MILLENNIALS CAN’T CATCH A BREAK. They’ve got a lot to complain about but get nothing but grief when they do. A lot of it is because they are easy targets.
Most were coddled by their parents. They grew up being told they were as singular and special as snowflakes—and believed it. It’s no surprise they turned into adults expecting to be entitled to special treatment about everything. When they don’t get it they complain. It can make them seem like whiners. What they really are is victims.
All this is set out by Malcolm Harris in his new book Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. Harris is a millennial himself and was an early Occupy Wall Street protester.
Harris’s central thesis is that the “millennial generation” is nothing special. It is simply one more creation of what capitalism needs most to survive: namely, a vast body of workers it can control while forcing them to settle for as little as possible. But that’s not how millennials are portrayed.
The mass media work long and hard to sell millennials to us as shirkers, a pampered and privileged class. A 2013 Time magazine article called them the “me, me, me generation” —always more ready to whine than work. It is a “blame the workers” tactic as old as capitalism itself.
We all get turned into ‘human capital’
Harris tracks how young people in America operate within a system that reinforces the economic, educational, and political injustices that sort us all into upper and underclasses.
Harris explains the dominant goal now is to get us to, think about young people the way industry and the government already do: as investments, productive machinery, ‘human capital.’”
Millennials are caught in a trap of circumstances created by decades of disinterest in, if not direct opposition to, public policies of broad social benefit. “The greatest good for the greatest number” has become a very hard sell.
Harris demonstrates that millennials are special only because they face a perfect storm of fresh indignities spawned by an economy that extracts and exploits, an educational system designed to enforce those deprivations, and a set of politicians who believe there is nothing wrong with this state of affairs.
Education becomes indoctrination
Education occupies much of Harris’s attention. He says education from grade school, through high school and university has one objective, now more than ever: turn out willing workers.
For Harris education now is all about labour—although it is never framed that way. Grade school kids bear groaning homework loads; school activities aren’t about having fun as much as they’re about piling up credits for future college applications. The priority is clearly future productivity for future employers rather than the production of well rounded educated adults.
This fixation on job training, as opposed to education, leads to disturbing alliances between school administrators and particular entities looking for a guaranteed supply of cheap, ready labor. Harris points to the implementation of pre-professional homeland-security programs, as one example. “It starts innocuously,” Harris writes, “but by algebra the kids are calculating parabolas using the trajectory of an American sniper’s bullet in North Korea.”
The hard reality is government and industry find themselves aligned on one grim goal: School is for training workers. By the time today’s young adults finish high school, they’ve learned to think of themselves as employees-in-waiting. Punishingly high college expenses will only reinforce that perception.
A future overshadowed by debt
Another hard reality is that a university degree can often bring nothing more than a crushing burden of debt. This fact looms so large with millennials that plans to help employees pay off their student loans are being pitched to employers as a way to recruit and keep workers.
A print ad promoting the plan says: “Why did she borrow $67,928 for tuition? She did it to work for you.”
Harris warns colleges do not, in fact, create the kind of social mobility that is the creation myth of the “American dream.” Students from low-income families are likely to stay poor, college degree or no college degree. Many suffer from severe food insecurity while undertaking their studies.
These persistent inequalities are particularly pronounced among people of color. A recent Demos report showed that college degrees do not eliminate, or even seriously shrink, the racial wealth gap. Meanwhile, college costs continue to rise.
The world university grads face today is hardly brimming with opportunity. Since the 2008 crash the number of Americans working part-time jobs has doubled. With deunionization on the rise that trend isn’t likely to change. This persistent precarity benefits bosses, not workers, and it especially harms young workers just beginning their careers.
Fascists or revolutionaries
Kids These Days leaves little room for self-delusion. It demolishes the tired old deceit that: If you are very good and study very hard, the Job Santa will reward you.
There is no doubt millennials are in a precarious position. They were put there on purpose. The reason why is plain: This is not generational conflict, but rather class war. And the kids didn’t start it.
There is also no doubt for Harris about how it must end: “We become fascists or revolutionaries, one or the other.”
This article was originally published by The Canadian Labour Institute.
Reprinted with permission for CALM Members use.