In the just-released fall 2017 issue of Bookforum, Emmett Rensin reviews Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials by Malcolm Harris, which seeks to uncover the economic shifts that gave rise to the precarious and much-maligned young adults of today. As Rensin writes, Harris's method in the book is simple but powerful: determine what kind of workers a struggling capitalism has required over the last few decades, and see how this explains the characteristics attributed to millennials, from their supposed inability to commit to a career path to their lack of interest in buying houses and cars. Read an excerpt from Rensin's review below, or the full piece here.
Harris’s approach is simple. So simple, in fact, that it is difficult to believe nobody has written this book before, although it is fortunate that Harris—who manages to be quick and often funny without sacrificing rigor—is the author who ultimately took up the task. In fewer than three hundred pages, he surveys the myriad hot takes on millennials—they’re lazy, they’re entitled, they’re narcissists who buy avocado toast instead of homes, slacking on Snapchat at their unpaid internships—and asks, “Why?” That is, What actually happened to you materially, politically, and socially if you had the poor luck of being born between 1980 and 2000? What kind of education system and labor force and nation raised you? In keeping with his materialist outlook, Harris argues that society molds each generation to fit its economy, to produce the kinds of debtors and workers required to service the needs of its most powerful members. What, then, were the economic factors that shaped millennials?
The answer, Harris writes, is that American capitalism has exhausted most avenues for growth. Industrial production, once the basis of our economy, has been outsourced and automated. What remains is a polarized workforce based on low-skill “bad jobs” in the service sector and increasingly scarce high-skill “good jobs” in technology, media, and other professional fields. Because the nationalization of student debt has made loans impossible to escape, the job market has never recovered from the 2008 recession, and a concerted bipartisan effort has all but destroyed organized labor, even the “good jobs” aren’t so good anymore—and the competition to get one is more brutal than ever. “Over the past forty years we have witnessed an accelerated and historically unprecedented pace of change as capitalism emerged as the single dominant mode of organizing society,” Harris writes in his introduction.