THE WORD “millennial” was first pressed into service as a noun in 1991 by William Strauss and Neil Howe in their book, Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. (Strauss had, by the time of the book’s publication already left an indelible mark on American culture: in 1981, he helped to found The Capitol Steps, the live performance troupe that delivers light political satire through mildly bawdy musical parodies drawn from the American songbook — e.g., “Papa’s Got a Brand-New Baghdad,” “Springtime for Liberals,” “Unzipping My Dooh Dah.”)

Strauss and Howe introduced the term in the context of a grand theory of generational archetypes and sociohistorical progress. (You have to go back to 1584, apparently, in order to truly appreciate how inexorably fated America was to become the greatest country in the world.) The millennial generation, they prophesied — those born between 1980 and 2000 — would come of age in a period of urgent social crisis that would require them to “unite into a heroic and achieving cadre of rising adults.” In 2000, they announced with a further flourish that millennials are “special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, conventional, pressured, and achieving.” Today the nearly oppressive dominance of the term and the persistent reiteration of this profile they simply made up suggests that Strauss and Howe, to put it in language a millennial would understand, made “fetch” happen.

Nearly 20 years later, as the youngest millennials reach adulthood, we’re stuck with the stereotypes Strauss and Howe proffered, and not much else. Millennials are said to be a generation of tech-obsessed narcissists whose failure to match, much less exceed, our parents’ economic success is evidence of poor moral fiber. We think we’re special; we’re too sheltered; we’re too conventional; and we certainly aren’t achieving enough to warrant our wild overconfidence. (Full disclosure: I’m a millennial.) If that’s so, says Malcolm Harris, it certainly didn’t happen by accident. In his new book Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, he warns that we ought to take the historical formation of this cohort seriously, because it represents a single point of failure for a society veering toward oligarchy and/or dystopia. We will either become “the first generation of true American fascists” or “the first generation of successful American revolutionaries.”

No pressure, though.

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In November 2011, just as the Occupy Wall Street protests were winding down, two progressive think tanks jointly published a study called “The Economic State of Young America,” which reported that millennials were likely to be the first generation of Americans who were less economically successful than their parents had been. This news unleashed something between a moral panic and a national identity crisis, one that’s only sort of about the material conditions of millennials’ daily lives or the documented effects of growing wealth inequality on the health of our democracy. Someone or something, it seems, had killed the American dream: the idea not only that hard work will be rewarded with social mobility and economic prosperity, but also that justly earned wealth will grow exponentially across generations.

But who was to blame? Was the problem that millennials have failed to live up to the economic challenges that previous generations of Americans had always met, or was it that their parents and grandparents had failed to deliver them a world in which success was possible? Harris, for his part, thinks the answer is clear: “Every authority from moms to presidents told Millennials to accumulate as much human capital as we could and we did, but the market hasn’t held up its side of the bargain. What gives? And why did we make this bargain in the first place?” (Human capital, in Harris’s usage, refers to “the present value of a person’s future earnings”; “the ‘capital’ part of ‘human capital’ means that, when we use this term, we’re thinking of people as tools in a larger production process.”) 

Harris’s thesis is simple: young people are doing more and getting less in a society that that has incentivized their labor with the promise of a fair shake, and that older generations are profiting handsomely from the breach of contract. He doesn’t express it this clearly, though, in part because he is hamstrung by the book’s framing, which is detrimental to his argument (for reasons I’ll explain later). But it also makes Kids These Days an interesting artifact in its own right. It reveals something about how badly we want to believe that we all belong to a bigger American story, and about how essential that belief is to the maintenance of a capitalist regime that maximizes our labor and diminishes our lives.

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Some of the analysis in Kids These Days is pretty impressive. In the book’s first two chapters, Harris maps the effects of a hyper-capitalized youth control complex that formed, he argues, in the last two decades of the 20th century. At every level, Harris thinks, the American education system is either a workplace or a profit machine. The highlight of the book is its admirably lucid précis of higher education, the student debt crisis, and the institutional wealth accumulation it fuels. Harris makes clear that higher ed has become a debt machine that profits everyone except students. While outsourcing and labor casualization have cut expenses, price tags at four-year schools have jumped 200 percent or more, and administrators seem to have multiplied like gerbils: an increase wildly out of proportion to the rollback of public funding over the last 30 years. That’s where student loans come in. They represent over $100 billion a year in government funding to schools and, over time, huge returns for the feds. The $140 billion in federal student loans issued in 2014, Harris says, will eventually net a $25 billion profit.

The strength of this argument is that Harris doesn’t try to frame the analysis in the context of the millennial generation. While he briefly discusses the federal government’s failure to offer meaningful relief for loans in repayment — including the observation that the Obama administration’s vaunted reforms amounted to very little — he doesn’t say all that much about the experiences of millennial student debtors, or how they’re distinct from those of Generation X or other cohorts. One can certainly imagine how that piece comes into play without his indulging in the generational grandstanding that otherwise appears throughout the book.

Another chapter argues persuasively that primary and secondary education actually involves processes of labor capitalization we’ve simply cloaked in a “pedagogical mask.” In school, he says, “When students are working, what they’re working on is their own ability to work.” Childhood is “the time to accumulate the skills and abilities necessary to compete in a tough adult job market,” an “arms race that pits kids and their families against each other in an ever-escalating battle for a competitive edge” (e.g., a kid takes music lessons primarily because it will look good on a college application). We’ve obscured the labor arrangement and its deferred profits with the language of child and adolescent development, as when, for example, a school tells parents that they’re canceling the annual kindergarten show because, as Harris puts it, “These kids could not spare two days off from their regularly scheduled work […] The implication is that the very children themselves aren’t good enough without some serious improvements.” He backs these claims up with a lot of research on time use; between 1981 and 2003, for example, kids between the ages of six and eight spent 20 percent more time in school and recorded a 178 percent increase in time spent studying. The growing numbers of students taking Advanced Placement courses or applying to college are reflections of a surge in labor productivity. Harris also tacks on a qualitative examination of “helicopter parents and vigilante moms” in lieu of a less hysterical exploration of his observation that parenting has become risk management: family life has been hijacked by the demands of maximizing the system’s investments.

The rest of the book, unfortunately, is more hit-or-miss. A chapter on how the state profits from making young people into human capital exemplifies the problem. Harris’s brief discussions of high-stakes testing, juvenile policing, and the school-to-prison pipeline are squeezed in with a fairly anemic analysis of the likely collapse of the entitlement system. The latter is a complicated topic that requires a far greater mastery of its historical context than Harris can muster. (I’ll spare you my pedantic digression into the history of the AARP and the difference between Social Security employment benefits and Supplemental Security Income; you’re welcome.) Similarly, a chapter on the workplace would be stronger if it focused more on how young people are trained to do the now-compulsory affective labor demanded in virtually every sector of the workforce — or, as Harris puts it, in “[a]ny job it’s impossible to do while sobbing” — and less on how we feel about it. More seriously, Harris fails to consider the fact that women and girls are also forced to do the work of managing how and whether and to what degree we project and perform sexual availability. This is compulsory labor, particularly in the workplace. Refusing to do it leaves women economically vulnerable and raises the risk of sexual harassment, violence, and assault. So, sure, a lot of affective labor once thought as “female labor” is now assigned to people of all genders. But not all of it.

Kids These Days is also a very white book, in ways that it might not have been if not for Harris’s insistence on capturing the experience of a monolithic millennial cohort. To his credit, his discussion of education and the justice system does foreground the system’s racial disparities. “Despite the media’s efforts to get us to picture generic Millennials as white, black victims of [zero-tolerance school discipline policies and the like] are no less ‘Millennial’ than their white peers,” Harris writes; “in fact, insofar as they are closer to the changes in policing, they are more Millennial.” Reading this, I was reminded that Michael Brown, killed by police, and Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride, killed by vigilantes, were all millennials. So is CeCe McDonald, who plead to second-degree manslaughter for acting in self-defense.

Harris also discusses sociologist Victor Rios’s concept of “dignity work,” or the work that low-income young people of color must do in order to stay clear of the ever-present law enforcement apparatus. However, this and a section on college sports are the only places he addresses race, or any of the other identities that differentiate the supposedly monolithic bloc of Americans born between 1980 and 2000. We know that structural inequality produces disparate outcomes between millennials of color and their white counterparts across the board, not just in terms of the former cohort’s explicit criminalization. For example, it’s true that millennials are accumulating wealth at a rate that lags far behind our parents. But the 2008 recession also increased the already present racial disparity in wealth accumulation in our parents’ generation and therefore in inherited wealth. And that isn’t really a “Occupy Generation” problem, but a multigenerational one (and not in the Strauss and Howe way).

Likewise Harris’s chapter on higher education might have delved into how the student debt crisis has played out for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and their students, or referenced Tressie McMillan Cottom’s recent work on the growth of for-profit colleges, which she describes as institutions that “exclusively, by definition, rely on persistent inequalities as a business model.” Such intersectional analysis is especially imperative for a book that aspires to chronicle “the making of Millennials”; without it, the generational conceit strikes me as fairly useless.

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Ultimately, though, the most frustrating thing about Kids These Days is how Harris keeps coming back to that broken promise framing, encapsulated in those blunt rhetorical questions quoted above: “[T]he market hasn’t held up its side of the bargain. What gives? And why did we make this bargain in the first place?” As a millennial might say, great questions. But the answer to the first has very little to do with millennials per se and everything to do with a set of historical and economic forces that lurched into operation long before 1980. The game was rigged from the start, and the prize was never real. The answer to the second taps into a much, much bigger and more important problem about how the deceptive rhetoric of the American dream fuels our exploitation, and prompts a third question: why are we so surprised we got scammed?

Let me take a shot at that one. I read with incredulity Harris’s suggestion that “[a] look at the evidence shows that the curve we’re on is not the one we’ve been told about, the one that bends toward justice.” He’s referring, of course, to Martin Luther King Jr.’s much-quoted maxim about the arc of the moral universe, which apparently conflicts with some unspecified “evidence” demonstrating that millennials have been denied their rightful economic and cultural inheritance. But conflating matters of moral justice with rising material success implies a frankly impoverished vision of, and for, American life. Nor does this strike me as a book that’s especially concerned with economic justice in more than a facile way, unless you’re of the “rising tide lifts all boats” school.

To be fair, it’s not like Harris is alone here. “We were promised something and we didn’t get it” is not just a millennial refrain: it’s a shared American delusion. But a dream is not an entitlement. The idea that entry into a stable middle class is some sort of American national birthright is ahistorical; that it ever seemed possible may prove to be epiphenomenal. The American middle class to which we were supposed to aspire was vanishingly short-lived, and it was certainly never uniformly accessible.

More importantly (hold my pamplemousse LaCroix while I blow your mind), it was never real in the first place. The seductions of the postwar prosperity narrative have obscured the fact its spoils were never firmly secured. Those stable manufacturing jobs had an expiration date from the outset: the restructuralization of the industrial work force began in the 1950s. Unionization was never a bulwark for the American worker. Yes, public-sector unions flourished, but that’s a different story; in the private sector, corporations embraced a model of employer beneficence and welfare provision because it limited the range of benefits negotiated under collective bargaining agreements and eroded the commitment of the rank-and-file. The regressive taxation schemes favored by Nixon’s so-called silent majority all but ensured that millennials would come of age to find a badly battered system of public education. Investing in the middle-class prosperity narrative as a normative expectation in American life — for American life — doesn’t make a ton of sense. I’m not sure it ever really did. The past 18 months have certainly shown that it animates electoral politics in ways that are fundamentally toxic and corrosive to our democracy. Why, then, have we bought it? Because this is a consumer society, and it was sold to us like a product. Millennials are just another market segment.

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Which brings us back to William Strauss and Neil Howe. It’s not incidental to Harris’s story that Generations was published in 1991. Millennialism was quite useful in selling us on the idea that what was happening to young people was simply a necessary stage in America’s manifest destiny, and Harris, for all his supposed disillusionment, apparently still buys it. In his conclusion, Harris paints millennials as a renegade version of the generation of heroes that Strauss and Howe prophesied, the ones bearing a responsibility to bring us through some clarifying fire. “If we find ourselves without luck or bravery,” he writes, “I fear it will seem in retrospect like we never had a choice. But, to paraphrase Emerson, we’ll have all there is. And it is up to the Millennial cohort to make something else of what’s been made of us.” But maybe what we need — and this isn’t something we can do alone — is to let the American dream die so something new can be born.

No pressure, though.

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Jacqui Shine is a writer and historian. She lives in Chicago.