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Millennials of the World, Unite!

For some time now, millennial-bashing has been a favorite pastime of journalists and op-ed writers. Millennials, we’re told, are different from previous generations, and rarely in good ways. They don’t work as hard as previous generations and don’t save the money they earn; they live with their parents but simultaneously on their phones; and they don’t buy homes, due apparently to overly refined palettes. So subversive is this generation that it lays waste to entire industries. From mayonnaise to cable to golf to Hooters to the very concept of “lunch,” millennials have (ungratefully) declared war on the way of life handed down to them by their Boomer parents. Indeed, the very word “millennial” feels like a pejorative—perform a word-association exercise with it, and you’re likely to generate similarly dubious words like “entitled,” “lazy,” “participation trophy,” and, perhaps worst of all, “selfie.”

Malcolm Harris takes aim at these truisms in his lively new book, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. Harris, a contributing editor at The New Inquiry, is himself a millennial, a fact he announces on the book’s dust jacket. (In the interests of full generational disclosure, your reviewer is also a millennial by conventional standards, born 1982.)

If we millennials behave differently from previous generations, it’s because the world we’ve inherited is different. Millennials are the first generation to grow up with smartphones in our pockets and the Internet at our fingertips. We feel at least as at home in the online world as we do in the real. This “real” world changes, too—millennials have spent the last decade entering a labor market reshaped by the Great Recession and long-term structural shifts toward a service-oriented economy.

It’s an economy “based on speed, and the speed is always increasing,” writes Harris, and it’s a system that, as he sees it, exploits millennials even as it remakes them in its image. Millennials are the children of “‘disruption’ . . . [or] ‘neoliberalism’ or ‘late capitalism’”—a system they know more simply as “‘the world,’ or ‘America,’ or ‘Everything’” . . . and, as Harris tells it, “Everything sucks.”

Everything Sucks

These two words capture the spirit of the book, or most of it. Chapters Two through Six are spent cataloguing the various ways in which millennials have endured the ratcheting pressure of “everything.” At school they’ve endured the pernicious influence of school cops, standardized testing, mounting loads of academic busywork, and the increasingly cutthroat world of elite college admissions.

Things aren’t much better at home—as helicopter parents absorb whatever time and space teens have left for hanging out and being ornery, millennials live increasingly on their phones, marinating in the isolating and alienating waters of social media and endless online pornography. No wonder, then, that rates of depression, anxiety, attention-deficit disorder, and (as a result) prescribed psychotropic drug use are so high among millennials.

But those who make it out of childhood “avoiding both the school-to-prison pipeline and debilitating psychosis (or even suicide)” aren’t out of the woods yet. Millennials pay far more for their university education than previous generations, and they take on far, far more debt in the process. Finally emerging from decades of schooling, they discover that the post-recession labor market is offering longer work weeks, lower pay, and lower status—all while labor productivity steadily grows and inequality widens. Maybe everything does suck.

Harris deftly pulls together a wide range of research, and he’s particularly good at identifying what, echoing Max Weber, he sometimes calls “rationalization”—the process by which certain pursuits are subjected to the pressures of heightened instrumental rationality and commercialization. In Chapter Five, “Everybody Is a Star,” he describes the effects of specialized and professionalized training in youth sports and other pursuits. For many millennials, the experience of sports is mediated by a cadre of coaches, therapists, and organizers. Gone, apparently, are the days of pickup games and playground rules; here are the days of private hitting coaches, year-round traveling teams, professional-grade equipment. These processes of rationalization are altering the landscape of competitive fields—athletics and entertainment are Harris’ focus here—and simultaneously making “play” a thing of the past. In these discussions of the altered experience of American childhood, Harris pulls no punches.

Yet one can see the limits of his approach. Kids These Days is by no stretch an evenhanded account—it includes no bright spots or positive trends (for reasons touched on below), and the hyperbole sometimes ventures into imprecision and even outright error. For example, when he writes that “by every metric, this generation is the most educated in American history, yet Millennials are worse off economically than their parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents,” it’s unclear if “by every metric” refers to measurements of education or economic well-being. This kind of imprecision is frustrating, but far more frustratingly, the notion that millennials are “worse off economically” than previous generations isn’t remotely true. Put another way, the “Everything Sucks” narrative often stumbles—and ultimately fails—because not everything sucks.

Lean, Mean Production Machines 

Of course, the author is a bit hamstrung here by his own ideological and methodological commitments. Kids These Days offers a relatively straightforward Marxist analysis of the millennial experience, and Harris’ writing draws its considerable verve from the ideo-methodological lens through which he views the world. Karl Marx’s name doesn’t appear in the book’s index, but it isn’t particularly hard to see what lies behind sentences like the following, which doubles as a nice statement of the book’s real conceptual core: “By looking at children as investments, we can see where the product of children’s labor is stored: in the machine-self, in their human capital.”

That sentence (from the book’s first chapter, “Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine”) points to the real conceptual innovation offered by this book, and it is a compelling one. If millennials are different because they were deliberately created that way by the structural forces of capital, as Harris argues, then the millennial phenomenon can only be understood once we recognize that American children have become sites of investment. The American education system has spent the last half-century growing the “human capital” of its children, writes Harris, in an effort to make them more profitable later in life. By his lights, we are “trying to refine our kids to full capacity, trying to engineer a generation of hyperenriched ‘readers, writers, coworkers, and problem-solvers,’” and we’re doing it for the benefit of capital.

It’s here, on the subject of school and schoolwork, that Harris really flexes. Far from the entitled, video-game-obsessed layabouts of popular (Boomer) imagination, American kids actually spend an obscene amount of time at school, doing schoolwork outside of school, and otherwise bettering themselves—they are “overworked, underplayed, gold-starred, and tired, wondering where all their time went.” The teachers, coaches, and parents of millennials have labored to shape them into self-motivated go-getters: “From our bathroom breaks to our sleep schedules to our emotional availability,” millennials are “highly attuned to the needs of capital markets” and “encouraged to strategize and scheme to find places, times, and roles where we can be effectively put to work.”

“Efficiency,” Harris writes, “is our existential purpose, and we are a generation of finely honed tools, crafted from embryos to be lean, mean production machines.” In this telling, capital hides behind what Harris calls the “Pedagogical Mask.” All that academic busywork, all that piano practice, all those standardized tests—such exercises do not make for well-rounded, happy citizens. Millennial childhood produces workers who can produce in the 21st century: “When students are working, what they’re working on is their own ability to work.”

What Harris attempts here is a truly grand revisionist project: What you think is education is really forced labor hiding behind a pedagogical mask. People who might appear to be educators and coaches are really (though perhaps unwittingly) agents of capital. Such a sweeping argument pushes the author to metaphorical excess at times. When he points out, for example, that “we say a student has ‘worked for’ or ‘earned’ her marks,” and “the return of graded papers or report cards resembl[es] the passing out of paychecks”; or when he notes that your child being kidnapped or getting a sexually transmitted infection “are hazards any parents might worry about, but . . . also things any investor might worry about” (emphasis in original)—the only appropriate response involves a rolling of the eyes.

Big If True

Unnecessary flourishes aside, however, it’s worth addressing Harris’ metaphorical framework more fully. In reclassifying any sustained activity that requires deliberate and rational engagement as “work,” he  is building on work on affective and invisible labor by sociologists like Arlie Hochschild and critical theorists like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. “Because children are legally excluded from the wage relation except under exceptional circumstances,” he argues, “children’s work was reclassified as ‘learning’.” And he doesn’t stop there. Whether kids are playing lacrosse, making demo tapes, or trying to get followers on Youtube—they are, by his lights, making themselves into human-capital-rich workers for firms to swoop in and snatch up.

Even the use of smartphones and social media—which seem like paradigmatic cases of wasted time—serve to “school young people in communication and the emotional skills—as well as quick thinking and constant availability—that make them exceptionally productive.” As the kids sometimes say: Big if true.  Harris even suggests, in a discussion of anxiety and anti-depressant use among millennials, that American parents and psychiatrists have conspired to keep American kids neurotic enough to be more alert but not so neurotic that they lose it entirely and stop working. For our author, “It’s not a coincidence—none of it.”

Empirically, Harris’ account fails in the way that all uni-casual accounts fail. The world is a big, complicated place, and events like policy outcomes and technology adoption always spring from a confluence of actors and coincidences. Education policy—to take just one area Harris treats—emerges haphazardly from a policy field populated by a myriad of often bitterly opposed parties. Only those blinded by ideological or methodological commitments could look at the messy policies cobbled together by teachers, interest groups, parents, and government officials at the federal, state, and local levels and say, “It’s not a coincidence—none of it.”

More than this—and crucially for his entire thesis—Harris provides little to no empirical evidence to support the central claim that millennials are, in fact, more productive workers than other Americans. What he does allude to, repeatedly, is the oft-pointed-to fact that labor productivity gains have far outstripped worker compensation since 1980. That these productivity gains can be (and have been) attributed to a variety of technological and organizational changes does not come up in this book. That most of these gains were realized before millennials entered the labor market doesn’t, either.

If Kids These Days fails, it does so in ways that are consistently interesting and thought-provoking. Malcolm Harris is grappling earnestly with a thing that seems new in the world—what it’s like to grow up in the post-Internet, post-smartphone age—and his discussion goes some way in identifying the forces and agents that have so altered the landscape of childhood. He may not have the right answers, but he’s asking the questions that social scientists—not to mention writers, artists, and philosophers—will find themselves grappling with for decades to come.

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