Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials
by Malcolm Harris (Little, Brown, $25)
“It is difficult to believe that no one has written this book before,” said Emmett Rensin in Bookforum.com. Though much has been said about the supposed laziness, narcissism, and fretfulness of the Millennial generation, no one before Malcolm Harris has really attempted to fully explain why they are the way they are. Luckily for us, Harris is a 29-yearold writer who “manages to be quick and often funny without sacrificing rigor,” and he’s produced a devastating assessment of the world that created today’s young adults. Formerly a prominent activist in the Occupy Wall Street movement, Harris uses a Marxist lens to show that his generation is anxious because they were raised and now live in a society intent on their exploitation. As a result, they’re better educated, more in debt, and less job secure than any cohort before them.
Because Harris’ diagnosis is radical, said Bradley Babendir in WBUR.org, the book’s very structure “reflects an awareness that some segment of the population will need convincing.” Each chapter takes on a single subject—childhood, college, work—and then lays out how the experience has differed for Millennials. As grade-schoolers, they spent more time studying than any cohort before them—147 percent more for 1997’s kids than for 1981’s. Playtime was down, regimentation up, and the troublemakers were often medicated. Once the college years arrived, the reward for the achievers was inflation-adjusted tuition costs double or triple what they’d been in the 1970s, much of that becoming debt and debt payments that enrich Washington. Even the winners emerge from a couple of unpaid internships and short-term contracts with little security, just the imperatives to self-brand and forever retrain for the next economic shift.
The reader has to remember that Harris embraces a particular ideology, said Gabriel Winant in n+1 magazine. To him, the neoliberal economic order can’t be repaired, and it must be replaced. “Kids These Days wants to be a political economy of Millennials the way [Marx’s] Capital wanted to be a political economy of the working class.” But when Harris looks at his fellow Millennials, he sees mostly our acquiescence, not our “quite impressive record of resistance in the streets and at the ballot box.” Though he wishes a revolution would come, he isn’t hopeful about it. Still, despite offering no way forward, Harris has written a “landmark” book, making plain why young Americans will have to reorder the economy’s mechanics. One way or another, “society can’t look tomorrow like it does today.”