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Malcolm Harris. Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2017.
This is an unusual book, a portrait of a particular generation’s experience, interpreted in the context of a changing capitalist society. I found it reminiscent of Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd from the 1950s, a book that resonated with many young Baby Boomers. Here the focus is on the Millennial generation, who were born between 1980 and 2000 and make up today’s young adults 18 to 38. Malcolm Harris himself is one of them.
Here he describes the book’s goal:
The only way to understand who we are as a generation is to look at where we come from, and the social and economic conditions under which we’ve become ourselves. What I’m attempting in this book is an analysis of the major structures and institutions that have influenced the development of young Americans over the past thirty to forty years.
Harris is not a social scientist, but just a “committed leftist and a gifted polemicist with a smart-aleck bent,” according to one reviewer. He provides no deep analysis of capitalism, but makes a broad claim that the frenetic quest for profits is now bringing society to some kind of breaking point:
Lately, this system has started to hyperventilate: It’s desperate to find anything that hasn’t yet been reengineered to maximize profit, and then it makes those changes as quickly as possible. The rate of change is visibly unsustainable. The profiteers call this process “disruption,” while commentators on the left generally call it “neoliberalism” or “late capitalism.” Millennials know it better as “the world,” or “America,” or “Everything.” And Everything sucks.
The burden of this supercharged capitalism is falling most heavily on Millennials. They will either by crushed by it, as America becomes some sort of fascist dystopia, or else lead a revolution against it. Harris sees little middle ground.
Human capital and hypercompetition
For Harris, the key to understanding what is happening to the younger generation is the idea of human capital. “We need to think about young people the way industry and the government already do: as investments, productive machinery, ‘human capital’.” Human capital is the economic value placed on the capacity for future work. New technologies can reduce that value by making existing capacities obsolete, most obviously when manual labor is replaced by machinery. But future workers can enhance their value by acquiring new capacities, enabling them to master technologies or provide some essential human input. This puts young people under pressure to become one of the value-enhanced winners instead of the devalued losers.
Isn’t this just the same old competition for success that has been a hallmark of modern society? Harris obviously sees it as more than that. As the development of human capital has become more extensive and more costly, paying for it has become a systemic problem. Society is currently organized in such a way that the benefits of human capital formation go primarily to capitalist organizations and their shareholders, while the costs fall primarily on individuals and their families. Investment in human capital is good for society, but it is risky for individual employers, since they do not normally own their workers and their future labor. Workers can leave and take their newly acquired human capital with them. So employers find it more profitable to hire workers who are already capable–or nearly capable–of doing the job; or just replace workers with robots, whose future labor they do own.
The intensified competition for good jobs becomes more than an individual competition to demonstrate merit. It is a competition among families to raise the most accomplished children they can, with the most expensive educations and all the trimmings–the music lessons, science projects, field trips, SAT prep classes, and so forth. Families of limited means are at a big disadvantage.
The paradox of productivity
In theory, the higher productivity resulting from new technologies and skills could lead to higher wages and/or more leisure. If people are more productive, why shouldn’t they enjoy a higher standard of living? And why shouldn’t the most tech-savvy generation be on its way to the highest standard of living of all? There’s little sign of that so far. “As it turns out, just because you can produce an unprecedented amount of value doesn’t necessarily mean you can feed yourself under twenty-first-century American capitalism.”
The problem goes to the heart of the capitalist system. Producing more per hour doesn’t translate into higher pay per hour if the extra output and its economic value belong solely to the employer. In that case the employer gets the benefits, in the form of higher revenues and lower labor cost per unit of output.
On the one hand, every kid is supposed to spend their childhood readying themselves for a good job in the skills-based information economy. On the other hand, improvements in productive technology mean an overall decrease in labor costs. That means workers get paid a smaller portion of the value they create as their productivity increases. In aggregate, this operates like a bait and switch: Employers convince kids and their families to invest in training by holding out the promise of good jobs, while firms use this very same training to reduce labor costs.
We may wonder why competition among employers for good workers doesn’t force them to raise wages. It does, but mainly in specialized occupations where needed skills are actually in short supply. What is remarkable is how little wages have risen in recent decades, even for college graduates. “Wages for college-educated workers outside of the inflated finance industry have stagnated or diminished, with real wages for young graduates down 8.5 percent between 2000 and 2012.” What seems to be working in favor of employers is a system that delivers a large enough supply of human capital to hold wages down, while making families bear the costs of developing that capital.
Harris notes that men and women have experienced this situation differently. “Median wages for men (50th percentile) have remained stagnant, at nearly $18 per hour, while median wages for women have increased from $11.28 in 1973 to $14.55 in 2009.” Women’s improvement in labor force participation and wages is a mixed blessing. Putting wives as well as husbands into the labor force is one way for families to try and get ahead. But it places the burden on families to work harder instead of on employers to pay better. “All work becomes more like women’s work: workers working more for less pay. We can see why corporations have adapted to the idea of women in the labor force.”
Technological development leads to increased worker productivity, declining labor costs, more competition, a shift in the costs of human capital development onto individual competitors, and increased productivity all over again. Millennials are the historical embodiment of this cycle run amok….
Education: The labor of enhancing one’s labor
One of my graduate school professors used to say that the social function of higher education was not to produce and disseminate knowledge, but to keep young people out of the labor force so they could serve the economy as needed consumers rather than unneeded producers. Maybe that made sense at a time when people were enjoying the new prosperity and leisure of the post-Depression, postwar era. Having recently achieved good wages and a shorter work week, unions weren’t eager to see a horde of young people enter the labor force and drive wages and working conditions down.
Harris’s take on youth and education is very different, and probably more relevant to our times. Not only are a large percentage of young people in the labor force already–70% of college students, for example–but they are working very hard at their own human capital development, primarily for the benefit of their future employers. As a result of the economic conditions described, “Every child is a capital project.”
…It’s cheaper than it used to be to hire most workers, and extraordinarily hard to find the kind of well-paying and stable jobs that can provide the basis for a comfortable life. The arms race that results pits kids and their families against each other in an ever-escalating battle for a competitive edge, in which adults try to stuff kids full of work now in the hope that it might serve as a life jacket when they’re older.
In theory, new information technologies ought to make it easier to learn. My generation could have saved many hours digging for information in the library if we could have accessed a whole world of knowledge on a laptop (not to mention the time we could have saved on a term paper if we had word processing). Paradoxically, Harris reports that American children spend more time in school, more time on homework, and less time on unsupervised play than they used to. And they are producing a lot: “Nongrade measures of educational output–like students taking Advanced Placement classes or tests, or kids applying to college–have trended upward….” Grades have risen too, and Harris is not so quick to dismiss that as mere grade inflation.
A government study reported that “the number of applicants to four-year colleges and universities has doubled since the early 1970s, [but] available slots have changed little.” That form of intensified competition allows schools to raise tuition and fees dramatically. Only part of this increase is due to reduced public funding, since the increase by private schools is almost as great. The additional revenue has not gone into instruction; on the contrary, the ample supply of graduates seeking academic employment has allowed colleges to hire more lower-paid, part-time and temporary teachers. Instead it goes mainly toward administrative salaries or amenities to attract well-heeled students.
What this all amounts to is a clear tendency for both public and private colleges to behave like businesses, passing off a lower-quality product at a higher price by tacking on highly leveraged shiny extras unrelated to the core educational mission. Stadium skyboxes, flat-screen monitors, marble floors, and hors d’oeuvres for the alumni association. Consultants of all flavors and salaried employees to make sure it’s all efficient. Competition hasn’t improved the quality of higher education, it has made colleges more like sleepaway camps or expensive resorts.
Because they are defined as students rather than real workers, students can be made to work very hard for someone else’s profit. College sports generate substantial revenue, but not for the athletes, who regularly spend thirty to forty hours a week on their sports without being paid. Many students try to enhance their credentials with unpaid internships, although research has found no more than a slight impact on job offers.
Even the time spent on social media can be seen as exploitable unpaid labor. “These technologies promise (and often deliver) connectivity, efficiency, convenience, productivity, and joy to individual users….” Older adults may see them as a frivolous form of leisure. But they are also a way that young people self-publish their creative work and build an audience for it. That also generates profits for others, most obviously for the big companies that run the sites, but also for record producers that are spared the costs and risks of developing talent themselves. They can wait and see who is becoming popular, and only then offer a recording contract.
Not only do students get little immediate reward for their hard work, but most of them have to borrow against their future earnings to finance their higher education. They have to indenture themselves to obtain an enhancement in earning power that may or may not materialize. If their schools educate them poorly–and some for-profit schools seem to make that part of their business model–borrowers are still on the hook for the money. Excessive debt is one of the reasons why today’s young adults have relatively low net worth, not just in comparison to today’s older adults, but also in comparison to young adults of an earlier time. Between 1983 and 2010, net worth dropped 21% for the 29-37 age group.
Overall, Malcolm Harris finds that the pressure to develop their own human capital has forced Millennials to compete harder for a limited supply of rewards. What they get for their harder work is the mere promise of a higher standard of living–someday. So far at least, someday has not arrived.