Kids These Days:
Human Capital and the Making of Millennials
by Malcolm Harris
Little, Brown, 2017, 272 pages
The first time I remember really fearing for my generation—not the abstract uneasiness aroused by depressing statistics but a gut-level dread, something dark and unnameable lurking just beyond articulation—came in the fall of 2012. Millennials older than I will perhaps have other, more directly political memories. Occupy Wall Street, Ferguson, a foreclosure, that sort of thing. For me it was a college roommate.
I was a twenty-year-old junior at the University of Georgia, living with an acquaintance I shall call (not his real name) Max. We had met the previous summer. Prior to rooming together we had been friendly but not particularly close. He had a number of what I regarded as quirks: a pronounced drawl, an obsession with cleanliness and hygiene, a quick temper, a love of guns and slow jazz, a mixture of intellectual arrogance and insecurity, and a fanatical devotion to both mathematics and the philosophy of Ayn Rand. We argued constantly. (I was a socialist at the time.) Mostly I attributed his weirdness to his having grown up on a tobacco farm in a “town” of some forty people in southern Georgia, which from my perspective, having grown up in suburban Atlanta, might as well have been on Mars.
Max’s real trouble, as I came to discover after a few months of living with him, was with girls. Not that he was a lost cause, romantically—he had had one long-term relationship that had fallen apart under sordid circumstances involving an abortion and the discovery of a second boyfriend—and despite his various oddities he was a reasonably competent conversationalist, not the sort of person you would mark as abnormal if you met him in class or at a party. The problem was that he was radicalizing.
He had taken his breakup hard and, presumably to help him get over his ex, had started reading deeply about “the Game,” the formalized methods of pickup artistry (PUA) popularized by the journalist Neil Strauss in his 2005 book of the same name. The basic idea behind PUA is to give men with poor social skills or low self-esteem a set of rules for approaching women. It’s a bit manipulative, but in its more benign form is little more than self-help for awkward men—ask your date questions, make eye contact, act like you have something going for you, even if you don’t.
Yet the online PUA community of which Max was a part—incubated mostly on Reddit—was pulling him away from personal concerns and toward politics, broadly defined. He would talk to me about feminism as a cancer eating away at society; rage about minor perceived insults from female university bureaucrats; and curse the campus “sluts” who preferred dim-witted athletes and fraternity guys to himself, all of which were tied loosely into some narrative about the steady advance of socialism and the decline of the West. At one point, he swore off women and alcohol as distractions from his study of mathematics before breaking down and bringing someone home after a party. The next morning, he kicked her out at dawn and burned his sheets out by the dumpster. When I told him soon afterward that my girlfriend and I were worried about him, he exploded, insulting me and her in the most vicious terms imaginable. I told him to apologize or I’d break his nose; he told me he had a pistol in his room, and if I so much as touched him, he’d shoot me and call it self-defense. I backed down.
I mostly avoided Max after that. Yet as soon as I had gotten some distance from him, my instinct was to abstract his story into something more general—a problem that, if it was affecting him, was likely affecting other people like him: people who were young, angry, confused, full of inchoate resentments at a world that had not turned out as they expected and which left them without any sense of what they should do and why. At the time, being a self-described Marxist, I thought I saw in Max’s rage a typically pathetic form of false consciousness. Alienated and miserable, he was latching on to women as the immediate, though structurally innocent, source of his resentment, rather than recognizing the true cause of his misery (capitalism) and joining with enlightened people like me to fight it.
If I had been honest with myself at the time—which I wasn’t—I would have admitted that what worried me about Max was that I saw myself in him too. (There, perhaps, came the “need” to abstract.) I was also arrogant and insecure and full of anger that I couldn’t quite place, which would periodically escape in outbursts over some minor threat to my pride—oversleeping for a class, losing at a videogame. I too, at my lower points, had been drawn to some of the same online communities Max had lost himself in, first to improve my luck with women and then to salve my wounded ego with flattering and self-exculpatory theories about the world.
The big difference between us, as far as I could tell, was that I had met someone and he hadn’t. Max had staked all his adolescent hopes on someone who had betrayed him, throwing him into a tailspin from which he was too young and dumb to recover. I fell in love with someone who told me she loved me back but that I had to pull my shit together, which I did. And when I saw Max sinking into his own loneliness and resentment, it scared me. Was our mental health that dependent on finding or forging a “healthy relationship?” When I read about people like Elliott Rodger and Seung Hui-cho—and later, in a different way, Dylann Roof—they reminded me of Max. How many other Maxes were there across the country? And what was this society that was growing them?
That is my millennial story, the mental mood music that accompanies any reading or thinking I do about my own generation. It is not the story you get in the press. The millennial has become an archetype of the entitled, fragile narcissist suspended in an irresponsible yet brittle state of permanent adolescence. (Indeed, the archetypal millennial is now so cliché that anti-anti-millennialism has become a counter-cliché of its own.) But some of the accusations leveled against millennials sting so much because they are true. Many of us are narcissists. I do see myself as a victim of smartphone addiction.
But why? What cultural tissue connects my cohort’s bitter snowflakehood with Max’s vengeful radicalism? Not enough energy has been aimed at explaining why millennials are the way we are. But that may be beginning to change.
The millennial mystery is the puzzle that Malcolm Harris (b. 1988) seeks to address in his new book, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. An anarchist and Occupy Wall Street veteran (once labeled the “Naomi Klein of the twenty-first century” in an unintentionally comic PR blast), Harris sets out to provide a more or less Marxian analysis of the economic and institutional structures that have created the millennial generation, which he defines as those born between 1980 and 2000. We are, in his telling, the products of the unprecedented victory of capitalism, coming of age in a forty-year period defined by economic stagnation, wage polarization, the hollowing out of the middle class, the rising instability (or “precarity”) of labor, and, above all, the expansion of competition and exploitation into hitherto protected areas of life such as childhood, friendship, and dating. Success in this world, he writes, “requires a different kind of person, one whose abilities, skills, emotions, and even sleep schedule are in sync with their role in the economy.” This new person is the millennial—a living, breathing vessel for the accumulation of human capital, or the productive skills and knowledge that we accumulate over our lifetime as workers. Our morbid symptoms are simply signs that the resulting pressure is making us crack.
It’s a simple thesis for a big problem, but some statistics bear out the grim picture. As Michael Hobbes recently noted in “Millennials Are Screwed” (HuffPost), millennials have 300 percent more student debt than our parents (those in their twenties with student loan debt have an average balance of $22,135), are half as likely to own a home as people our age were in 1975, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, are far less likely to be married or have children. Trends in youth and elderly poverty have flipped since mid-century: in 1968, slightly more adults aged 55–64 lived in poverty than those aged 18–24 (11.7 percent versus 10.1 percent). By 2012, the 55–64 rate had fallen slightly while the 18–24 rate had more than doubled to 20.4 percent, or one in five. Intergenerational mobility, too, is stagnating: according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, 90 percent of those born in 1940, but only 50 percent of those born in 1980, outearned their parents. Less tangible symptoms of dysfunction have proliferated as well: metanalyses by the generational psychologist Jean Twenge have shown that millennials are more depressed, anxious, and narcissistic than their predecessors—and considerably more medicated. According to one study, “between 1991 and 1995 the number of preschoolers on antidepressants doubled, while the portion taking stimulants tripled.” Between 2010 and 2014, sales of ADHD medications increased 8 percent per year. Opioids, the leading cause of death for Americans under fifty, are a fixture of popular culture in the millennial mainstream. Off-label amphetamine use is rampant on college campuses, and the abuse of benzodiazepines like Xanax is so common that it has birthed its own music genre.
For Harris, today’s material decline and its soul-sickness are the predictable results of neoliberalism, a slippery term that in his usage refers both to the changes in Western political economy since the 1970s that have increased the “rate of exploitation” (a Marxian term for the difference between wages and productivity) and a set of ideological beliefs about the social benefits of competition, markets, and entrepreneurship. In this telling, neoliberalism, unlike previous iterations of American political economy, shifts the responsibility for human-capital formation from the firm to the individual. This imperative for individuals to accumulate usable skills operates in a wide variety of contexts, from an increasingly fluid labor market to education to social media, where one is prodded to develop a personal brand according to the market pressures of attention and engagement. The result, for Harris, has been the creation of a winner-take-all society in which, from the cradle onward, kids are pressed into an ever-more desperate rat race to secure a foothold in the ever-shrinking middle class.
Kids These Days is loosely structured around the millennial life plan, spanning primary school to college to work as well as various forms of sociality and entertainment. Its early chapters, such as the ones on primary and secondary education, are highlights. Harris describes how the pressures of college admissions (and ultimately employment) are colonizing American childhood, turning it from a relatively carefree period of socialization and individuation into a regimented form of “risk management,” leading to a disappearance of unstructured play and a corresponding rise in homework, organized sports, and other “enrichment” activities designed to please college admissions committees. “Between 1981 and 1997,” for instance, “elementary schoolers between the ages of six and eight recorded a whopping 146 percent gain in time studying, and another 32 percent between 1997 and 2003.” Harris casts this extra work as largely an exercise in human capital formation, with future employers set to benefit from the skills that kids gain while doing it. But it’s unclear whether that’s actually the case: a 2003 survey, cited by the libertarian economist Bryan Caplan in his 2017 book The Case against Education, found that fewer than one-third of college-educated adults were “proficient” on a composite score of literacy; a further clue is that despite all that homework, even today only about one-third of millennials go to college. The implication, of course, is that much of the “learning” we do doesn’t actually result in learning anything, which has led Caplan and others to argue that school (especially college) is not primarily about enriching yourself with human capital but about “signaling”—securing credentials that show you are intelligent, motivated, and compliant enough to jump through whatever hoops are set in front of you.
Another strong point is the chapter on college, where Harris shows how academia and the federal government conspire to fleece students of future income while profiting handsomely in the process. College still makes sense for most individuals, given the increased lifetime earnings and the dearth of good options for those without degrees. (In 2013, the median full-time worker with a bachelor’s degree or higher made $17,500 more per year than the median worker with a high school diploma.) Yet because so many people want and need to go to college, and because the government will lend them money to pay for it, colleges have been free to raise their tuition costs at a remarkable rate, saddling students with debts they are legally barred from discharging in bankruptcy. In return colleges compete with one another for prestige by spending on luxury amenities, celebrity professors, and a new corporate-managerial class of administrators. Harris also alleges that thanks to the Obama administration’s relatively quiet buyout of the student loan industry in 2010, the government now holds some $880 billion in student loans—some 27 percent of total federal assets (which Harris misstates as 37 percent)—estimated to generate $81 billion in annual profit over the next decade. Although fair value accounting, which applies sharper discounts to future and/or riskier income, suggests the federal government could actually lose up to $170 billion on student loans between 2017 and 2026, Harris’s critique of Washington’s effective nationalization of the student loan industry hits its mark. The whole complex is neoliberalism in its purest form: a bloated, quasi-market dependent on a government backstop, ideologically justified by cant about preparing young workers for “the twenty-first century,” whatever that is.
The rest of Harris’s book is more uneven. A chapter on the economy mixes relatively straightforward reporting on millennials now-familiar financial straits—the decline of intergenerational mobility, the growth of the winner-take-all political economy, and, particularly loathsome, the rise of the unpaid internship—with scattered borrowings from contemporary radical theory about the feminization of labor, the rise of affective or emotional labor, and (again) precarity. While interesting enough, Harris’s account leaves these topics underdeveloped, perhaps because they would soften what is meant to be a punchy polemic. The rest of the book looks at the looming crisis of social security, the increasingly harsh and militarized policing tactics brought to bear on young people (particularly minorities), and “behavior modification,” which runs together mental illness and drug prescriptions with a brief study of social media use and other millennial habits around dating, drugs, and sexuality.
One late highlight is the chapter on sports and entertainment, where Harris finds perhaps the clearest illustration of his thesis about how neoliberalism has reverse-engineered people into vessels for human capital. Technological changes and the rise of online platforms such as YouTube and SoundCloud (which scrambled last year to secure enough funding to stave off a sudden shutdown) have essentially eliminated barriers to recording and sharing content. But now that everyone can be a musician, aspiring stars are required to establish their own brands and cultivate their own fanbases before they ever get a deal. Athletic competition has intensified as well—kids start earlier and are subject to ever more scientifically advanced forms of training and dieting (the “capital” visible directly in their bodies), while amateur sports such as college football have evolved into vast commercial spectacles delivering enormous profits for everybody except the players. Especially interesting is Harris’s discussion of how professional sports dramatically expanded their talent pool by scouting abroad, once “teams figured out there was literally a whole world of potential superstars out there, almost all of whom were cheaper to sign than their domestic equivalents.” Today one-fifth of NBA players and over one-quarter of MLB players are foreign-born. It’s a good point, but it does raise the question of whether the same dynamic might not be at play in the wider labor market, where foreign workers are also “cheaper to sign than their domestic equivalents.” Presumably some aspects of neoliberalism can’t be criticized even by the radicals.
For a book by a revolutionary anarchist, Kids These Days is in some ways remarkably conventional. Chalk some of that up to style—Harris is obviously interested in reaching a general audience, and his writing is mercifully free of the grad-school jargon and name-dropping that dooms so much radical analysis. There are predictable shots against cops and finance bros, but for an author given to internecine squabbles and ill-advised tweets (including rooting for the death of Steve Scalise while posing as a Vox employee), the book is generally measured. This extends to the argument itself—as Jacqui Shine notes in her review at the Los Angeles Review of Books, the implicit framing of Kids These Days is that millennials are victims of a “broken promise”: America’s established elite told us to believe that if we worked hard, we would be rewarded with the good jobs and the stable middle class lifestyles of our parents. We held up our end of the bargain, but they, and our parents, failed at theirs.
Yet Kids These Days is conventional in a deeper sense. Aside from the book’s easily digestible thesis—millennials are human capital—most of what Harris has to say has already been said elsewhere years ago, including, as it turns out, by Harris himself. His 2011 n+1 essay “Bad Education” chronicles the rise of student debt and the corporatization of the university in remarkably similar terms. Nevertheless, his synthesis in Kids These Days is still valuable; social science popularizers don’t always have to do heavy original theorizing, and it’s not always wrong to repeat the same thing for seven years (why stop if you’re right?). But except for a few examples, this book feels like it could have been written at any time since, say, 2011. The only suggestion that Harris’s thinking has registered any events since the heady days of the Occupy movement is the nearly eschatological political question that appears in both his introduction and conclusion. Presented with a system supposedly beyond reform, millennials face a choice: either we turn on each other and embrace the destructive logic of capitalism, or we smash the system in the name of something better. “We become fascists or revolutionaries, one or the other.”
This fascist/revolutionary binary is interesting both for what it suggests and what it leaves out. From Harris’s perspective, we simply become “fascist” by default if we don’t halt our country’s slow drift into dystopia and oligarchy. But, in fact, one of the most striking recent developments in American politics is the emergence of something like a real millennial fascist movement, the “alt-right.” Far from stumbling blindly along the path to oligarchy, by now draped in celebrations of pseudo-difference, the ideological heirs to my old roommate Max have developed a radical counterculture. As a whole, the alt-right has transvalued the cultural logic of neoliberalism, seizing on the primacy of culture and identity, inverting the ethical terms—placing the cis, white, and heteronormative above all other identities—and then attempting to infuse the resulting political divisions with mythic significance. At the same time, on the American left, Harris’s own Occupy-era strain of anarchist and communist political economy has lost pop cultural primacy to so-called woke politics—less economically radical than communism, perhaps, but more vehement in its rejection of the American cultural mythos, now disenchanted by the historical sins of the West. This vehemence—the ability and above all willingness to destroy its enemies—has proved to be its strength. But its awkward complicity in neoliberalism, amid the rise of the “woke” corporation, is proving to be its weakness.
I don’t mean here to offer yet another meditation on identity politics, other than to point out what should be obvious: that the crises that have rocked the American political system over the last few decades have also begun to eat away at its legitimacy—what would’ve been known to the Chinese emperors as its “Mandate of Heaven.” The oldest millennials, those born in 1980, were 23 years old when George W. Bush invaded Iraq on false pretenses, 28 when Lehman Brothers collapsed, 32 when George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, and 36 when Donald Trump was elected president. Our generation has seen its sports heroes exposed as frauds, our churches disgraced by child abuse, our universities transformed into machines for extracting cash and producing conformity, and our media discredited by cynical attacks from without and grievous mistakes committed from within.
Millennials, in short, encounter a world in which our culture’s mythologies are crumbling. The most dynamic political forces on both the left and the right today are those that can offer substitutes, connecting believers with creation myths, accounts of the origin of evil, and doctrines of salvation. They answer the permanent questions: What is good? How should we act and why? The great mid-century scholar of religion Mircea Eliade wrote in The Sacred and the Profane that, for religious man, the first step in inhabiting a world was discovering a sacred center that would bring coherence and definition to the chaos of homogeneous space, rendering the world not only legible but purposeful. The problem was to find an orientation in order to act.
What mysterious signs are we waiting for? The story that Harris tells is at some level an attempt to provide such an orientation—he gestures, somewhat half-heartedly, at a kind of generational revolt against the system that has left us anxious and broke. But what for? To escape low wages, exploitation, and behavior modification? To fight fascism? But this is where Kids These Days falls curiously flat. For all its graphs and statistics, it says very little about what it is really like to be a millennial—about what some might call our “lived experience,” and what I am almost embarrassed to call our souls. But we do not live on avocado toast alone. The tendencies of our politics that seem, if not the most popular, at least the most self-confident, are those that claim to uncover the universe of meaning in which we are blindly living. They appeal to those, like my roommate Max, who are struggling to find some confirmation that their existence has a purpose in a social landscape that offers little in the way of comfort and solidarity; they tell us who we are and why we suffer and who it is that makes us suffer. And though generation—and class—can play into such narratives of identity, it is proving easier than many of us had thought to tap into deeper, more primal urges: I am one with those who look like me and think like me, their interests are my interests, their enemies my own.
What can break us out of that trap? For Eliade, the revelation capable of orienting us in space was a discovery of something pre-existing, not an invention. “Men are not free to choose the sacred site,” he wrote, “they only seek for it and find it by the help of mysterious signs.” Perhaps it is within the power of millennials to do without such mysteries, to consciously choose where we are headed. But how we get there is a mystery both to me and to Harris, who dismisses so many sites of meaning in secular life—political reform, ethical consumerism, personal virtue—as a form of play-acting. If the life we have been given really is so deeply disenchanted, perhaps we millennials truly are stuck—waiting for a sign.