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Free Minds & Free Markets

Goodbye, Millennials

Get off our lawn.

Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, by Malcolm Harris, Little, Brown and Co., 228 pages, $25

Little, Brown and Co.Little, Brown and Co."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.

Photo Credit: LightFieldStudios/iStock

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  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Millennials are anxious, depressed, and above all financially screwed by an American system

    If only 1/3 apply to me do I get kicked out of being a millennial?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Millennials are anxious, depressed, and above all financially screwed by an American system

    If only 1/3 apply to me do I get kicked out of being a millennial?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Generation X did some good things but how they stereotypically raised Millennials was not one of them. I think Boomers passed on many of the justifications for socialist ideas and they fucked up some Millennials.

    On the other hand, these are generalities and not everyone raised Millennials poorly. MIllennials need to take responsibility for life being tough and making the best of it. Gen Xers mostly did.

    Many of our parents got divorces and many of us were latch key kids. Socialist Boomers like Obama, Clintons, and Bush have royally fucked the USA up and they are taking theirs to the grave. They refuse to budge on cuts to social security. Even if we gut social programs, Gen Xers and Millennials will still have to pay for legacy beneficiaries while probably not receiving any money.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I can't help that the previous era did not prepare people for more normal times either. One thing I see a lot is people maligning the lack of union style jobs that many of our parents and grandparents have. That is, physical labor type work, that once you get in you can never be gotten rid of, that come with a fantastic pension, that allows one to retire relatively young.

    We see now that a lot of those deals drove companies to insolvency, threw cities into debt, and in many ways were simply economically infeasible. Yet this has become the standard by which many young people are judging their worklife against. And in many ways, it is simply unreasonable. It was a weird time and it set unrealistic expectations for life. In many ways we have a generation having to recover from a 50 year period of unusual behavior and expectations.

  • BYODB||

    The generations before forgot to mention to the Millennial's that it was expected that they should all have at least two children to keep the various Ponzi scheme's afloat. Whoops, guess we better import a shit ton of people who pay into the system without being eligible for benefits.

    /sarc

  • loveconstitution1789||

    ^ this.

  • BYODB||

    The generations before forgot to mention to the Millennial's that it was expected that they should all have at least two children to keep the various Ponzi scheme's afloat. Whoops, guess we better import a shit ton of people who pay into the system without being eligible for benefits.

    /sarc

  • BYODB||

    *shoo's away squirrels*

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I tend to be an open-borders type. But we need to do something about all these squirrels, coming over, popping out hundreds of kids, messing with our net code, and voting democrat.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Don't forget squirrels getting counted with the Census.

  • BYODB||

    I'm an open borders type myself, more or less. I honestly think the motto on the statue of liberty means something. But I also recognize that it would be national suicide to do so before ridding ourselves of all those protectionist labor policies and the welfare state that were erected in the intervening years since the statue of liberty was erected.

    According to Libertarians, I'm what is known as an 'extremist' or a 'retard' because of this.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Not just squirrels anymore. I think all the sockpuppet jumping is affecting Reason servers causing ripples in the space-time continuum.

  • Incomprehensible Bitching||

    That's what happened to me: I have over $100K in student loan debt, with a masters in problematics, with a minor focus on vaginal studies.

    Where's my job?

    And that's all you need to know that capitalism sucks. QED.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Bit too on the nose there.

  • JoeBlow123||

    The thing I see is... we know how the world is now. I was quite stupid, as were my parents, as with their expectations when I was younger. We have no excuse anymore to have rose colored glasses. Does it suck you cannot just get a college degree in "what you love" and pull down a 80k a year job? Buy some ginormous house in a great neighborhood? Sure. But we all know this is the reality know. So recognize it, adjust, and move on.

    For instance, if you are not going to an elite school you probably should not be majoring in liberal arts, you need a STEM degree. If you are going to get a liberal arts degree still you better be talking zero to minimal student debt at a state school. Do not go to law school unless you get into a top 20 school. Get a super high GPA at a state school and crush the MCATs so you can get into a great law school with the added addition of small debts. Do not go super in debt. Live in a smaller house than your parents. Live farther away from your job. Live in a smaller city with lower cost of living. Move to the South (not something I personally want to do haha). Be prepared to move to follow a job.

    Adjust.

    Do not complain. No one will care about your complaints.

  • JoeBlow123||

    I misspelled now as know. And I implied MCATs get you into law school vice med school. Good job me.

  • Agnes||

    Move to Texas. I live in DFW - great place to be right now.

  • Agnes||

    Move to Texas. I live in DFW - great place to be right now.

  • Agnes||

    What I've learned once I made it through the rough years of, 'should I just quit my corporate job and wanderlust and write a blog?!' (luckily I did not), was that it doesn't all come at once. Maybe for some people. But not for most. So build your 401K and enjoy good benefits provided by corporate America. When you're this young, be smart. The most important thing I've learned, is take a job with a company that has plenty of room to grow and that promotes from within. You may not like the job you start with, but if you do a good job, aren't a gossip or a pain in the ass and are dependable, you'll get promoted every year. Or at least get an ample raise.

    Building relationships and having emotional intelligence will get you pretty far, too.

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