Nearly 20 years later, as the youngest millennials reach adulthood, we’re stuck with the stereotypes Strauss and Howe proffered, and not much else. Millennials are said to be a generation of tech-obsessed narcissists whose failure to match, much less exceed, our parents’ economic success is evidence of poor moral fiber. We think we’re special; we’re too sheltered; we’re too conventional; and we certainly aren’t achieving enough to warrant our wild overconfidence. (Full disclosure: I’m a millennial.) If that’s so, says Malcolm Harris, it certainly didn’t happen by accident. In his new book Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, he warns that we ought to take the historical formation of this cohort seriously, because it represents a single point of failure for a society veering toward oligarchy and/or dystopia. We will either become “the first generation of true American fascists” or “the first generation of successful American revolutionaries.”
No pressure, though.
As a member of Generation X who was once part of Mars Hill I'd venture the admittedly pessimistic proposal that we're going to get dystopia and oligarchy all in one go. Why does it have to be either/or? It's the easiest thing in the world for revolutionaries to also turn out to be fascists. Adorno's condemnation of the New Left he saw taking shape in the United States was that, in sum, he regarded them as no less totalitarian than the fascists he fled from in Europe in the first half of the 20th century. The identitarian politicking of American college students and professors we're seeing isn't so far removed from a neo-pagan religion of blood and soil as to be altogether different. But let's get back to the article.
In November 2011, just as the Occupy Wall Street protests were winding down, two progressive think tanks jointly published a study called “The Economic State of Young America,” which reported that millennials were likely to be the first generation of Americans who were less economically successful than their parents had been. This news unleashed something between a moral panic and a national identity crisis, one that’s only sort of about the material conditions of millennials’ daily lives or the documented effects of growing wealth inequality on the health of our democracy. Someone or something, it seems, had killed the American dream: the idea not only that hard work will be rewarded with social mobility and economic prosperity, but also that justly earned wealth will grow exponentially across generations.
But who was to blame? Was the problem that millennials have failed to live up to the economic challenges that previous generations of Americans had always met, or was it that their parents and grandparents had failed to deliver them a world in which success was possible? Harris, for his part, thinks the answer is clear: “Every authority from moms to presidents told Millennials to accumulate as much human capital as we could and we did, but the market hasn’t held up its side of the bargain. What gives? And why did we make this bargain in the first place?” (Human capital, in Harris’s usage, refers to “the present value of a person’s future earnings”; “the ‘capital’ part of ‘human capital’ means that, when we use this term, we’re thinking of people as tools in a larger production process.”)
Harris’s thesis is simple: young people are doing more and getting less in a society that that has incentivized their labor with the promise of a fair shake, and that older generations are profiting handsomely from the breach of contract. He doesn’t express it this clearly, though, in part because he is hamstrung by the book’s framing, which is detrimental to his argument (for reasons I’ll explain later). But it also makes Kids These Days an interesting artifact in its own right. It reveals something about how badly we want to believe that we all belong to a bigger American story, and about how essential that belief is to the maintenance of a capitalist regime that maximizes our labor and diminishes our lives.
Well that can certainly be one of the mythologies but one of the other ones is surely that humanity can be redeemed by art religion or the meta religion in art religion of arts criticism of the sort we can read from A. O. Scott in Better Living Through Criticism ... or maybe also stuff published at LA Review of Books. ;)
Some of the analysis in Kids These Days is pretty impressive. In the book’s first two chapters, Harris maps the effects of a hyper-capitalized youth control complex that formed, he argues, in the last two decades of the 20th century. At every level, Harris thinks, the American education system is either a workplace or a profit machine. The highlight of the book is its admirably lucid précis of higher education, the student debt crisis, and the institutional wealth accumulation it fuels. Harris makes clear that higher ed has become a debt machine that profits everyone except students. While outsourcing and labor casualization have cut expenses, price tags at four-year schools have jumped 200 percent or more, and administrators seem to have multiplied like gerbils: an increase wildly out of proportion to the rollback of public funding over the last 30 years. That’s where student loans come in. They represent over $100 billion a year in government funding to schools and, over time, huge returns for the feds. The $140 billion in federal student loans issued in 2014, Harris says, will eventually net a $25 billion profit.
The strength of this argument is that Harris doesn’t try to frame the analysis in the context of the millennial generation. While he briefly discusses the federal government’s failure to offer meaningful relief for loans in repayment — including the observation that the Obama administration’s vaunted reforms amounted to very little — he doesn’t say all that much about the experiences of millennial student debtors, or how they’re distinct from those of Generation X or other cohorts. One can certainly imagine how that piece comes into play without his indulging in the generational grandstanding that otherwise appears throughout the book.
Scott Timberg has been blogging frustration at how he sees Generation X as having been the first generation to be materially worse off than the preceding generation that birthed it, but that the way Generation X has been let down by the "promise" has bee in such a quotidian and tedious fashion that it's simply not newsworthy.
Ultimately, though, the most frustrating thing about Kids These Days is how Harris keeps coming back to that broken promise framing, encapsulated in those blunt rhetorical questions quoted above: “[T]he market hasn’t held up its side of the bargain. What gives? And why did we make this bargain in the first place?” As a millennial might say, great questions. But the answer to the first has very little to do with millennials per se and everything to do with a set of historical and economic forces that lurched into operation long before 1980. The game was rigged from the start, and the prize was never real. The answer to the second taps into a much, much bigger and more important problem about how the deceptive rhetoric of the American dream fuels our exploitation, and prompts a third question: why are we so surprised we got scammed?
Millenials aren't necessarily in a position yet to be old enough to look back on how "we" did or did not get scammed. However, Generation X has certainly become old enough to consider it. Looking back on how and why I at one point believed that Mars Hill Church was attempting to be a positive influence in the Puget Sound area the sales pitch was always pretty plain, legacy. Guys like Driscoll make legacy the pitch. Not just guys, men and women who want to change things for the better use legacy as a sales pitch to invite people to be part of something that makes the world or the city or the region better than it was before.
The scam, so to speak, is not the legacy stuff itself, it's the checklist of what hoops you have to jump through in order to gain a legacy and how you have to jump so as to get through them. If we want to try to articulate the nature of what the scam seems to be it's in that. One of my friends from college told me he felt like there was this promise that if you just went and got the advanced degree a great well-paying job would be waiting for you and it turned out to be a sham. This is an intra-Generation X dialogue so experience and mileage will vary but I'd venture to say my friend put it well. Generation X may be the first to be confronted with the reality that the "dream" was a scam ... but a guy like Driscoll might be a case study of someone who was determined to chase the realization of that dream and got it to "work". Maybe a guy like Driscoll really believes sheer work and gumption accounts for his current position but it doesn't. Driscoll name-dropped just enough names that whether it was a Ken Hutcherson or a Gregg Kappas or a David Nicholas or a Mike Gunn or a Leif Moi or a Jon Phelps there were a variety of men who were older and further along who believed in him and invested in him that he was able to rise to prominence. Which is a way of saying that people like Driscoll managed to rise and the sales pitch of the American mythology has it that it's your effort and not that generosity of a patronage system that gets you where you've gotten.
What's different these days for millenials? Well, at the risk of being a jerk about it, earlier generations were probably more steeped in a residual Social Gospel in blue state areas and in a more conventional evangelicalism than in the more Word Faith prosperity gospel teaching or the post Ayn Rand objectivist mentality. As Sherman Alexie's complaint has been, this newer generation of billionaires may be less racist and prone to killing Indians or owning slaves but they're also less evidently concerned with philanthropy.
Then again, to go by what's been burbling up to the surface in Hollywood and other industries one of the creepy things we're discovering is that a lot of old dude philanthrophy that looks altruistic at first may have come with strings attached.
Let me take a shot at that one. I read with incredulity Harris’s suggestion that “[a] look at the evidence shows that the curve we’re on is not the one we’ve been told about, the one that bends toward justice.” He’s referring, of course, to Martin Luther King Jr.’s much-quoted maxim about the arc of the moral universe, which apparently conflicts with some unspecified “evidence” demonstrating that millennials have been denied their rightful economic and cultural inheritance. But conflating matters of moral justice with rising material success implies a frankly impoverished vision of, and for, American life. Nor does this strike me as a book that’s especially concerned with economic justice in more than a facile way, unless you’re of the “rising tide lifts all boats” school.
To be fair, it’s not like Harris is alone here. “We were promised something and we didn’t get it” is not just a millennial refrain: it’s a shared American delusion. But a dream is not an entitlement. The idea that entry into a stable middle class is some sort of American national birthright is ahistorical; that it ever seemed possible may prove to be epiphenomenal. The American middle class to which we were supposed to aspire was vanishingly short-lived, and it was certainly never uniformly accessible.
... and particularly not really accessible if you weren't white.
One of the things Jake Meador brought up in some blogging he did at Mere Orthodoxy is that it seems that a generation was promised something that hasn't been delivered. One of many responses to that blogging was to say that the market didn't really promise anything. That may be to willfully misunderstand the nature of the point Generation X and onward have been making about the prescribed script for "making it" in American society. The script is that you get through high school and get more and more advanced degrees and your level of success, and the level of capital social and actual you accumulate along the way is supposed to be a direct reflection of the amount of time and money you invested in your education once you've gotten past the routine of public high school, etc, etc.
But it's been turning out that even if you jump through all those hoops you've been told you need to jump through, assuming you can even jump through them all, that corresponding stability in job and social life isn't forthcoming.
The early Mars Hill Church was a place where "life together" and other ideals had associations with a proposal of coming up with a different way of arriving at social cohesion and working life than what is colloquially known as the American dream. The goals didn't all have to be arrived at in precisely the same way as formally prescribed. Driscoll played himself against the parents of Generation X pretty astutely, as was noted in an article mentioning him published in Mother Jones almost twenty years ago. The idea was that not everyone had sold out to the American Dream.
That was twenty years ago and by about 2007 more than just a handful of guys in leadership at Mars Hill were probably sold out to the American Dream. As men in the leadership culture of Mars Hill were more able to check off the items in the "attained the American Dream" list, it was easier to shift an understanding of how to get "there" from the alternatives that were embraced in the earlier Mars Hill period (such as communal living, which is hardly a new thing) and more toward a checklist of being "grown up". This was more and more emphatic and patently obvious in Mark Driscoll's teaching and preaching as time went on. It was always one of his fixations but it became more apparent that how you got all the bullet points was at least as important as getting to all of them. A community in which men and women simply didn't bother with attaining those goals because, for them, it wasn't realistically attainable, probably stopped being important.
So, yeah, I think I can confidently say Generation X has had plenty of time to figure out how we figured out the American Dream was a kind of cultural shell game. A lot of what passes for "kids these days" can come from a generation of men (and also some women) who may not realize the extent to which the patronage between generations that was taken for granted in earlier epochs isn't necessarily available in the same way.
Conversely, the generation that raised or helped raise millenials and regards them as full of narcissistic apathy might not be that eager to concede that somebody raised that generation in a way that bears at least some culpability for those generational vices. Think about it this way, what did we think we might get from a generation thirty years on from the Star Wars met Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey of self-actualization? What did we think might be an outcome of generations raised on Disney princesses who are Jane Galts who stop the motor of the world by not bothering to jump through the hoops of what's expected of them? What were we thinking would be the outcome if the base line of an American pop culture mythology is that the rules exist for everyone else but you to have to be bound by? It's hard to really find fault in millenials for their vices when I survey the last few generations of pop culture. They got the message that was sold to them and their parents, didn't they?