by Malcolm Harris
Little, Brown and Company, 2017, 272 pp.
When we talk about generations, we tend to talk as if history has always been divided up into them. But the idea of distinct eras of cohorts each defined by some unique spirit is not timeless. The notion of a generation was borne of a conception of history as a machine of progress—a claim central to Enlightenment ideology. When philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder coined the term “Zeitgeist” in 1769, he assumed time was a progressive force driving history forward. Developing this idea, Hegel imagined historical progress as a series of dialectical steps, each bringing the Geist, or World Spirit, closer to its realization of reason and freedom.
To this day, the notion of generations remains haunted by the Geist—the tacit presumption that each birth cohort signifies progress. Little wonder that millennials have proven such a conundrum for media narratives. Because for millennials, as author Malcolm Harris points out, the progress ideology “doesn’t jibe with reality: Somehow things got worse.”
Harris’s new book, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, is a crucial work of generational analysis in part because it severs the connection between the idea of generations and the presupposition of progress. The book is not an explicit critique of this essentialist notion of generations, however, but something more practical: a corrective. Against a glut of reductive clickbait stories dedicated to asserting “Millennials be like [insert broad observation]” Harris (with whom I worked a number of years ago at the New Inquiry) takes up the task of asking why millennials are the way they are, and then providing an answer. As he states in his introduction: “if Millennials are different in one way or another, it’s not because we’re more (or less) evolved than our parents or grandparents; it’s because they’ve changed the world in ways that have produced people like us. And we didn’t happen by accident.” The pages that follow are a careful and convincing study of how specific material conditions account for the way millennials be like—and, crucially, “in whose interests it is that we exist this way.”
Kids These Days offers a historical materialist analysis, but Harris is too committed to accessibility to use that term or to mention Marx even once. In prose that is precise, readable, and witty, he explores the economic, social, and political conditions that shaped those of us—myself and Harris included—born between 1980 and 2000. Harris’s central contention is that millennials are what happens when contemporary capitalism converts young people into “human capital.” After reading his book, it seems ill-advised to understand millennials any other way.
So what is human capital? As Harris explains, its “rough paper analog is the résumé: a summary of past training for future labor.” Being viewed as human capital reduces people to no more than potential earners, with their value determined by their imagined future capacity to make money based on their current skillset and social position. It’s a way of reconfiguring young life into market terms. And it has informed every stage of the millennial generation’s development: schools organized by competitive standardized testing; résumé-building extracurriculars for the wealthy; zero-tolerance policies and the constant threat of prison for poor kids; monitoring and control of childhood behavior; prescription drugs, and little free time to play, all justified by the myth that turning yourself into better human capital guarantees a better future.
Childhood done right, according to the vagaries of this system, means getting into college and taking on huge debt—to double down on the self-qua-investment. As tuition costs have soared, median incomes have stagnated, producing a generation with little hope of paying off its unprecedented levels of debt. “As it turns out,” Harris writes, “just because you can produce an unprecedented amount of value doesn’t necessarily mean you can feed yourself under twenty-first-century American capitalism.”
As Harris admits almost as a refrain, this is a bleak story about an unsustainable situation. But this game does have winners. The question is who wins, and the answer is clear. Turning a generation into human capital provides capitalists with a steady supply of workers.
Harris’s analysis will come as a shock only to readers who previously understood millennials in terms of contradictory media tropes (they are both lazy and working all hours, sexless and oversexed, ever-connected and narcissistic, money-driven and financially irresponsible). But Harris isn’t offering up novelty—he’s giving us a comprehensive analysis of what has up until now been dealt with in fragments.
Harris details, for example, how “the gendered wage gap has narrowed in the past decades,” but that women’s gains have been far from evenly distributed. He explores late capitalism’s increasing reliance and production of so-called “feminized labor”, and how this “reflects employers’ successful attempts to reduce labor costs.”
Throughout the book Harris also stresses how black, Latino, and indigenous millennials—as in prior generations—face greater barriers to financial stability, systematic exclusion from public life, and overpolicing compared to their white counterparts.
The author does not claim to offer a complete account of the millennial experience. The label “millennial” is used with messy abandon by the mainstream media and marketing agencies and in turn has been dismissed by some critics as little more than nonsense advertising fodder. Harris is keen to point out that “millennial” is anything but a useless term, but not because all so-called millennials have any one quality in common. A historical materialist analysis doesn’t foreclose attention to intersecting struggles; a good one, like Harris’s, does the opposite. He’s not bartering the idea of some vital principle shared by all American millennials; he’s looking at the conditions that have fashioned millennials into a group.
There’s a risk of begging the question here, to posit millennials as products of material conditions and then to show how material conditions produce millennials. But Harris offers a clarifying and information-rich narrative that avoids mechanistic determinism. His story might not be the only explanation for how millennials were created, but it’s certainly convincing.
By demanding that we take seriously the making of millennials, Harris sends up a warning flare about the kind of world millennials themselves might go on to make. Readers who reach Harris’s final chapter hoping for a solution weren’t reading with enough care. If we grasped just how capitalism has produced millennials, we would understand that undoing this system requires no less than undoing ourselves. Harris could have made this point more explicit, but he is clear that the necessary drastic change of course will be difficult even to imagine.
Harris is well versed in the putative solutions that people tend to mobilize around. He notes that books like his often end with optimistic calls to action, which recall the ’90’s kids game, Bop It!: “Buy It! Vote It! Or Give It! Protest It!” But Harris cuts through each of these potential moves with a scalpel.
Harris is not about to hang his hopes on Bernie Sanders, or the Democratic Socialists, or representative democracy in general: “The young people who could provide the type of leadership we need—kind, principled, thoughtful, generous, radical, visionary, inspiring—won’t touch electoral politics with a ten-foot pole,” he writes. Nor does activism outside electoral politics offer a way out. “[I]f the people in power are willing to use guns before they will capitulate [and they are],” he writes, “then protest is not a plausible road to wide-ranging social change.”
In the end, he rejects “progressive Bop It!” tout court, writing that, “anyone who invites you to start playing is clueless, disingenuous, or both. The only way to win is not to start.” But Harris doesn’t leave us with total fatalism. As he sees it, to continue on our current path is to opt for a fascistic future, and he believes there’s but “a short window” of time in which to change course. “We become fascists or revolutionaries, one or the other,” he writes.
It’s a conclusion that may sit ill with readers watching with optimism as socialist candidates gain small but notable electoral ground across the country and make serious advances in Europe. More than at any other moment in our lifetime, the aperture for leftist political intervention is widening, not because of aging statesmen like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, but because of the young people organizing around them—the millennials of Harris’s analysis, and the generation that will come after us.
Harris’s cynicism here betrays his politics, which lean more anarchist than socialist. For him, a “political revolution” led by a septuagenarian senator working within the existing political system is not enough. But if Sanders and his followers can’t tell us how to become revolutionaries, neither, by his own admission, can Harris. Is it fair to ask him to?
Both Harris and I made small names for ourselves in Occupy’s heyday for taking up anarchist stances that ran against certain socialist currents of that moment. We eschewed calls to unify around demands or build a movement and were, accordingly, accused of insurrectionary bluster. But Harris’s suspicion of solutions is not a mark of immaturity: it is the kind of skepticism that his own materialist analysis demands. Readers might disagree with Harris’s views, but it is his analysis, not his conclusions, that make the book significant. The core virtues of the book should not, unlike some of the headier proclamations Harris and I made circa 2011, divide the left.
Harris tells the story of a generation coming into being as human capital. We don’t know how to think outside of ourselves, and Harris knows he’s as stuck in this predicament as any of his readers. If one millennial author could figure out how to undo all this, he wouldn’t have needed to write the book on millennials in the first place. And even if a generation cannot become a revolutionary subject, we can thank Harris for clearing away some false consciousness.
Natasha Lennard writes about radical politics and philosophies of violence for publications including the Intercept, the Nation, and the New York Times. Her forthcoming book Violence (with Brad Evans) will be published by City Lights in 2018.