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.’”