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Why are millennials burned out? Capitalism.

Author Malcolm Harris on why millennials need a revolution.

“If Millennials are different, it’s not because we’re more or less evolved than our parents or grandparents, it’s because they’ve changed the world in ways that have produced people like us.”

That’s how Malcolm Harris, an editor at the online magazine the New Inquiry, begins his book Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. It’s a smart, contrarian look at the social and economic problems plaguing millennials — defined as people born between 1980 and 2000.

But it’s not a typical defense of millennials. Harris, who is a millennial (as am I), makes no attempt to undercut the complaints of baby boomers — namely, that millennials are anxious, spoiled, and narcissistic.

Instead, he asks: What made millennials the way they are? Why are they so burned out? Why are they having fewer kids? Why are they getting married later? Why are they obsessed with efficiency and technology?

And his answer, in so many words, is the economy. Millennials, he argues, are bearing the brunt of the economic damage wrought by late-20th-century capitalism. All these insecurities — and the material conditions that produced them — have thrown millennials into a state of perpetual panic. If “generations are characterized by crises,” as Harris argues, then ours is the crisis of extreme capitalism.

I spoke to Harris about the case he lays out in the book, and why he thinks millennials will have to overthrow the system and rewrite the social contract if they want to meaningfully improves their lives — and the lives of future generations.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

The core thesis of your book is that millennials were made, not born. So what are the major forces or institutions that made millennials what they are?

Malcolm Harris

Well, I take a very Marxist perspective on the world, so I’m looking at the dynamics of the labor market, the relationship between employers and the employed, basically the entire economic environment — these are the dominant forces shaping life in my view.

What I focused on is millennials as workers and the changing relationship between labor and capital during the time we all came of age and developed into people. If we want to understand why millennials are the way they are, then we have to look at the increased competition between workers, the increased isolation of workers from each other, the extreme individualism of modern American society, and the widespread problems of debt and economic security facing this generation.

Sean Illing

The key variable you emphasize in the book is the divergence between productivity and compensation — or the fact that people are working harder while wages aren’t going up. Why is this such an important data point for you? And how has it altered the day-to-day life of millennials?

Malcolm Harris

I think it’s crucial. Marxists would refer to this as an increase in the rate of exploitation, meaning workers are working longer, harder, and more efficiently but are receiving less and less in return. I reference Marxism here (even though his name never appears in the book) because conventional American economists don’t really have a term for this — it’s not something they like to talk about because they don’t recognize that capitalism is built on exploitation.

But it is a defining shift in our society, and millennials have been forced to grow up and enter the labor market under these dynamics, and we’ve internalized this drive to produce as much as we can for as little as possible. That means we take on the costs of training ourselves (including student debt), we take on the costs of managing ourselves as freelancers or contract workers, because that’s what capital is looking for.

And because wages are stagnant and exploitation is up, competition among workers is up too. As individuals, the best thing we can do for ourselves is work harder, learn to code, etc. But we’re not individuals, not as far as bosses are concerned. The vast majority of us are (replaceable) workers, and by working harder for less, we’re undermining ourselves as a class. It’s a vicious cycle.

Sean Illing

Class exploitation is hardly new, right? That’s as old as capitalism. What is it about this moment that seems different to you?

Malcolm Harris

It’s a matter of scale, right? The levels of inequality we’re seeing now are pretty extraordinary. One of the big things I allude to in the book is this question of human capital. The burdens of capital production have been shifted more and more onto workers and their families — they get fewer benefits and less support. The state helped with many of these things in the 1960s and ’70s, and before that, corporations actually picked up a lot of the slack.

But now you have individual workers, individual students, taking on this burden of making themselves into the workers the economy needs them to be and taking on all the expenses of that. Which is why so many millennials are drowning in so much student debt, while at the same time their educations are becoming less valuable in the market, which is hyper-competitive, heavily pro-business, and constantly changing.

Sean Illing

Part of what you’re saying is that modern capitalism (often referred to as “neoliberalism”) has created a world in which everything is about competition and self-interest and productivity, and as a result, corporations are squeezing more out of workers and making it harder for individuals to even think of themselves as part of a community.

Is that more or less the picture you’re painting?

Malcolm Harris

I mean, that’s what neoliberalism is, right? We’re all individuals, not members of a class or a community. We’re all economic agents pursuing our self-interest. This is the basis of our whole society right now, and both Republicans and Democrats have signed on to it.

In the book, I talk about an Obama-era education policy that basically seeded this idea that education was all about job preparation. There was no other real justification for it. That puts you on a really dangerous course because that’s all about human capital production, and then you have a system where the schools set out to produce skills in children based on what people who own companies say they want those kids to have, what skills they’ll need from their workers.

So our entire lives are framed around becoming cheaper and more efficient economic instruments for capital. That, taken to an extreme, has pretty corrosive effects on society, particularly young people.

Sean Illing

You talk a lot in the book about how millennials are burned out, that we’ve been conditioned to worship productivity and efficiency. Is that just a function of living in the cutthroat, hyper-competitive world you’re describing?

Malcolm Harris

I think that’s part of it. When I went into this project, I thought I was going to be very critical of helicopter parents, but then I realized that the parents doing this are doing it for pretty understandable reasons.

Most of these are working-class parents who are looking at an economy where the gap between the haves and the have-nots, between workers and capitalists, is growing bigger and bigger every day, and where the middle class is basically disappearing. So they feel like they have to give their kids the best shot they possibly can, just so they can catch up and not fall even further behind.

Sean Illing

I’ll offer a little pushback here: One could read your book as saying that millennials were promised a version of the American dream and simply didn’t get it. Or someone might read this and say that you’re assuming a certain level of material comfort is a kind of birthright for Americans, when in reality that’s never been the case, particularly for nonwhite Americans.

Malcolm Harris

Well, the promise that hard work will lead to a better life was definitely not just sold to white Americans. That has been sold to black Americans, to Hispanic Americans, to everyone. The American dream is not a product that is only sold to white people.

I’m not interested in arguing that millennials didn’t get what they were promised. It’s a question of exploitation. This is a fundamentally capitalist story. Workers have always been exploited, but that rate of exploitation — measured by the productivity wage gap we talked about earlier — is increasing exponentially for millennials.

Sean Illing

Do you think millennials are at all complicit in their own fate? After all, many of the economic forces — I’m thinking of Silicon Valley in particular — that are undermining our own happiness and security have been engineered by millennials.

Malcolm Harris

Oh, absolutely. They’re exploiters like any other. They might even be better at it, in fact. When I talk about millennials, it’s not, like, a metaphor whereby millennials are the working class and boomers are the ruling class or something. The capitalist millennials are going to be just as bad, if not worse, than their predecessors, because they’ve inherited this exploitative system.

Sean Illing

You write at the end of the book that history asks different things of different generations. What will it ask of millennials?

Malcolm Harris

That’s a great question, and one I’ve been thinking about a lot. I wish I had an answer at the end of the book, but I honestly didn’t — at least not a good one.

Sean Illing

Well, to the extent that you’re right, I’d say we have to get out of this frame of generational conflict and think much bigger, but that opens up a whole new set of challenges.

Malcolm Harris

I totally agree. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that the historical task confronting us may be larger than we ever imagined. It may well be that America dies or the world dies, or that this global economic order dies or our problems just get worse.

Sean Illing

So I want to make sure I’m clear on what you’re saying here. You’re essentially arguing that the system is fundamentally flawed and thus there is no ultimate solution short of overthrowing it. In other words, the only solution is revolution. But that’s a very difficult thing to control or predict.

Malcolm Harris

It is. A much smarter Malcolm than I, Malcolm X, said you don’t have revolutions without bloodshed, and he was probably right. But we’re in a situation now where the ruling class feels so powerful and I’m not sure what it will take to change things.

I mean, we have thousands of Americans dead in Puerto Rico, and that’s an attack by the ruling class. You had all these vulture funds that swooped into Puerto Rico, threw them even deeper into debt, and eviscerated the public services, and people died because of it. That’s an attack by any definition.

Sean Illing

It’s hard to read your book and not walk away with a sense of fatalism about our situation. Do you see no value in pushing for meaningful social change within the system? Do you see any value in political movements that are seeking practical policy shifts that won’t overturn capitalism but might nevertheless reduce suffering?

Malcolm Harris

I definitely have a sense of fatalism about this system. I don’t think capitalism can last forever (or even much longer), and I think if you asked a bunch of ecologists, they’d agree with me. That doesn’t mean what comes next will necessarily be better, but if by “within this system” you mean liberal capitalist democracy, then no, I don’t see any real strategic possibilities there.

That said, I’m not committed to only doing the most correct things. I voted for Hillary Clinton, I volunteer with groups in my neighborhood that are focused on harm reduction, etc. I’ve even helped put on a training for the DSA [Democratic Socialists of America].

Revolution is hard, and that’s not an excuse not to participate in your community. But we have to be realistic about the possible near- and medium-term outcomes for this system, and there aren’t any good ones. We have to deal with capitalism soon, or it will deal with us.

Sean Illing

The very last thing you say in the book is that millennials will have to become either fascists or revolutionaries. Is the choice really that binary? Are you convinced revolution is the only answer, knowing all that that implies?

Malcolm Harris

Yes, is the very simple answer. It’s not for me to say what must be done, but people can look at the world and decide for themselves. What I can tell you now is that we appear to be running out of options for reform.

This article was originally published on February 4, 2019.


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