AMERICAN MILLENNIALS now find themselves in a place of permanent precarity. Financial security and stability are vaporous dreams for a generation that has to contend with hypercompetitive job markets, suffocating student debts, stagnant wages, eroding worker protections, and rising incarcerations. In his well-researched and depressing book Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, Malcolm Harris does the important work of putting the generational experience of American millennials within a historical context and critiquing the capitalist structures that put them in this precarious position. It is important work, because, as he writes, “soon ‘millennial’ won’t refer to those rascally kids with their phones, it will be a dominant character of a new America. And it probably won’t be pretty.”
Harris begins his labor analysis of American millennials by focusing on the work performed by children in the classroom. “Removing the pedagogical mask” that disguises the work done by children is imperative, because it is in kindergarten that kids are expected to begin the development of their human capital. As Harris puts it, “When students are working, what they’re working on is their own ability to work.” With more and more time expected to be spent on homework and other productive labor, kids are growing up without opportunities for unstructured, playful interactions with their peers, and are given little chance to develop their unmanaged sense of self.
Instead of an exploratory period of life where self-directed play is encouraged and mistakes are forgiven, childhood is now a time for “risk management” by parents and obsessive investment in one’s human capital. The natural result of this commodified and professionalized upbringing is alienation and anxiety. How else to react to a world “where every choice is an investment”? These jittery kids rack up extracurricular accomplishments and leadership roles in the hope of pleasing what Harris calls the “rating agencies for kids,” college admissions offices. And all the while, they are painfully aware that competition stiffens each year for the decreasing number of jobs paying above starvation wages.
To add to their burdens, for an increasing number of students, attending college entails taking on debts — at levels unheard of for previous generations. The affordable higher education enjoyed by the Baby Boomer generation has completely dissipated, and the cost of attending a four-year public college has increased by 280 percent between 1979 and 2014. The notion that college will lift hard-working, intelligent, and academically meritorious low-income students out of poverty is a myth. Thirty-eight percent of poor students “will remain in the bottom two deciles regardless of their educational accomplishment.” And the modern American university has distilled the exploitation of adjunct professors down to an art; increasingly, in college classrooms, poor adjuncts or graduate students teach poor undergraduate students. As Harvard professor Kevin Birmingham asserts in his speech “The Great Shame of Our Profession,” “Universities rely upon a revolving door of new Ph.D.s who work temporarily for unsustainable wages before giving up and being replaced by next years surplus doctorates.”
All this seems like a cruel trick to play on a generation. The education millennials are expected to attain is unaffordable, and reliable jobs are hard to find even if they go thousands of dollars into debt, on which it is almost impossible to default. The situation is oppressive, claustrophobic.
Harris continues his investigation into the generational experiences of American millennials by examining their precarious position in a polarized labor market where the “bad jobs are getting worse, good jobs are getting better, and the middle is disappearing.” Today, young people’s productivity is increasing while their wages stagnate and job security decreases. It was not always like this; worker productivity and worker compensation increased at comparable rates until they cleaved in the mid-1970s. For Americans, “nonsupervisory workers’ productivity tripled between 1972 and 2009, while real wages dipped.” This means that the surplus value sloughed off the top from workers has never been higher.
Harris argues that unpaid internships, where entry-level workers give away their labor for free in exchange for intangibles like “experience” and “networking,” actually “undermine the demand for entry-level workers across the board.” In fact, college students who work unpaid internships for class credit find themselves in the absurd position of paying money for the opportunity to work for free.
In addition to all the maladies described above, youth of color have to fight for survival against racist mass incarceration and a militarized police force that murders unarmed black men with no repercussions: “The US incarceration rate has quintupled since the 1970s, and it’s affecting young black men most of all and more disproportionally than ever.”
So what do we do about this?
Near the end of the book, Harris is suspicious of what he calls “Bop It Solutions” to the material precarity that may become, if it is not already, a permanent condition for every worker in our society. These “bop it” solutions, commonly put forth by the liberal commentariat, include “consumer politics, electoral engagement, charitable giving, and expressive protest.” His critique of consumerism was similar to what I expected. Companies “wrap themselves in the aura of values,” not to create a more equitable society, but to boost public relations and increase their bottom line. As Harris contends: “The market is not a magic desire-fulfilling machine we can reprogram to green the earth and level inequality. It is, rather, a vast system of exploitation in which workers are compelled to labor for their subsistence, and owners reap the profits.” Americans cannot purchase their way to a better future.
The real solution, in my opinion, is working-class solidarity. Building that might be difficult for a generation raised on the ethos of fierce independence and taking every possible opportunity for one’s own advancement, but I do not write it off as impossible. Inside every alienated worker exists a deep longing for a secure community where they can experience the forgotten joy of interdependence. I have little faith in the older generations to stop our spiral, and the burden of necessary revolutionary action will fall on our shoulders.
It seems naïve to speak of a dystopian future, when the present time feels like such an inescapable hellscape. If I may address myself to members of my generation, Harris’s book is a fine gift for the insufferable Baby Boomers in your life whose brains have been dulled by Fox News, or for the liberals who spout off about millennials with their narcissistic selfies and dangerous entitlement. It’s also great reading for when you have six missed calls from Sallie Mae, lock yourself in your room to wallow in existential despair, and want to deepen your understanding of your plight while disassociating.