Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, by Malcolm Harris, Little, Brown and Co., 228 pages, $25
"In short: Millennials are over," Taylor Lorenz wrote in BuzzFeed in October. "It was fun while it lasted. But like a slice of avocado toast left too long in the sun, our cultural relevance has begun to rot."
The year 2018, Lorenz argues, will be the year the media obsession with the selfie generation (birth dates: roughly 1982 through 1999) finally fades.
Arriving during this transition period between millennialism and whatever comes next is Kids These Days, Malcolm Harris' thoughtful and deeply researched portrait of the cultural, political, and economic factors that shaped the millennial generation. In his telling, it's not a pretty picture: Millennials are anxious, depressed, and above all financially screwed by an American system that increasingly produces rampant economic inequality. There's plenty right with this thesis, even if the message is marred by the author's need to blame everything on capitalism.
To understand the book, it's helpful to know some things about Harris. First, he is a millennial. The cover of the book proudly notes its author was born in 1988, the veritable eye of the millennial storm. (Note: The author of this review was born in 1988, too.) Harris is also an ardent leftist, of the anarchist variety, who first came to national attention as a leader of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. Harris became known for stunts; he tricked several news outlets into thinking the band Radiohead was going to perform at Zuccotti Park, for example, later admitting his involvement in the hoax to Gawker. He was also among the Occupiers arrested for marching across the Brooklyn Bridge in defiance of police orders.
But there's little of Harris' characteristic mischief making in Kids These Days, which suggests the author, like the generation he represents, may have finally grown up. Instead, the book is filled with charts and data to support his claims about the average millennial's less-than-ideal quality of life. Depression rates have increased "1,000 percent over the past century," writes Harris, "with around half of that growth occurring since the late 1980s." It's no wonder they're depressed, he continues: They were sold a raw deal. They worked hard at school, drilled relentlessly to pass their college entrance exams, borrowed massive sums of money to afford university tuition, and then discovered that the promised reward—a well-paying job—was by no means guaranteed.
"Higher education is, in addition to many other things, an economic regime that extracts increasingly absurd amounts of money from millions of young people's as-yet-unperformed labor," writes Harris. "For anyone who takes out a student loan—and that's two-thirds of students—succeeding at contemporary American childhood now means contracting out hours, days, years of their future work to the government, with no way to escape the consequences of what is barely a decision in the first place."
Harris is as disparaging of primary education as he is of higher ed. He castigates helicopter parenting, zero-tolerance school discipline, and other trends that discourage kids from enjoying childhood. "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," he writes in a passage that could have come straight from the pen of Reason's resident free-range mom, Lenore Skenazy. Childhood is "no longer a time to make mistakes; now it's when bad choices have the biggest impact."
Harris is refreshingly frank about the role government itself has played in making life miserable for his generation. He dedicates an entire chapter to misguided federal policies, backed by both Republicans and Democrats, that have contributed to the rat race of millennial life. These include the Common Core standards, a federally supported effort to uniformly focus K–12 classrooms on herding all kids into college; mass incarceration, which disproportionately affects young people of color; and even Social Security, a welfare scheme that currently benefits older Americans but is being funded by millennials. Harris notes that although most millennials support the existence of Social Security, a majority expect never to see a dime when the time comes for them to retire. "Whether it's generosity of spirit, utilitarian analysis, or plain old resignation, the so-called entitled generation doesn't even feel entitled to our own entitlements," he writes.
These are all worthy observations. But Harris' thesis starts to come apart when he tries to lay these sins at the altar of capitalism. It is the relentless pursuit of profits, he says, that has created a world in which millennials are barely scraping by. Competition is killing us all, from the high schooler managing 18 different extracurricular activities in the hopes of getting in to Harvard and Yale to the Adderall-addicted 20-something pulling an all-nighter while studying for the LSAT, from the would-be teenage YouTube sensation maintaining eight social media accounts to the underemployed Starbucks barista drowning in student loan debt.
"The rate of change is visibly unsustainable," writes Harris. "The profiteers call this process 'disruption,' while commentators on the left generally call it 'neo-liberalism' or 'late capitalism.' Millennials know it better as 'the world,' or 'America,' or 'Everything.' And Everything sucks."
But neoliberalism didn't cause the student loan crisis; the federal government's policy of subsidizing student loans did that. It isn't free market competition driving up tuition rates: Multiple studies, including a 2015 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, have found that federal loan programs are mostly responsible. It was the government, not business, that started jailing parents for letting their kids walk to school or play in the park by themselves. And schools aren't suspending more low-income minority kids because of capitalism; they're doing it because legislators codified mandatory suspensions into law and threw money at schools to hire more cops.
Plus, while generational fatalism is alluring and occasionally justified, not everything sucks. Millennials have lower drunk driving rates, for instance, and we engage in less risky sex. Harris is cognizant of some of the more positive trends affecting millennials—he notes several of them in the book—but his outlook nonetheless remains incredibly negative throughout.
These anti-capitalist currents keep Kids These Days from becoming truly essential reading for chroniclers of the millennial generation. But it's still a worthy snapshot of life as a not-so-fragile snowflake, and it provides plenty of fodder for outraged anti-statists of both leftist and libertarian varieties.