The notion of a generational clash has been around for generations. The old grow older, the young grow up, the latter challenge the former, the former lament the latter, and society moves forwards, improving every time. That was the idea, anyway. As Karl Mannheim wrote in a seminal essay of 1929, “The Problem of Generations”, for centuries “the succession of generations was considered as something which articulated, rather than broke, the unilinear continuity of time”. After two world wars briefly suspended this meliorist myth, between the late 1940s and the early 70s babies boomed and economies boomed with them. The generations clashed – “Don’t trust anyone over the age of 30”, ran a popular slogan of the 1960s – as societies witnessed periods of unprecedented prosperity. Progress, it seemed, was forever – again. And then the millennials came along – the resented, resentful cohort of the 1980s and 90s.
Or rather, as Malcolm Harris writes in his book Kids These Days: Human capital and the making of millennials, neoliberalism came along and millennials were born into it. Harris hesitates over which word to choose: “The profiteers call this process ‘disruption’”, he says, referring to the economic shifts that began in the 70s, “while commentators on the left generally call it ‘neoliberalism’ or ‘late capitalism.’ Millennials know it better as ‘the world’ . . . or ‘Everything.’ And Everything sucks”. More than 90 per cent of American children born in 1940 out-earned their parents – fewer than half of millennials are expected to out-earn theirs. In the UK millennials are reported to be the first generation in 130 years to be worse off than their parents, enduring a bigger reversal in fortune than in any other developed country other than Greece. Across the West, however, there is a growing sense among young people that, against everything they were told, they will likely not enjoy the same financial freedoms as their parents.
To be a millennial also means to belong to surely the most over-analysed generation in history: everyone has a theory on why it all went wrong. In Kids These Days we have yet another one. It’s both more serious – he doesn’t mention avocados once – and more sympathetic than most; in the end, it’s even more depressing. Harris doesn’t deny the typical charges laid against millennials: many are trapped in a perpetual adolescence, struggling to take responsibility and find meaning in the world. It’s not laziness, he says – generally millennials work harder and faster than earlier generations – but few feel useful, and maybe this generation is more narcissistic than earlier ones. Harris makes the obvious point, however, that it’s not as though millennials woke up one day and decided to be this way – they shouldn’t be blamed for the problems they encounter. For instance, when the average UK tenant is forced to pay 47 per cent of their income on rent (72 per cent in London), is it any surprise that more young people are living at home for longer? Or that they are struggling to save? As Harris meticulously details, the mindsets and lifestyles of millennials are symptoms of structural shifts in society over the past forty years: individualism has led to increased cultures of competition and aspiration, while economic deregulation has meant there is less to win for young people and a lot more to lose. The results are bleak: longer school hours, more protective parenting, more competition, less playtime, proliferating debt (“Pass go and pay $30,000”, as Harris says of university). Wages are weaker, careers more precarious, and wealth inequality soars. “If all this sounds like it might be anxiety-inducing”, Harris writes, “it should.” Longitudinal studies of young people reveal unprecedented levels of stress and depression – the kids are not all right. At root is, as Harris puts it, “the impossibility of the demand that people, on average, be better than average”.
In a sense, the title of Kids These Days is both too broad and too narrow. Too broad because this is not a book about “millennials”, let alone “kids these days”, but exclusively American millennials (most of the UK-related statistics in this review are drawn from reports by the Resolution Foundation); too narrow because, at heart, this book is not about millennials at all. It is an anatomy of America. Harris leaves no corner of his country unexplored: parenting, schools, the criminal justice system, higher education and the job market. He discusses everything from the popularity of online pornography and the influence of social media to the over-policing of American schools and the punishing plight of “child protégés”, bred almost from birth to be professional athletes or musicians. The book pertains not only to millennials and those seeking to understand what makes them tick, but to almost anyone precariously placed in society. And today, as Harris argues, that is almost everyone.
This is not to say that everyone suffers in the same way, of course; young people, women, people of colour, poorer citizens, and those in whom these categories intersect are hardest hit. “Like every other single trend in this story”, Harris writes, discussing school suspension rates, “the rise has not been evenly distributed.” Nearly a quarter of all black students in America are now suspended in high school, a 100 per cent increase over the past thirty years – compared to only 7 per cent of white pupils, up from 6 per cent. Between 1975 and 2000, the US incarceration rate quintupled and the ratio between black and white prisoners widened more than in the fifty preceding years. “Considering the progressive story about the arc of racial justice”, Harris writes, “this is a crushing truth.” Meanwhile for women, time pressures have only increased. Being both a full-time worker and the principal housekeepers means that, despite slowly improving norms regarding men’s housework contribution, the average working woman is busier than both her male colleagues and her (increasingly uncommon) housewife counterpart.
But regressive trends are affecting everyone. In the workplace firms have shifted the stresses of employment onto the employees themselves. Nearly 40 per cent of early-career employees receive their schedules a week or less in advance, making planning for the future impossible, while digital technologies normalize the notion of constant availability. In the UK the proportion of low-paid work done by young men increased by 45 per cent between 1993 and 2016, and male millennials will earn £12,500 less over the course of their twenties than the generation before them. Renting a house – not to mention buying one – is becoming more and more expensive. And it is not so much a question of stalling growth as rising inequality: in 2012, for the first time, more than half of all income in America went to the richest 10 per cent of the population. “The American dream isn’t fading,” Harris says, “it’s being hoarded.”
For all the jokes, the portrait Harris paints is devastating. “Major national trends”, he writes, “have shaped a generation of jittery kids teetering on the edge between outstanding achievement and spectacular collapse.” There was no conspiracy of minds to make millennials this way; it’s simply how it turned out. But if the way millennials are suits the economic system (anxiety is productive, up to a point), then nor is it a coincidence. One of its more abstract consequences, which Harris does not discuss, is a recasting of the roles of generations. In the popular imagination, the young are tied to the future and the old to the past. Yet today young people dream less of a new world than of a composite one, where the past’s possibilities are restored alongside a more progressive politics of race, gender and sexuality. And this double-bind may hinder society’s capacity for creative renewal. Precarity can be creative when it is affordable – as squatting scenes in many cities have shown – but today’s precarity tends to be expensive; the high demands of simply getting by might preclude the freedom and space in which social and cultural movements – in short, new ideas – thrive. The worry is only compounded by a further tectonic shift: ageing populations. By 2050, a quarter of the UK population will be older than sixty-five. In 2056, the US will reach its own milestone: more people will be sixty-five or over than eighteen or under. What this does for society’s balance of power, and for the respective places of the future and the past, remains to be seen. Many related problems, such as loneliness, social care costs and post-retirement welfare, are already with us. Ours is quite the conundrum: the old are growing older than ever, while the young can barely grow up.
It is with regard to the future that Harris’s analysis becomes frustrating. While he is right to insist that millennials are not the only victims of society’s flaws, he is wrong to imply that they are only victims. In his framing, millennials become prisoners of personalities and power structures imposed on them, living in a world where any experience of freedom or happiness is chimerical. “Millennials were born into captivity”, he declares. In the context of mass incarceration, collective “captivity” would be a crude metaphor. In the context of schooling – regardless of how much schools are said to resemble prisons, and however much evaluation standards are increasing – it is just hyperbole.
In the book’s final section, this hyperbole begins to detract from his argument. “Books like this are supposed to end with a solution, right?” he asks. Not this one. Instead Harris revels in the gloom cast by his own shadow. His tone turns more sarcastic and cynical; his style changes from portrait to prediction. Harris forecasts that “seriously wild shit will happen” in our lifetimes if the winds don’t change. But, as he has convincingly argued, wild shit has already happened. These wild predictions only serve to trivialize both the serious points he has made and the serious challenges ahead. In the future, Harris writes, “adolescents will hope not to be too much worse off than their parents”. But a prediction of permanent regress may be just as flawed as one of permanent progress.
With a Holden Caulfield kind of glee, Harris dismantles any hopes you might have harboured of solving the problems he recounts. Protest, political reform, Bernie Sanders, charity-sector work, ethical consumerism and, I’d add, Jeremy Corbyn – all this phoney gesturing “leads nowhere”, he says. For Harris, “we become fascists or revolutionaries, one or the other”. It’s left up to the reader to work out what exactly that means. Harris is right – small solutions won’t do – but his either/or conclusion feels crass, out of kilter with both the rest of the book and the broader mood of his generation. In the 2016 presidential primaries, Sanders won more young votes than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined. The youth movement behind Corbyn is well reported, and age is now the biggest determinant of how someone will vote. Neither Sanders nor Corbyn succeeded, but they provided glimpses of different worlds. Hope lies in the fact that the story of millennials is still being written; until then, any theory will be incomplete.