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Kids These Days
Human Capital and the Making of Millennials
Read by Will Collyer
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We are the most educated and hardworking generation in American history. We poured historic and insane amounts of time and money into preparing ourselves for the 21st-century labor market. We have been taught to consider working for free (homework, internships) a privilege for our own benefit. We are poorer, more medicated, and more precariously employed than our parents, grandparents, even our great grandparents, with less of a social safety net to boot.
Kids These Days is about why. In brilliant, crackling prose, early Wall Street occupier Malcolm Harris gets mercilessly real about our maligned birth cohort. Examining trends like runaway student debt, the rise of the intern, mass incarceration, social media, and more, Harris gives us a portrait of what it means to be young in America today that will wake you up and piss you off.
Millennials were the first generation raised explicitly as investments, Harris argues, and in Kids These Days he dares us to confront and take charge of the consequences now that we are grown up.
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.
Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine
Dear Kindergarten Parents and Guardians,
We hope this letter serves to help you better understand how the demands of the 21st century are changing schools and, more specifically, to clarify misperceptions about the Kindergarten show. It is most important to keep in mind that this issue is not unique to Elwood. Although the movement toward more rigorous learning standards has been in the national news for more than a decade, the changing face of education is beginning to feel unsettling for some people. What and how we teach is changing to meet the demands of a changing world.
The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers, and problem solvers. Please do not fault us for making professional decisions that we know will never be able to please everyone. But know that we are making these decisions with the interests of all children in mind.
The above letter was sent to parents of kindergarteners at Harley Avenue Primary School in Elwood, New York, in April of 2014 to confirm rumors that the school would not be going ahead with its annual play.1 The reason: These kids could not spare the two days off from their regularly scheduled work. The changing face of education is beginning to feel unsettling for some people. What and how we teach is changing to meet the demands of a changing world. Changes, changes, changes: It appears the kindergarten training of yesteryear isn’t good enough. The implication is that the very children themselves aren’t good enough without some serious improvement.
The “changes” are well known enough that the administrators at Harley Avenue felt comfortable using them to justify themselves without elaborating much. But what are these differences, exactly? Why and how are twenty-first-century American kids required to undergo more training than their predecessors? And what are the consequences for a generation raised on problem-solving to the exclusion of play? These questions are almost never at the center of popular discussions about contemporary childhood. Instead, authorities from the Brookings Institution2 to Time magazine3 to Matt Yglesias4 have called for an end to summer vacation and the imposition of year-round compulsory schooling.
These drastic changes in the character of childhood are having and will continue to have a corresponding effect on society as the kids age. If America is going to reap what it sows, so far we seem only interested in how much we can count on producing, rather than what the hell it is we’re growing. To adopt the scholastic euphemism “enrichment,” America is trying to refine our kids to full capacity, trying to engineer a generation of hyperenriched “readers, writers, coworkers, and problem solvers.” Parents, teachers, policymakers, and employers are all so worried that their children won’t “meet the demands of a changing world” that they don’t bother asking what kind of kids can meet those demands, and what historical problems they’re really being equipped to solve. The anxious frenzy that surrounds the future has come to function as an excuse for the choices adults make for kids on the uncertain road there. As the Harley Avenue administrators put it, “We are making these decisions with the interests of all children in mind.” How did we get to this place where we all agree that our kids need upgrading?
It behooves us then to begin with kids themselves, and the nature of American childhood around the turn of the twenty-first century. The work that kids do is going to play a major role in this book, and rather than start with, say, college students—whose workload is more obvious—and generalizing backward, I want to start with schoolkids, who are not generally considered workers at all. It’s only by looking at children’s work that we can understand the true reach of the changes in the past few decades.
1.1 The Pedagogical Mask
In America, unlike in much of the world, kids do not perform work. In this country, “child labor” evokes British industrialism, coal, and all things Dickensian. And though some American children have always worked—especially on farms—the dominant US view of childhood is as a time liberated from labor. Because children are legally excluded from the wage relation except under exceptional circumstances, children’s work was reclassified as “learning.” Jürgen Zinnecker, a sociologist of childhood, calls this process “pedagogical masking”:
The working activities during childhood moratorium are disguised by pedagogical ideologies….Learning is not understood as a type of work, whereby children contribute productively to the future social and economic development of the society. Only the adult work of teachers is emphasized as productive contribution to the development of human capital. The corresponding learning activities of pupils are thus defined, not as work but as a form of intellectual consumption.5
Removing the pedagogical mask is central to understanding the American economy because even if we don’t see children’s labor, the whole system rests on its unsteady foundation. It takes a lot of work to prepare yourself to compete for twenty-first-century employment, and adults are happy to remind kids of this when it comes to “putting your nose to the grindstone” or “staying on the right path.” Kids are told, “Treat school like your job.” But when it comes to the right to organize, the dignity of labor, or minimum wage laws, down come the pedagogical masks, and students go back to being students rather than workers. It’s a precarious position: America can no more afford to recognize children’s work than it can afford for them not to do it. Meanwhile, disregarded and unregulated, the intensity and duration of this work have accelerated out of control.
One story from the early days of modern children’s work is extraordinarily prescient about the way pedagogical masking is now used to hide more and more labor. Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine is an enduring children’s book from 1958 by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin about a boy named Danny and his efforts to cheat on his homework. Danny is a whiz kid who lives with his mother, who keeps house for an absent-minded science professor, and Danny has a habit of dragging his friend Joe into half-baked schemes. The book opens with Danny, who has set up two pens linked by a board and attached to pulleys and a weight so that he can write his and Joe’s math homework at the same time. He laments, “If only we could save even more time. You’d think six hours of school would be enough for them, without making us take school home. If only I could build some kind of a robot to do all our homework for us…”6
Danny and his friends use the professor’s cutting-edge computer to do their homework quickly, leaving more time for baseball and their other fun hobbies—like measuring wind speeds with weather balloons. These kids aren’t slackers; they just have better, more self-directed things to do with their time than homework. When a jealous kid (appropriately nicknamed Snitcher) rats out the crew, Danny has to explain to their teacher, Miss Arnold, what they’ve been doing. Rather than concede that he’s been cheating, Danny argues that all workers use tools to do their work better and faster and that students should not be prevented from doing the same. Miss Arnold, stuck in a corner, reframes the situation under the pedagogical mask: “Danny, I must admit you’ve got a serious point. I won’t force you to stop using the computer. But I’m asking you for your own good not to use it. Children learn through practice. You’ll have to take my word for it that it would be better for you to do your homework the old-fashioned way.”7 But Danny is too smart for that, and he counters that if modern things are not to be trusted he probably shouldn’t study atomic theory. It’s a contradiction: Kids have to be taught how to use tools that will help them reduce their work-time, without it actually reducing their work-time.
Although it’s just a children’s book, Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine
- "A landmark...Harris is a peerless observer of the harrowing economic costs of 'meritocracy'."—n+1
- "Malcolm Harris offers up an exciting, persuasive argument that young people are not, in fact, monsters. An excellent gift for NPR-listening elders who appreciate a good debate and could use a little sympathy for the millennial."—New York Magazine
- "The first major accounting of the millennial generation written by someone who belongs to it."—Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker
- "When will someone stick up for millennials? We have been sheltered by our parents, swindled by our universities, deadened by our therapists, and for all this our reward has been glib condescension from the boomer press. Rising to our defense is Harris, a familiar provocateur from the internet's left flank. Harris contends that America has stiffed our generation...He brings a fresh, contrarian eye to some of the usual data points...As generational advocates go, we could do worse than Harris."—New York Times Book Review
- "Malcolm Harris's thesis is the kind of brilliantly simple idea that instantly clarifies an entire area of culture: Millennials are the way they are-anxious, harried, and 'narcissistically' self-focused, though hardly lazy or entitled-because the neoliberal economy has made them so. When we raise children in a world that reduces people to 'human capital', then bids down the price of that resource, what else should we expect? Kids These Days is deft, witty, unillusioned, and brutally frank. Read it and weep, puke, scream."—WilliamDeresiewicz, New York Times bestselling author of Excellent Sheep
- "Kids These Days is the best, most comprehensive work of social and economic analysis about our benighted generation. Malcolm Harris matches Naomi Klein for depth of research and Jane Jacobs for systemic vision. If you're a millennial who feels economically jinxed and unfairly spat-upon, but can't say why, cram this book in your brain; if you think millennials are lazy and entitled, cram this book in your mouth. Fascinating, infuriating, and bulging with receipts, Kids These Days shows us why no space is safe."—Tony Tulathimutte,author of Private Citizens
- "This fiercely smart book is not just another 'millennials killed chain restaurants' kind of thing. Instead, Harris dives deep into the ways that the millennial generation has been shaped by the capitalist economic forces at work now in America. . . It's a must read for anyone who cares about the future of our society."—Nylon
- "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?'"—Bookforum
- "Malcolm Harris restores a good deal of precision to the business of defining the millennial and generational discourse in general. Adhering to a Marxian and behaviorist account of society, Harris argues that you cannot understand millennials - those born between 1980 and 2000, which include him, and me for that matter - without examining the political, economic and social institutions that nurtured them... Through this lens we get a sweeping sketch of the bleak, anxiety-ridden lives of young Americans."—Financial Times
- "A methodical deconstruction of one of the stupidest tropes to degrade recent discourse. The 'millennial' is created, not born, as Harris shows, and as is true of all creations, her qualities reveal more about her makers than they do about her... Kids These Days answers a political moment defined both by youthful outrage and by the patronizing responses to it, which deny that it is informed by lived experience."—The Nation
- "Harris writes clearly and thoughtfully on key issues facing this generation today. . . [he] reveals the political, cultural, and economic climates that millennials need to navigate, along with the new issues, never seen in previous generations, millennials must address. Readers interested in sociology of class, economic history, and the millennial generation will find plenty of fascinating food for thought here."—Booklist
- "An informative study of why the millennial generation faces more struggles than expected, despite the hard work they've invested in moving ahead."—Kirkus
- "Harris offers a potent rebuke to the idea that neoliberalism is an ideology of freedom and movement, showing instead how lives have become increasingly surveilled, managed and even endangered as corporations attempt to push drive for profit to the absolute limits."—The Forward
- "A crucial work of generational analysis...In prose that is precise, readable, and witty, [Harris] explores the economic, social, and political conditions that shaped those of us born between 1980 and 2000. Harris's central contention is that millennials are what happens when contemporary capitalism converts young people into 'human capital'. After reading his book, it seems ill-advised to understand millennials any other way."—Dissent Magazine
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- Nov 7, 2017
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