If you’re a millennial, which Malcolm Harris defines as a person born between 1980-2000 (that’s me and Harris), this is a great book to give to that baby boomer in your life who has jumped on the millennial-bashing bandwagon. Boomers may not understand it, they may roll their eyes and mumble something about “uphill both ways in the snow” when they were our age, or they may not even be interested in learning about how different the world their kids are growing up in is from, say, 1970. All this is to be expected, given that Harris’ extensive socioeconomic research has led him to the conclusion that how well you do financially, psychologically and physically depends more on your birth cohort than your birth year. He gives examples and discusses sociological studies he reviewed that support this unconventional point of view.
But you, millennial, will understand. You’ll understand your intractable anxiety, your mistrust of others, your sense of job insecurity that drives your inability to unplug and rest. You’ll stop blaming yourself for not being the best at the 18 extracurricular activities you did in high school in order to get into a top university where you can continue to do work (often for free, Harris points out) for the privilege of eventually, maybe, getting (under)paid by an employer who no longer feels any loyalty or responsibility to employees. You’ll stop feeling like a failure for not being able to figure out how to move up the (disappearing) corporate ladder to a secure position that may allow retirement with dignity (if the stock market doesn’t crash first). You’ll be able to give yourself a break for being so cagey and overwhelmed. Things really are intensifying; things really have gotten worse, and Harris eloquently and seemingly angrily lays out why.
But validation, vindication and insight don’t put food on the table or heat in the house (except maybe Mr. Harris’). One thing you won’t find in “Kids These Days” is relief from that anxiety, encouragement to build the relationships that all human beings need, or answers to the looming tech-fueled employment crisis. That’s because he doesn’t have any, and he’s not interested in providing any, either. This is the great failure of most modern-day nonfiction — it explicates in crackling detail whatever problem it’s focused on and then gives a two-page epilogue of platitudes labeled as solutions. “Kids These Days” doesn’t even do that: Its concluding remarks break down why any of the attempted solutions won’t work for the people who want to do something with their suicidal terror after reading his book. And then his closing remarks exhort his readers to “do something” lest we become the first generation of American fascists.
Harris was an early leader in the Occupy movement and many attribute the movement’s ultimate failure to him. Perhaps it was because, only a month after Occupy Wall Street got off the ground, Harris signed with a speaking agency. His agent then told a California branch of Occupy that if it wanted Harris to address its members and discuss the 99 Percent, they’d need to pay a $5,000 speaking fee. Maybe it was the lawsuit that revealed Harris had lied about the police not warning him and other protesters to stay off the Brooklyn Bridge in October of 2011, resulting in more than 700 arrests.
Either way, Harris’ analysis of the troubling path we are on as a society, how it’s worse for millennials than any generation in living memory and how it’s likely not going to get better may not be wrong, but they’re difficult to consider objectively when they embody the very issues they claim to bash and make profitable use of the very system it claims is ruining the world. It may be clever to benefit from capitalism by attacking capitalism, but it’s immoral to scare the hell out of people and provide zero real suggestions for a way off of what he correctly points out is a pretty bad path.
The only “answer” I’m left with after reading about how dark and automated my future is going to be is to see this book more as a well-informed piece of personal branding (wait, I thought he said that was one of the terrible things about being alive in the hyper-connected age of turbo-charged capitalism) meant to benefit the author and less as a sincere effort to defend or help my maligned and, in Harris’s opinion, screwed generation.
Next week: It’s not your fault, millennials. Contributing Writer Megan Wildhood reviews “The Vanishing American Corporation.”
Wait, there's more. Check out the full Feb. 7 - Feb. 13 issue.