Kids These Days (part 2)

February 2, 2018

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Malcolm Harris describes a world in which young people must struggle to develop their human capital in order to remain competitive in a hi-tech economy. Some succeed more than others, of course, but Harris is focused less on individual differences than on the Millennial experience in general. He notices how much of the enhanced value of labor is going to benefit employers rather than laborers. Higher productivity is not translating into higher wages or more leisure, but into lower labor costs and higher profits. The Millennial generation and their families are being systematically ripped off, being forced to bear the costs of human capital development while seeing most of the benefits go to someone else.

Inner stress, outward conformity

“More competition among young people–whether they want to be drummers, power forwards, scientists, or just not broke–means higher costs in the economic sense, but also in the area of mental health and social trust.” The percentage agreeing with the statement that “generally speaking, most people can be trusted,” has dropped precipitously in this generation, while rates of anxiety, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have soared.

Millennials have been heavily medicated for these conditions, and Harris links medicalization with a broader youth control movement, “a way to keep kids quiet, focused, and productive while adults move the goalposts down the field.” He describes Millennials as the “most policed modern generation,” with authorities quicker to suspend or incarcerate young people who get out of line. On the other hand, society has also taken some steps to protect children, such as cracking down on child abuse.

Whether it is an effect of tighter social control, social protection, or something else, “Millennials are significantly better-behaved than earlier birth cohorts.” They have lower crime rates than Baby Boomers or Generation X had in their youth. They are also having a little less sex. The median age of sexual initiation has gone back up to 18, after dropping from 19 to 17 between 1939 and 1979. The percentage of young people using protection from the outset of sexual activity has increased dramatically.

A bleak future?

Harris is much better at extrapolating worrisome social trends into the future than he is at envisioning social reforms. He imagines that students may become even more weighed down by their student loans, as lenders “start demanding a percentage of future earnings from borrowers in return for money up front….” We would then have a generation of urban sharecroppers, forever indebted by their need for capital to those who can help supply it. He also imagines that the country may have to institutionalize more and more of the people who just can’t measure up in a hypercompetitive system.

Harris is pessimistic about the standard ways that liberals encourage people to change society–through their votes, their protests, their buying power, or their volunteer work. For example, he doesn’t see how voting can bring about campaign finance reform, if politicians are more responsive to the financial elites than they are to the voters.

In the end, Harris offers no positive vision or program for the future, beyond the vague advice to stop playing the entire game and become revolutionaries.

Positive models

I am not content to leave it at that, because I think Millennials need more than a wish for an alternative order too unimaginable to be described. They could use some positive models for how the country might do things differently.

Having reviewed George Lakey’s Viking Economics and Anu Partanen’s The Nordic Theory of Everything, I think that some constructive policies to deal with the issues raised in this book are available. Nordic countries do a couple things better than we do. They share the costs of developing human capital through more generous public support for education and job training. And they support stronger worker organization, so that workers can bargain for a better share of the fruits of their own productivity. As a result, young people can grow up with more confidence that their talents will be both developed and rewarded. Easy to say, harder to accomplish, but it can be done.

As for the grip that rich and selfish conservatives have on our political institutions, I will only say that we shouldn’t underestimate the power of cultural change. When public opinion shifts dramatically in a particular direction, it usually finds a way of inducing institutional reforms. Consider, for example, how sexually abusive men are starting to be ostracized (well, okay, not all of them).

I think Malcolm Harris has done a good job describing what makes life so difficult for the Millennial generation. For ideas about how to make it less difficult, readers have to look elsewhere.

A place in history

A more inspiring vision for Millennials was published by Neil Howe and William Strauss in 2000 under the title Millennials Rising. They had already given the generation its name in their previous book, Generations, where they laid out their elaborate theory of generational cycles in American history. Here are their birth dates for Millennials (slightly different from Harris’s), along with those of other living American generations:

  • G.I. (1901-1924)
  • Silent (1925-1942)
  • Boom (1943-1960, often dated 1946-1964 based on birth rates)
  • 13th (1961-1981, more commonly known as Generation X)
  • Millennial (1982-2002)

Once every 80 to 100 years, according to Howe and Strauss, a “hero generation” passes through the life cycle and has an unusually transformative effect on society:

A hero generation arrives just after an era of societywide upheaval in values and culture that many historians call a “spiritual awakening” and passes through childhood during a time of decaying civic habits, ebbing institutional trust, and resurgent individualism.
A hero generation directly follows a youth generation widely deemed to be disappointing [in this case, Generation X], reacts against the older “postwar” generation that fomented the spiritual awakening as young adults [Baby Boomers]–and fills a void left by the passing of an elder generation known for civic purpose and teamwork [G.I. Generation].

As they are entering adulthood, the generation is challenged by a “heroic trial,” such as World War II for the G.I. Generation. Howe and Strauss did not yet know what that might be for Millennials, but I am tempted to speculate that the current assault on our democratic institutions by the forces of oligarchy is a good candidate. In their midlife years, “they create powerful and enduring institutions, build big new infrastructures, craft a new modern world, and dominate politics and economics deep into their old age.”

Each generation has to solve problems created by the excesses of previous generations. Howe and Strauss see the Millennials reacting against the “narcissism, impatience, iconoclasm, and constant focus on talk (usually argument) over action” associated with Baby Boomers, as well as the “over-the-top free agency, social splintering, cultural exhaustion, and civic decay” associated with Generation X.  While my generation rebelled against powerful institutions that seemed intimidating and repressive, Millennials may do the opposite, rebuilding civic institutions weakened by excessive competitiveness and social polarization. “A new Millennial service ethic is emerging, built around notions of collegial (rather than individual) action, support for (rather than resistance against) civic institutions, and the tangible doing of good deeds.” In the economy, Howe and Strauss predict a new era of worker organization, class consciousness, higher taxes on the rich, and expansion of the middle class.

The Millennial generation would not be without its own excesses. Those might include “excessive collectivism and rationalism, a capacity to push technology too far or follow leaders too unquestioningly.” But those dangers would be the risk side of their historic opportunity, “to usher in an era when public events move the fastest and furthest, when nations and empires rise and fall, when the likelihood of political or economic calamity (and war) is high, when societies can either self-destruct or ratchet up to a higher level of civilization.” If Howe and Strauss are right, those who can see only gridlock and stagnation are in for a shock, probably very soon.