To think through these questions, I talked to Malcolm Harris, author of Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. Harris’s book argues that the rift between millennials and baby boomers is not the latest installment of a recurring and eternal conflict between kids and their parents, but instead reflects real generational inequality. To highlight this, Harris focuses on the material ways this inequality manifests for millennials: insurmountable student debt, decades of flat wage growth, and the professionalization of schooling, among other examples. These conditions put millennials in a historically important (if risky) position.
The idea that younger people might offer political salvation is not a new one. Decades ago, observers often described baby boomers in terms similar to the ones now being used to discuss millennials and Gen Z. Some leftists saw radical potential in a boomer generation known today for being disproportionately conservative. In this context, some skepticism regarding generational analysis might be warranted.
In this interview, Harris elaborates what makes this particular moment in history unique, and why the story of the boomers — once potentially radical, now conservative — shouldn’t be used as a basis for analysis of all age cohorts. Harris offers the view that millennials and Gen Z really do face a distinct moment with distinct political possibilities, even if there is no guarantee of positive outcomes.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ADAM BOFFA: Millennials have been reliable headline generators for a couple of years now, but media attention has widened recently to include the younger cohort. Some are calling this group Generation Z. In your opinion, what distinguishes Generation Z from millennials?
MALCOLM HARRIS: I think that’s not clear. I don’t actually recognize a Generation Z yet, and most of the people who are telling you about that kind of stuff are not serious demographers. They aren’t anthropologists or any of the people who study age cohorts. These are mostly news commentators or, especially, marketers, who are the first people to take these labels and run with them. It takes a while to generate sufficiently deep understandings of generational age cohorts to even distinguish their existence. So, you’re talking about a cohort that's not entirely but, at this point, mostly children. And so to talk about what their characteristics are as people is pretty hard because they’re still becoming the people they’re going to be in a lot of really important ways.
I think the real work that’s going to define Generation Z is just starting to come out. There’s a book called Beeline by Shalini Shankar, who’s an anthropologist who does Asian American Studies at Northwestern. It’s a study of what she calls Gen Z kids and spelling bees and specifically the children of South Asian immigrants. When I read that, that was the first thing I looked at and was like, this is a worthwhile study of this cohort. So, too early to tell is the short answer.
I’m curious to hear more of your thoughts on the interactions this cohort has had with institutional politics. After the March for Our Lives released its manifesto and policy platform, you were among a group of observers that raised some concerns about it. There was skepticism around the way it addressed mental health issues and school security. You mentioned later that a group of teens you spoke to were also frustrated with the series of events. What sort of dynamics do you see playing out here? What was that class of teens talking about when you discussed these issues with them?
I was asked to come talk to an advisory class of high schoolers. They were politically engaged, a very smart group of kids at a selective public high school in New York. This was some months after the peak of the March for Our Lives. I asked them if they had been involved, if they’d protested and done the whole thing, and they said yeah, they had. And I asked them how they felt about their participation a few months later. And they were really, really negative. They were really, really disappointed with their role. I think they felt badly used by the issue.
There was obviously genuine enthusiasm and genuine fear and concern by young people about these acts of spectacular violence. But school violence has not gone up, and people should be very clear about that when they start talking about more police in schools or whatever. School violence is down, which is something I make very clear in my book. Schools have become much safer places to be in a lot of ways — as everywhere has become, because there's been a huge decrease in crime, especially violent crime, and especially violent crime against young people. I think there's some genuine fear and despair from young people, but I think it was really channeled into this policy issue by moneyed interests.
The Sunrise Movement seems much more positive to me. I love that [students] are not going to school and are calling for people to not go to school. I think that’s awesome. Because young people’s job — and this is what a lot of the book’s about — is to reproduce the society that exists. So if they say, “No, we’re not going to do that, we have to stop right now. Reproducing this society is the thing we can't do…” To step back and say, “No, we want to do something different” — I think that’s really powerful and very smart on them.
I think it's interesting to see which issues get described as “youth issues” in news coverage.
And it’s interesting what gets talked about as a youth movement and what doesn’t. Black Lives Matter is a youth movement, but I don’t know if we really talked about it as a youth movement in that way, or if we credit those young people with the same sort of political sophistication that we talk about with the Sunrise Movement. And these are overlapping groups and overlapping struggles. I think Black Lives Matter has done a lot in terms of civic education and then some in this country, especially for young people.
I’d like to look at an earlier period in American history where there was also a big focus on the political potential of young people. Murray Bookchin is not usually associated with generational analysis, but in Post-Scarcity Anarchism, he refers to the generational gap between the youth of the 1960s and their parents as “an objective gap.” He calls the youth the most radical part of American society and says they show signs of a possible “future Utopia.”
He’s talking about baby boomers. But I felt some overlap here with the conclusion of Kids These Days, where you state that millennials are going to become either fascists or revolutionaries. You’re approaching it with more reservation than he is, but this seemed to share some of the same sentiment — that this is a historically significant period, and that younger people are uniquely situated to address it. Do you see any parallels with that era at all, or am I wrong in making the comparison?
Well, I think he was wrong, especially with the use of the word “objective.” That’s probably the most interesting thing there. You see the word “objective” and then a few sentences later he’s talking about the “cultural.” Bookchin has his origins in Marx, as well, and those are Marxist terms he’s using, but I think the Marxists who saw a generational subject in the ’60s and thought they saw a revolutionary subject were not being as objective as maybe they should have been. Which is not to say it wasn’t a real struggle that was fought and lost, because it was. But if you look at actual measures of generational inequality, they were at historic lows at that time. The generation that was coming up, they were right that it was an important moment, but they were sort of wrong about what exactly the stakes were for their generation and what their relationship was to history.
In your book, you say that millennials face a set of conditions that are “permanently different than what previous generations have experienced,” which is clearly felt by a lot of millennials. I’d point to the popularity of jokes and commentary about “late-stage capitalism” as one example. But in other ways, like with general levels of economic inequality, it seems very historically precedented. Like a reversion to the pre-boomer norm, and like the boomers were the exceptional ones.
Yeah. Baby boomers were a historic generation, and one of the things that they were really successful at was establishing their experience as the historic norm even though their experience was actually really abnormal in a lot of ways. We see that with, like, sex and drugs. There’s a lot of commentary about how millennials don’t have as much sex as generations past but it’s not really generations past. It’s, like, one or two generations past, because [boomers] were actually historically anomalously sexually active.
It's not older people or young people, per se. It’s this specific historical cohort. And that’s one of the things that people get wrong when they think about generational analysis. It’s when they think about it in idealistic terms of, like, young people and old people as such. And that is always a component. There are existential elements to aging. But that’s not what I do.
The Marxist line is “always historicize.” So, we always need to understand our precise historical moment, and that includes our relationship to past historical moments, of course. But we’re still in history. The end of history was much prophesied, but it never really came about. So I think that’s one of our urgent tasks right now, is to see ourselves as still part of history, as still undergoing this process of history whereby forms of life change, whereby modes of production change, and think, “Alright, what’s next? What’s going on now?”
And do you see that as a task that is uniquely required of younger people? That above a certain age, people aren’t a part of the efforts in the same way because they weren’t shaped by these material conditions?
Yeah, I think we have seen that generational cohort has become an increasingly salient question of political identification. It’s become more and more meaningful, emergently meaningful. And that was one of the criticisms I got when I was writing this book, was that this wasn't an important category. That this didn’t matter. Income level was an important category. But generational cohort — where you are age-wise at a certain point — was not a politically important category. And then there was the Democratic primary in 2016, in which, better than anything, age cohort was the defining aspect that split Bernie and Hillary voters, even more than gender was.
As you mentioned, Bookchin’s hopes for boomers didn’t quite pan out. And in a later edition of his book, in the 1980s, he writes a new introduction to address this. It seems like, at times, he’s almost reprimanding his past self somewhat for focusing too much on generational issues, and so he makes a point of refocusing his analysis elsewhere. I’m wondering if, as you wrote your book, you were concerned at all that you could one day find yourself in similar circumstances.
I think that's reflected in, like you said, the caution with which I’m talking about this generation and its political possibilities. I mean, I think there is definitely a history where we [millennials] are the bad guys. You look around and you say, “How could we be the ones who are to blame?” Well, you look at Stephen Miller, and the answer is: We’re gonna build the concentration camps. There will be millennials making the decisions to adapt to these situations in the bad ways. And to do that is to do really monstrous, gruesome things that we've already started seeing. That we’ve already seen members of our cohort start doing and start doing eagerly. This question of who goes Nazi is already at play. We’ve already started seeing people profit from those questions. So, it’s very much a contingent question, right? So maybe I learned from their experience a little bit, and from the failure of that univocal generational analysis of the baby boomers.
What do you see as the benefits to generational analysis, given the circumstances discussed here? Why generational analysis, and why now?
How I came to this project was I was at the University of Maryland. I was a student activist, and we were working on a campaign against a prospective tuition increase. And then the financial crisis hit. So, we were trying to find a way to link the financial crisis to this tuition increase. And my roommate at the time and I did a bunch of research and did this PowerPoint presentation connecting the student debt system to the collapse of the housing debt system. And at the time there was not a lot of research about that out there, but there was a lot of easily accessible primary source data. And I took a look at the student debt system and was like, holy shit, this is a real issue. This isn't just a question about fighting tuition on our campus. This is, like, an issue of national importance.
So after I graduated, one of the first pieces I wrote, and the first piece to really get any broad attention for me as a writer, was a writeup of that research, of that work, that I did for n+1 right before Occupy Wall Street. So, when I was looking for a book project, people were like, you should turn that into a book, but as I looked more into this question of human capital production, I realized that this is a bigger question than just student debt. This is a question that goes to the heart of our system of production. And so the way I went about approaching that was through this generational lens, particularly because of its genesis in this question of student debt, which is a really cohort-specific phenomenon.
So as you do this kind of work, there are areas where it really seems to highlight something that other types of analysis might miss. But are there limitations to this kind of work, either analytically or in terms of political strategy? And are there limitations in placing political expectations upon a certain age cohort?
Totally. Tons and tons. There are vast limitations analytically and politically. So I would never want anyone to think otherwise. And I think I get into some of them in the book, where you’ve still got to pay attention to the ways generations themselves are divided internally in contradictory ways. Conflictual ways. I mean, yeah, I’m a Marxist. The contradiction between the working and the ownership class is my primary point of departure, always.
And in the book you argue that millennial politicians and millennial capitalists have the potential to be even more craven — that’s the term you use — than their predecessors, because of these conditions. So, you see class as continuing to be a principal area of analytical concern.
Yeah, people are getting worse because the situation is getting worse. I think Stephen Miller is a good example. The conditions for what he’s doing and his project are also our conditions. So he’s taking advantage of the millennial condition to pursue what I think is an evil project of white nationalism. He’s probably one of the happiest people in the world right now. Things seem to be going really, really, really well for him. And that worries me. Our enemies are millennials, too. They’re disproportionately geriatric billionaires, but we shouldn’t get confused. And if we don’t act now, then they win. And they get to determine the character of our cohort.
Adam Boffa is a writer and musician from New Jersey.
Banner image by Fibonacci Blue. Image has been cropped and desaturated. Image licensed under CC BY 2.0.