“Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials,” by Malcolm Harris (Little, Brown), is the first major accounting of the millennial generation written by someone who belongs to it. Harris is twenty-eight—the book’s cover announces his birth year next to a sardonic illustration of elementary-school stickers—and he has already rounded the bases of young, literary, leftist media: he is a writer and editor for the online magazine the New Inquiry; he has written for Jacobin and n+1. He got his first taste of notoriety during Occupy Wall Street: shortly after activists settled in at Zuccotti Park, he wrote a blog post for Jacobin in which he claimed to have “heard unconfirmed reports that Radiohead is planning a concert at the occupation this week.” He set up an e-mail account using the name of the band’s manager and wrote to Occupy organizers, conveying the band’s interest in performing. Later, in a piece for Gawker titled “I’m the Jerk Who Pranked Occupy Wall Street,” he explained that his goal was to get more people to the protest, and expressed disdain for the way the organizers responded. (Fooled by his e-mail, they held a press conference and confirmed the band’s plan to appear.)
Harris’s anatomizing of his peers begins with the star stickers that, along with grade-school participation trophies, so fascinate Sasse, Twenge, and other writers of generational trend pieces. “You suck, you still get a trophy” is how Twenge puts it, describing contemporary K through five as an endless awards ceremony. Harris, on the other hand, regards elementary school as a capitalist boot camp, in which children perform unpaid labor, learn the importance of year-over-year growth through standardized testing, and get accustomed to constant, quantified, increasingly efficient work. The two descriptions are not as far apart as one might think: assuring kids that they’re super special—and telling them, as Sasse does, that they have a duty to improve themselves through constant enrichment—is a good way to get them to cleave to a culture of around-the-clock labor. And conditioning them to seek rewards in the form of positive feedback—stars and trophies, hearts and likes—is a great way to get them used to performing that labor for free.
My memories of childhood—in a suburban neighborhood in west Houston that felt newly hatched, as open as farmland—are different, breezy and hot and sunlit. I attended, mostly on scholarship, a Southern Baptist school attached to one of the largest megachurches in America, and elementary school seemed like the natural price of admission for friends, birthday parties, and long summers full of shrieking, unsupervised play. (The very young aren’t much for picking up on indoctrination techniques; the religious agitprop felt natural enough, too.) But some kind of training did kick in around the time I entered high school, when I began spending fourteen-hour days on campus with the understanding that I needed to earn a scholarship to a good college. College, of course, is where the millennial lounges around on lush green quads, spends someone else’s money, insists on “safe spaces,” protests her school’s heteronormative core curriculum, and wages war on her professors if she receives a grade below an A. I did the first two of those things, thanks to the Jefferson Scholars Foundation at the University of Virginia. I also took six classes a semester, worked part time, and crammed my schedule with clubs and committees—in between naps on the quad and beers with friends on my porch couch and long meditative sessions figuring out what kind of a person I was going to be.
Most undergraduates don’t have such a luxurious and debt-free experience. The majority of American college students never live on campus; around a third go to community college. The type of millennial that much of the media flocks to—white, rich, thoughtlessly entitled—is largely unrepresentative of what is, in fact, a diverse and often downwardly mobile group. (Millennials are the first generation to have just a fifty-fifty chance of being financially better off than their parents.) Many millennials grew up poor, went to crummy schools, and have been shuttled toward for-profit colleges and minimum-wage jobs, if not the prison system. (For-profit colleges, which disproportionately serve low-income students, account for roughly a tenth of undergraduates, and more than a third of student-loan defaults.) Average student debt has doubled just within this generation, surging from around eighteen thousand dollars at graduation for the class of 2003 to thirty-seven thousand for the class of 2016. (Under the tax plan recently passed by House Republicans, the situation worsens for student borrowers and their families: that bill eliminates the deduction on student-loan interest and voids the income-tax exemption for tuition benefits.)
A young college graduate, having faithfully followed the American path of hard work and achievement, might now find herself in a position akin to a homeowner with negative equity: in possession of an asset that is worth much less than what she owes. In these conditions, the concept of self-interest starts to splinter. For young people, I suspect, the idea of specialness looks like a reward but mostly functions as punishment, bestowing on us the idea that there is no good way of existing other than constantly generating returns.
Harris and I were born in the same year, and we were in college when the financial crisis hit, in 2008. As I approached graduation, I watched news footage of crumple-faced families carrying boxes out of foreclosed houses, followed by shots of expensively dressed professionals walking to work at their bailed-out banks. I joined the Peace Corps, and was assigned to Kyrgyzstan. Shortly after I returned to the U.S., in 2011, the grungy, amorphous Occupy movement started blooming; protesters were railing against the impunity of “the one per cent” in Houston, as they were in dozens of other cities across the country. Suspended in the amber of my temporary underemployment, I spent long afternoons hanging around Hermann Square, downtown, making small talk with libertarian lawyers, pan-activists in bandannas and hiking sandals, and a lot of people in my own demographic—millennials coming into their political discontent.
That September, Occupy set up its makeshift camp in lower Manhattan. On the first day of October, some seven hundred demonstrators were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct as they walked on the roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge, blocking traffic. Harris was one of them. He argued, along with many others, that the police had led the group onto the bridge and then arrested them. In 2012, as the case was going forward, his Twitter archive was subpoenaed. Twitter resisted the order, but eventually provided the tweets, which made it clear that Harris had heard the police warning protesters to stay off the roadway. (“They tried to stop us,” he’d tweeted.) He was sentenced to six days of community service. These Occupy stories don’t make it into “Kids These Days”—Harris leaves out his personal experience altogether, keen to focus on structural analysis rather than anecdote. He does observe, though, in a discussion of social media, that “Coke tastes good even once you’ve seen what it can do to a rusty nail.” He continues to make frequent use of Twitter.