An Exploration of a Generation’s Ills

Kids These Days from Malcolm Harris is a much-needed look into way the political economy of the United States shaped and formed the oft-maligned Millennial generation. The book takes the reader on a journey through the aggregated life experiences of Millennials (thus far), starting from the pressures placed on us in elementary schools and onward onto college loans and a hyper-competitive job market. There’s a lot to be said and Harris does it with aplomb, but the key observation he highlights is that our generation has been forced to economically duke it out in a competitive, meritocratic neoliberal nightmare that was the logical conclusion of a number of trends towards making us all better workers, whatever the cost.

The concept of human capital is a revelation in Harris’s hands: we are, practically from birth, treated as an investment expected to reap returns. Early schooling, while mostly state-subsidized, is a form of kids putting their time and effort towards one day becoming valuable workers in the global economy. College is the same, except instead of paid for by the state it’s taken out of tomorrow’s piggy bank via student loans. Then the true, cut-throat nightmare begins when everyone must find a job or starve. While this pattern has been roughly followed by several generations now, where it differs for Millennials is how intensified the competition has become at every step along the way.

Schooling is more results-focused than ever. Harris cites stats showing increased homework loads, hyper-focus on academic rigor as early as pre-K and the growing punitive actions taken for those who don’t comply in the form of increased suspensions. Harris also addresses that oftentimes black and Latinx students face disproportionate police attention, both at school and in their home neighborhoods. (Extra attention which, of course, leads to extra punishment and impaired outcomes.) Then, at the end of high school, comes the first culling: students who’ve cultivated knowledge, discipline, and a raft of extra-curriculars must distill it all into a college application and compete with students across America and the world for a limited number of college spots. Fail to make it into college, and your outlook is bleak, as the growing gulf between the college-educated and those with merely a high school degree is grim.

But college is only a way station on the path towards economic value. Students specialize and train more. Most take out college loans (the debilitating debt burden of which have been hashed out ad infinitum in the media, with no solution or end in sight) and work part-time to support themselves during this time. Contrary to the image of the hard-partying student celebrated in frat films, a majority of students work and keep their nose in the books. (Also worth mentioning is the prevalence of study aid drugs, something that’s uniquely Millennial as the pharma industry grew more corrupted and profit-driven at the same time we did.)

Make it to graduation (and you’d better–the outcomes for kids who fail to graduate and do so with debt are the bleakest of all) and the next culling begins. Much has been written of the hollowing-out of the American job market–the jobs at the top are hyper-competitive and firms have hundreds of people applying for every open position. Below that top echelon are fewer and fewer companies capable of providing a good outcome for new applicants, a fact exacerbated by older generations working further past traditional retirement ages.

Finally, for that rarefied few, there is a job with good pay at the top of the mountain. It’s a job that never ends, though: we’re on call at all times. Emails and texts can come in well past traditional 9-to-5 working hours, and many bosses expect responses that night, not the next day. Salaried workers frequently put in 50-, 60-hour weeks–or more. Meanwhile we need to network, to keep our feelers out for future opportunities for when the job grows stagnant (few jobs offer paths to upper management or even decent raises, the only way to get a pay bump for many Millennials is to switch firms). I recall a friend joking that he wouldn’t know what to do with all the extra time if heĀ only had a full-time job. Millennial parenthood will be a fascinating thing to watch, and I wonder if it hasn’t been delayed by many of us by the intensity of the modern career track.

Thus goes the Millennial. The book does a great job of pulling back the curtain and showing the economic forces at play in every single aspect of our lives: in childhood unmonitored play dwindles in the face of organized team sports, which ends up making us better team players in the office. College debts are enormous and almost impossible to dispel; at the same time, the government has access to loan-repayment schemes like paycheck garnishing that banks and even loan sharks can’t do, making us effectively forced to pay back the loans if we want any part of the good life as depicted in the corporatized media we consume. (And of course the loan burden is bigger than any generation’s prior.) Even for the successful minority of Millennials, there are always hungry kids nipping at their heels, keeping us forward-facing and trying desperately not to fall off the career track. Harris memorably notes that we make the perfect scabs.

At every moment in history, the culmination of all the forces and decisions and random outcomes lead precisely to how we’re living right now, the lives we’re leading now. Millennials face a particularly dire moment, and it’s impossible not to point to the systems and our elders who created this for us. An optimist might tell us to recreate the world in our image, to reimagine it in a way that doesn’t screw us all. But that’s easy to say and much harder to do–Harris is not an optimist on this front. At the end of the book, he goes through a list of possible ways out of our mess. In his estimation, none will save us and most just feed back into the system itself. (While I’m saddened by the dismal present we face, I’m truly worried for the pitiable future we’ll be leaving the kids coming up behind us.) Things will only become more intense, more competitive. The system itself is so big and powerful it will subsume our attempts to subvert it.

Harris ends the book with a powerful statement: if change is to occur, it is because we will become either revolutionaries or fascists. And to avoid the latter, we must be both brave and lucky. A lot to hope for, and the trends so far are not good. I, too, am pessimistic about the future… but I remember, once, my grandmother repeated that old aphorism “where there’s life, there’s hope,” to me. And I think that’s true. It’s a small hope, outweighed and outgunned by the facts on the ground and Trump(ism) and Charlottesville and climate change and gun violence and our national slew of anxieties and addictions, but there’s a hope nonetheless, small and defiant. Who knows what could happen–maybe we’ll make it out of all this alive.