The Precarious Generation

Persistent Precarity

The making of a generation.


In the October 8 edition of The New York Times Magazine, an ad for Gradifi takes up the entire inside cover. A smiling young woman stares out, wearing a yellow sweatshirt with a number emblazoned where the name of a college would usually be. “Why did she borrow $67,928 for tuition?” the ad muses. “She did it to work for you.”

Gradifi, it appears, is a student-loan payment plan that employers can offer their staffs. The tagline—“Gradifi is gratitude”—doesn’t ameliorate the ad’s horrors. We don’t know the woman’s name, her course of study, or even the name of her college; we only know the amount of her debt. Gradifi can help her, but only if she stays with an employer who uses it.

How did we get to this mutated state of indentured servitude? Many boomer and Gen X pundits might argue that the young woman has inflicted this situation upon herself, tainted as she is by a generational penchant for bad decisions. Millennials like our unnamed debtor have murdered napkins, diamonds, golf, sex, marriage, and homeownership. They are, depending on who’s writing the clickbait, irresponsible basement dwellers or innovative disruptors. The specifics change, but the general refrain does not: One generation will always whimper about the moral decay and rebellion of the next. But with millennials, something sits under the surface: What we are witnessing is a generation suffering not only from the perennial maladies of social change but from a particular set of indignities spawned by an economy that extracts and exploits, an educational system designed to enforce those deprivations, and a set of politicians who not only believe there is nothing wrong with this state of affairs but insist on calling it liberty. Boomers and Gen Xers might like to comfort themselves by saying the kids are inadequate, but mostly it’s been the inadequacy of their two generations’ public policies.

In Kids These Days, Malcolm Harris sets out to kill this myth, and he succeeds. Harris’s book is a methodical deconstruction of one of the stupidest tropes to degrade recent discourse. The “millennial” is created, not born, as Harris shows, and as is true of all creations, her qualities reveal more about her makers than they do about her. From preschool to college to their entrance into a precarious labor market, Harris tracks how young people in America operate within a system that reinforces the economic, educational, and political injustices that sort us all into upper and underclasses. The proverbial participation trophy, the frantic visions of meritocracy, the generational recriminations—they’ve always said more about the parents of millennials than millennials themselves. It’s not the kids these days that we need to worry about, but the world their parents helped build. “In order to fully recognize the scope of these changes,” Harris explains, “we need to think about young people the way industry and the government already do: as investments, productive machinery, ‘human capital.’”

Education, appropriately, occupies much of Harris’s attention. Today’s young adults are more likely than those of any previous generation to hold a bachelor’s degree, meaning that they have spent most of their lives in some academic setting. And the state of American education supports Harris’s argument: Parents might not consciously think of their children as cogs in an uncaring wheel, but the idea that children are future workers sits not far removed from that mechanical metaphor. Such ideas have permeated every stratum of American society, and they manifest in explicit ways. In Harris’s telling, children bear groaning homework loads; activities aren’t about having fun as much as they’re about accumulating extracurriculars for future college applications. It’s all labor, but it’s never framed as such, even though the priority is clearly future productivity rather than the production of educated adults. An emphasis on homework over learning through play, soaring college fees subsidized by predatory loans—these are meant to manufacture fresh grist for a voracious mill. Input x; get y. Repeat.

But this academic culture is a limited one by necessity: Its exclusivity mirrors the structural demands of the economy it perpetuates. It doesn’t exist in every primary or secondary school; instead, we associate it mostly with predominantly white schools, in suburban or wealthy urban enclaves. As Harris notes, children of color are overpoliced rather than encouraged to overachieve, and while he doesn’t discuss low-income rural schools, they too lag behind wealthier ones on the markers of college enrollment and scholastic achievement. Thus the ruling class reproduces itself through one of the main criteria of our new economy: educational merit. Poor students and students of color, meanwhile, either suffer from malignant neglect or find themselves in schools in which they are little more than lab rats to self-appointed reformist saviors and their boosters in the public and private sectors, including Salesforce chairman and CEO Marc Benioff, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who often test educational software at underfunded schools.

These projects are not entirely new. The tech industry has long promoted and funded coding programs for public schools, and it’s not the only culprit. But the portrait that Harris draws of primary- and secondary-school education is an unsettling one; it is fixated, in his telling, on job training. That fixation can lead to disturbing alliances between school administrators and entities looking for a guaranteed supply of cheap, ready labor. Citing the work of education scholar Nicole Nguyen, Harris notes an increasingly popular and disturbing trend: the implementation of preprofessional homeland-security programs. “It starts innocuously,” Harris writes, “but by algebra they’re calculating parabolas using the trajectory of an American sniper’s bullet in North Korea.” JROTC is almost quaint by comparison.

Government and industry find themselves aligned, then, on one grim goal: School is for training workers. By the time today’s young adults finish high school, they’ve learned to think of themselves as employees-in-waiting, and punishingly high college expenses only reinforce that perception. The notion of vocation is almost entirely gone; instead, a college education is for growing one’s paychecks.

Except that those paychecks frequently don’t grow, at least not for recent college graduates who have sought to pay off their debts in the post-2008 economy. “Wages for college-educated workers outside of the inflated finance industry have stagnated or diminished,” Harris warns. Colleges are not what their administrators advertise them to be: They do not, in fact, create the kind of social mobility that they and our meritocratic culture promise. Students from low-income families are likely to stay poor, college degree notwithstanding; many suffer from severe food insecurity while undertaking their studies.

These persistent inequalities are particularly pronounced among people of color. A recent Demos report showed that college degrees do not eliminate, or even seriously shrink, the racial wealth gap. Meanwhile, college costs continue to rise, for reasons that again have little to do with the actual wants and needs of young adults but instead reflect administrative bloat and state disinvestment. Exploitation and grift are real campus scandals occasionally covered by the press, but they somehow don’t inspire half as much concern from the boomer and Gen X commentariat as do the activities of zealous young students who hate Nazis.

The facts beg us to ask what point there is to higher education—but in our current economic moment, millennials have very little to no time to wonder about anything; they only have time to study and then work. Higher education spits them out, already burdened by debt, into a floundering job market. And God forbid they should decide to become academics themselves: They can likely expect a future as underpaid permanent adjuncts in a system determined to suck them dry.

Once out of college, things only get worse. In part, this is because of the way in which the educational system has been built. It is also because of the economy itself: Since the 1970s, the economic policies of Democratic and Republican administrations alike have concentrated wealth among a select few households, even as deep poverty increases and many workers struggle to make do with minimum-wage jobs. All of this has only worsened after the crash of 2008. As Harris notes, since then the number of Americans working part-time jobs has doubled. With deunionization on the rise, often facilitated by public policy, that trend isn’t likely to change. This persistent precarity benefits bosses, not workers, and it especially harms young workers just beginning their careers.

Conservative and liberal boomers and Gen Xers unite on this front—their disdain for “the youth”—though they may well be the last generations guaranteed the full benefits of Social Security, an artificial scarcity they helped create. The children to whom they show such derision will know deprivation because of their elders. “One of the most popular adjectives for Millennials is ‘entitled,’ but the entitlement system wasn’t built for us,” Harris writes.

At times, Kids These Days can feel ruthless. Its injustices build, one on top of another, and wall the reader into claustrophobia. But that’s not Harris’s fault; the feeling will be familiar to anyone of a certain age. Courtesy of the book’s cover, I know that Harris and I share a birth year, meaning that we both came of age amid economic collapse. This was an instructive time to be a young adult. The recession injected honesty into our lives. Many of us had, until then, believed in some variation of the same deceit: If you are very good and study very hard, the Job Santa will reward you. Instead, most of us likely know someone who’s at least contemplated selling plasma or eggs to make rent. We give most of our time to our employers, and—let’s be honest—most of us don’t get Gradifi in return. Eventually we’ll get old, and by then the pensions and Social Security that supported our grandparents and parents may no longer exist.

What young people are facing is a crisis, though you’d never know it from the headlines. “Blame Parents for Millennials’ Laughable Fragility,” sniped National Review. “Crybaby Millennials Need to Stop Whinging and Work Hard Like the Rest of Us,” announced The Telegraph’s laughably named “Thinking Man” column. At British GQ: “Millennials. Stop being offended by, like, literally everything.” In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, commentators escalated the millennial-bashing to new peaks: Clara Jeffrey, editor in chief of Mother Jones, tweeted that she had “never hated Millennials more” than when a New York Times/CBS News survey that September showed lukewarm Clinton love among young voters.

Kids These Days answers a political moment defined both by youthful outrage and by the patronizing responses to it, which deny that it is informed by lived experience. By capturing how millennials have arrived at this point, we may find a way to free them from being scapegoats for boomers and Gen Xers. The usual suggestions—protest, vote, run for office—are fine but ultimately insufficient, as Harris notes. The problem is systemic, and therefore the solutions must be too.

In Kids These Days, Harris doesn’t parse out many of those solutions. His book is more diagnosis than prescription. “The only way to win is not to start,” he writes at the end, leaving us to wonder exactly what that means. But we can start, perhaps, by identifying our real enemies. The first and greatest lie of capitalism is that it promises us free choice; Harris demonstrates that this promise is hollow. Many of the problems he describes need anticapitalist solutions: The redistribution of resources would not only properly fund public schools and colleges, but allow children and young adults to direct their lives independent of the demands of capital.

When kids demand these solutions, as they’re doing with increasing frequency, their outrage isn’t the problem. As Kids These Days makes clear, they’re only asking for redress. This is not generational conflict, but rather class war. And the kids didn’t start it.

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