, the university has turned into a veritable industrial complex, complete with ever-expanding real estate holdings, hospitals, corporate partnerships, and sports teams that are professional in every sense of the word—except that the players work for free. And amateur athletes on whose talents a multibillion-dollar industry is built aren’t the only ones asked to give their labor away: Unpaid internships have become the norm. Students are investing more time, energy, and money in their employability, and most of them have less to show for it. All of this raises the stakes for individuals; the worst off might very well be those in the category “some college,” which means debt without the degree.

The whole school culture is built around hypercompetition, from first period, to extracurricular activities, to homework, to the video games kids play when they have a minute of downtime. It’s not a coincidence—none of it. The growth of growth requires lots of different kinds of hard work, and Millennials are built for it. While cell phones and PDAs (remember when Personal Digital Assistants existed as a separate device?) used to be for businesspeople who billed for their time in minutes, now the average teenager has the tools to stay plugged in 24/7, and the training to use their gadgets better than those businesspeople can. Social media schools young people in communication and the emotional skills—as well as quick thinking and constant availability—that make them exceptionally productive. That also means they’re populating these valuable new platforms with free content. When everyone is searchable and no privacy filter is reliable, kids learn quickly that everything they do goes on their permanent record—résumé and rap sheet alike. No one puts their whole self into their job like a Millennial who never learned to separate work and life enough to balance them, especially if they’re wired on uppers and get anxious when they’re too far away from their phone.

In the world of entertainment, media industries rely on the young artists whose cohort sets much of the country’s cultural agenda. Near the close of the twentieth century, these media companies got extremely proficient at finding, identifying, and repackaging youth culture’s rebellious side. “Selling out” was the scourge of Generation X, but a couple of decades later, the question is all but moot for young artists. The Faustian bargain with success is no longer about giving up your originality to be branded; now it’s the artist’s original brand the Man wants to buy. Whether trying to sell a rap album or a comedy series, young successes are expected to be successes already, with their own built‑in fan bases, public brands, and professional-caliber media.

With the spread of cheap recording, producing, and distribution tools, you no longer need to go to a label or a studio to make a market-ready album, music video, movie, or television show; you just need some friends who are practiced and willing to donate their skilled time. But to reap the rewards, you’re going to need to beat almost everyone else just like you.

The business of sports has always fetishized young workers and is shifting with these advances as well. So‑called amateur sports have grown (as an important part of the higher education industrial complex) and now constitute a multibillion- dollar market. Meanwhile, competition for the few scholarship slots and professional jobs for athletes has increased as teams look overseas to previously unexplored talent pools. Hyperrationalized training techniques and evaluation tools mean that promising child athletes are tracked and engineered from elementary school, which is also when they start learning about college scholarships. “Don’t blow your ride!” is at least as old as The Breakfast Club, but with the price of higher education skyrocketing, the stakes are higher and the work is harder. For parents doing the tough math, turning an athletically or a musically gifted toddler into a prodigy might be cheaper than four years at a competitive private school. As long as the kid doesn’t fuck it up.

Something is happening, whether we like it or not, whether we have a solution or not. A look at the evidence shows that the curve we’re on is not the one we’ve been told about, the one that bends toward justice. We’d be foolish and naive to expect America’s “moral universe” to progress independent of the other trends in our lives; it’s nearly circular to say we are the people we become every day, but the progressive narrative doesn’t allow for the flips and crises, the victories and defeats that make history such an eventful story. People match their circumstance, and vice versa; we’re no exception. Without a recent historical accounting, we’re stuck trying to understand young people based on a constellation of confusing behavioral data points. How are the same young people who were exposed to porn in childhood and are sending each other nude pictures by middle school also having less sex than their parents did? Why are we obsessed with the laziness and incompetence of the most productive workers of all time? And if college means better jobs, and more kids are going to college, why are wages down? Out of these contradictions the media has spun the story of the Millennial—a portrait that’s right on some of the details, misguided on the rest, and totally wrong on why.

The moderate consensus view on American Millennials is that we don’t represent anything new. Boomers and Gen Xers whining about us are creating moral panics out of the standard evolution of social and cultural habits, just like their parents did. It’s true that the reaction to every successive set of tools and toys and their effects on our lives—especially the lives of children—sounds a lot like last year’s and the year before’s. Commentators worry about what cell phones do to our sociality, but before that it was Walkmen and long before that it was newspapers. And though it’s fun juxtaposing covers of newsweeklies from different decades, all of them fretting about how this or that generation will be the end of us all, it also turns us into the boy who gets tired of crying wolf. But sometimes there is a wolf. It’s worth an occasional check.

One of the consequences of “how we live now” is that we have more access to way more information about ourselves than ever before. This data is used to manage and control us in all sorts of ways—not the least of which is encouraging us to better self- manage and self-control—but it’s also a tool in our critical hands if we choose to wield it so. A long hard look at the historical circumstances that have birthed Millennials can tell us more about our nature than any number of snapshot trend pieces or shallow surveys. The only way to understand who we are as a generation is to look at where we come from, and the social and economic conditions under which we’ve become ourselves. What I’m attempting in this book is an analysis of the major structures and institutions that have influenced the development of young Americans over the past thirty to forty years. That means parenting, schools, the criminal justice system, higher education, and the job market; it means looking at the changes in technology, psychology, sexuality, and other elements of social life that have shaped the adults Millennials are becoming. Without the full constellation, all we have is blinking epiphenomena: entertaining at a glance, but not enough context to guide a ship.

When politicians want to appeal to the public’s better angels, they ask us to “Think of the children.” Advertisers, civic agencies, parenting experts, psychiatrists, teachers, police: All of them tell us to ponder the effects our collective choices are having on the next generation. It’s not a bad heuristic if you care about what’s going to happen to your society, but the rhetoric is usually just used to sell one thing or another. Parents are treated like consumers, and “Think of the children” usually means “Think of your kid” and “Be afraid” and “Buy this or else.” Maybe that’s good advice for maximizing an individual kid’s chance at success in a winner-take-all market, but we can see what kind of society—and person—results.When you look at some major trends in the lives of American young people, there’s good evidence that the quantitative changes over the past three or four decades now constitute a meaningful qualitative rupture, one with repercussions we’ve yet to fully appreciate.

A hard look at these trends suggests that Millennials represent the demographic territory where a serious confrontation has already begun: a battle to see if America’s tiny elite will maintain the social control they require to balance on their perch. It’s not an arrangement they’ll let go of without a fight, and they have a lot of guns—figurative and literal. Political reforms seem beside the point if the next generation’s hearts and minds are already bought and sold. Millennials have been trained to hold sacred our individual right to compete, and any collective resilience strategy that doesn’t take that into account is ill- conceived, no matter how long and glorious its history. A regular old political party with a social media presence is insufficient on its face. No one seems to know what we—with all our historical baggage—can do to change our future.

If, as blockbuster audiences seem to both fear and relish, America is quickly headed for full- fledged dystopia, it will have gone through us Millennials first, and we will have become the first generation of true American fascists. On the other hand, were someone to push the American oligarchy off its ledge, the shove seems likely to come from this side of the generation gap, and we will have become the first generation of successful American revolutionaries. The stakes really are that high: In the coming decades, more Americans will be forced to adapt in larger, stranger ways to an increasingly hostile environment. History asks different things of different generations; no child is born asking to go to war, and no number of shiny market-based distractions will make the next twenty years an enviable time to inherit America. But Millennials are going to be here regardless, and we have a lot of responsibility for whatever comes next.

Kids These Days by Malcolm Harris