How the Triumph of Capitalism Shaped the Millennial Soul

Young people in the West are historically competitive, anxious and unhappy. Malcolm Harris’ Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials tries to find out why.

Harris attempts to break down why being overworked and sleep-deprived has become a status symbol. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Harris attempts to break down why being overworked and sleep-deprived has become a status symbol. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 2008, Mike Merrill, 30-year-old IT specialist in Portland, Oregon, decided to turn himself into a publicly traded entity. Hundreds of investors bought bits of him for $1 a piece and, eventually, turned those bits into voting power. The gimmick earned Merrill a few gushing magazine profiles, while his investors vetoed his vasectomy.

Technically, Merrill is about two years too old to count as a millennial (as those who born between 1980 and 2000 are generally defined), but him selling his soul to the market signalled a sea change. In Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, author Malcolm Harris argues that most millennials are at least a little like the capitalised Merrill (who isn’t mentioned in the book). That is, they think of themselves as investments – human capital.

We can see the symptoms of Harris’ conclusion all around us: the infamous “helicopter parent” controls every hour of their child’s life to enhance their offspring’s capital, and one can see the metastasising obsession with marketable skills through a global growth in STEM education. We millennials speak of personal brands, of investing in ourselves, and we begin training ourselves for future careers at younger and younger ages. At the same time, Harris marshalls data showing that millennials, at least in the United States, are historically unhappy, anxious and competitive.

The book asks a straightforward question: why did millennials get this way? To find an answer, Harris looks at industries from education to entertainment, identifying common trends that have profoundly transformed work and life.

Malcolm Harris Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials Little, Brown

Malcolm Harris
Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials
Little, Brown

At its core, Harris argues, the birth of the millennial is a product of political economy. “We didn’t happen by accident,” he writes. Rather, millennials turned out the way they did because, over the past half-century, “capitalism emerged as the single dominant mode of organising society”.

Harris sees capitalism, in its purest form, as an engine for producing profit. As labour became automated and workers more productive than they’d ever been, any given worker became increasingly expendable to her employer. Meanwhile, as social safety nets in developed countries withered away, labourers became more desperate for work. In the end, workers need jobs more than employers need workers.

And so the rat race begins.

Even as children, future workers race each other for coding, math, or advanced athletic skills in the hope of obtaining one of the few remaining stable jobs. It’s a wonderful deal for bosses: with so many people vying for good work, applicants will do anything to make themselves stand out, including working around the clock, or for free. In this vein, Harris argues that even school children are unpaid labourers, since they accumulate human capital for the benefit of future employers. Once they grow up, they will join a precarious labour force (which other writers have called the “precariat”) that dare not dream of jobs with benefits, job security, or collective bargaining. Instead, they get multiple part-time jobs with no stability.

By Harris’ reckoning, millennials are the first generation that came of age under this new labour regime, and it makes their lives miserable. In the US, free time is historically scarce, and every hour of rest is a potential liability if your competitors are willing to forego it. Accumulating human capital is almost a moral imperative, a point that might help explain why being overworked and sleep-deprived has become a status symbol.

Devastatingly, Harris writes that “like cell phones that are only meant to be turned off for upgrades, millennials are on 24/7”. While pundits wring their hands over millennials’ addiction to social media, Harris sees that shift as an adaptation: with work colonising more and more of young people’s time, social life flees onto portable smartphones, where friends can communicate more efficiently.

Malcolm Harris. Courtesy: Little, Brown and Company

Malcolm Harris. Courtesy: Little, Brown and Company

Kids These Days focuses overwhelmingly on the US, and one could argue that Harris’s narrative holds less true in the non-Western world. The rise of precarious labour only seems a dramatic aberration when contrasted with the stable employment of the mid-century welfare state. In much of the developing world, that relative security never existed, and precarity, while it may have worsened, is not as unfamiliar a creature.

Still, evidence suggests the broader shifts Harris describes – the erosion of job security and the frenzied pursuit of human capital – represent a global trend. A recent report suggests that Indian millennials work 52 hours a week, significantly longer than in the US. When I saw him speak in Philadelphia last month, Harris said readers from around the world had reached out to him, seconding his findings in their own lives.

What is to be done? On this point, Harris is ostentatiously coy. “[B]ooks like this are supposed to end with a solution, right?” Harris asks, and then proceeds to eviscerate every solution –Protest! Donate! Boycott! – he can think of. “The only way to win,” he concludes bitterly, “is not to start.”

Indeed, he seems more interested in indulging his pessimism, taking half the conclusion to run through seven nightmarish scenarios that he thinks are likely to play out if current trends continue. Still, he can’t resist tacking on a two-page addendum where he predicts a mysterious future reckoning during which “[millennials] become fascists or revolutionaries, one or the other”. That projection counterbalances some of Harris’ resignation, but it’s hardly a blueprint for change.

Perhaps the book’s mission is simply to paint a target, not give us the bullets to shoot it with, which is okay. But even the target is a little too vague. We understand that the job market is bad and that it has something to do with unchecked capitalism and technological innovation, but what has happened politically to make this shift possible? While the book provides a coherent history of contemporary labor relations, it says less about the role of larger political processes – Reaganomics or Thatcherism or the global collapse of socialist parties – in the rise of precarity.

Instead, the book seems to blame an unholy mixture of technological progress and greedy US Republicans – an under-sized explanation for a world-historical transformation like the rise of neoliberalism. Without a robust theoretical throughline, much of the book devolves into well-researched but sometimes glib vignettes about how the changing nature of labour has affected sports, porn, education, and a few other industries.

The result is still an illuminating romp through the symptoms of a condition, but one that fails to satisfyingly name the disease or its causes.

Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials by Malcolm Harris, is published by Little, Brown.

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