Where Millennials Come From
Imagine, as I often do, that our world were to end tomorrow, and that alien researchers many years in the future were tasked with reconstructing the demise of civilization from the news. If they persevered past the coverage of our President, they would soon identify the curious figure of the millennial as a suspect. A composite image would emerge, of a twitchy and phone-addicted pest who eats away at beloved American institutions the way boll weevils feed on crops. Millennials, according to recent headlines, are killing hotels, department stores, chain restaurants, the car industry, the diamond industry, the napkin industry, homeownership, marriage, doorbells, motorcycles, fabric softener, hotel-loyalty programs, casinos, Goldman Sachs, serendipity, and the McDonald’s McWrap.
The idea that millennials are capriciously wrecking the landscape of American consumption grants quite a bit of power to a group that is still on the younger side. Born in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, millennials are now in their twenties and thirties. But the popular image of this generation—given its name, in 1987, by William Strauss and Neil Howe—has long been connected with the notion of disruptive self-interest. Over the past decade, that connection has been codified by Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, who writes about those younger than herself with an air of pragmatic evenhandedness and an undercurrent of moral alarm. (An article adapted from her most recent book, “iGen,” about the cohort after millennials, was published in the September issue of The Atlantic with the headline “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” It went viral.) In 2006, Twenge published “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before.” The book’s cover emblazoned the title across a bare midriff, a flamboyant illustration of millennial self-importance, sandwiched between a navel piercing and a pair of low-rise jeans.
According to Twenge, millennials are “tolerant, confident, open-minded, and ambitious, but also disengaged, narcissistic, distrustful, and anxious.” She presents a barrage of statistics in support of this assessment, along with anecdotal testimonials and pop-cultural examples that neatly confirm the trends she identifies. (A revised edition, published in 2014, mentions the HBO show “Girls” six times.) Twenge acknowledges that the generation has come of age inside an “economic squeeze created by underemployment and rising costs,” but she mostly explains millennial traits in terms of culture and choice. Parents overemphasized self-esteem and happiness, while kids took their cues from an era of diversity initiatives, decentralized authority, online avatars, and reality TV. As a result, millennials have become irresponsible and fundamentally maladjusted. They “believe that every job will be fulfilling and then can’t even find a boring one.” They must lower their expectations and dim their glittering self-images in order to become functional adults.
This argument has a conservative appeal, given its focus on the individual rather than on the structures and the conditions that govern one’s life. Twenge wonders, “Is the upswing in minority kids’ self-esteem an unmitigated good?” and then observes, “Raising children’s self-esteem is not going to solve the problems of poverty and crime.” It’s possible to reach such moralizing conclusions even if one begins with the opposite economic premise. In “The Vanishing American Adult,” published in May, Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, insists that we live in a time of generalized “affluenza,” in which “much of our stress now flows not from deprivation but, oddly, from surplus.” Millennials have “far too few problems,” he argues. Sasse chastises parents for allowing their kids to succumb to the character-eroding temptations of contemporary abundance and offers suggestions for turning the school-age generation into the sort of hardworking, financially independent grownups that the millennials have yet to become.
The image of millennials has darkened since Strauss and Howe walked the beat: in their 2000 book, “Millennials Rising,” they claimed that the members of this surging generation were uniquely earnest, industrious, and positive. But the decline in that reputation is hardly surprising. Since the nineteen-sixties, most generational analysis has revolved around the groundbreaking idea that young people are selfish. Twenge’s term for millennials merely flips an older one, the “me generation,” inspired by a 1976 New York cover story by Tom Wolfe about the baby boomers. (The voluble Wolfe, born in 1930, is a member of the silent generation.) Wolfe argued that three decades of postwar economic growth had produced a mania for “remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self . . . and observing, studying, and doting on it.” The fear of growing selfishness has, in the forty years since, only increased.
That fear is grounded in concrete changes: the story of American self-interest is a continuous one that nonetheless contains major institutional and economic shifts. Adapting to those shifts does tend to produce certain effects. I was born smack in the middle of the standard millennial range, and Twenge’s description of my generation’s personality strikes me as broadly accurate. Lately, millennial dreams tend less toward global fame and more toward affordable health insurance, but she is correct that my cohort has grown up under the influence of novel and powerful incentives to focus on the self. If for the baby boomers self-actualization was a conscious project, and if for Gen X—born in the sixties and seventies—it was a mandate to be undermined, then for millennials it’s more like an atmospheric condition: inescapable, ordinary, and, perhaps, increasingly toxic. A generation has inherited a world without being able to live in it. How did that happen? And why do so many people insist on blaming them for it?
“Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials,” by Malcolm Harris (Little, Brown), is the first major accounting of the millennial generation written by someone who belongs to it. Harris is twenty-eight—the book’s cover announces his birth year next to a sardonic illustration of elementary-school stickers—and he has already rounded the bases of young, literary, leftist media: he is a writer and editor for the online magazine the New Inquiry; he has written for Jacobin and n+1. He got his first taste of notoriety during Occupy Wall Street: shortly after activists settled in at Zuccotti Park, he wrote a blog post for Jacobin in which he claimed to have “heard unconfirmed reports that Radiohead is planning a concert at the occupation this week.” He set up an e-mail account using the name of the band’s manager and wrote to Occupy organizers, conveying the band’s interest in performing. Later, in a piece for Gawker titled “I’m the Jerk Who Pranked Occupy Wall Street,” he explained that his goal was to get more people to the protest, and expressed disdain for the way the organizers responded. (Fooled by his e-mail, they held a press conference and confirmed the band’s plan to appear.)
Harris’s anatomizing of his peers begins with the star stickers that, along with grade-school participation trophies, so fascinate Sasse, Twenge, and other writers of generational trend pieces. “You suck, you still get a trophy” is how Twenge puts it, describing contemporary K through five as an endless awards ceremony. Harris, on the other hand, regards elementary school as a capitalist boot camp, in which children perform unpaid labor, learn the importance of year-over-year growth through standardized testing, and get accustomed to constant, quantified, increasingly efficient work. The two descriptions are not as far apart as one might think: assuring kids that they’re super special—and telling them, as Sasse does, that they have a duty to improve themselves through constant enrichment—is a good way to get them to cleave to a culture of around-the-clock labor. And conditioning them to seek rewards in the form of positive feedback—stars and trophies, hearts and likes—is a great way to get them used to performing that labor for free.
My memories of childhood—in a suburban neighborhood in west Houston that felt newly hatched, as open as farmland—are different, breezy and hot and sunlit. I attended, mostly on scholarship, a Southern Baptist school attached to one of the largest megachurches in America, and elementary school seemed like the natural price of admission for friends, birthday parties, and long summers full of shrieking, unsupervised play. (The very young aren’t much for picking up on indoctrination techniques; the religious agitprop felt natural enough, too.) But some kind of training did kick in around the time I entered high school, when I began spending fourteen-hour days on campus with the understanding that I needed to earn a scholarship to a good college. College, of course, is where the millennial lounges around on lush green quads, spends someone else’s money, insists on “safe spaces,” protests her school’s heteronormative core curriculum, and wages war on her professors if she receives a grade below an A. I did the first two of those things, thanks to the Jefferson Scholars Foundation at the University of Virginia. I also took six classes a semester, worked part time, and crammed my schedule with clubs and committees—in between naps on the quad and beers with friends on my porch couch and long meditative sessions figuring out what kind of a person I was going to be.
Most undergraduates don’t have such a luxurious and debt-free experience. The majority of American college students never live on campus; around a third go to community college. The type of millennial that much of the media flocks to—white, rich, thoughtlessly entitled—is largely unrepresentative of what is, in fact, a diverse and often downwardly mobile group. (Millennials are the first generation to have just a fifty-fifty chance of being financially better off than their parents.) Many millennials grew up poor, went to crummy schools, and have been shuttled toward for-profit colleges and minimum-wage jobs, if not the prison system. (For-profit colleges, which disproportionately serve low-income students, account for roughly a tenth of undergraduates, and more than a third of student-loan defaults.) Average student debt has doubled just within this generation, surging from around eighteen thousand dollars at graduation for the class of 2003 to thirty-seven thousand for the class of 2016. (Under the tax plan recently passed by House Republicans, the situation worsens for student borrowers and their families: that bill eliminates the deduction on student-loan interest and voids the income-tax exemption for tuition benefits.)
A young college graduate, having faithfully followed the American path of hard work and achievement, might now find herself in a position akin to a homeowner with negative equity: in possession of an asset that is worth much less than what she owes. In these conditions, the concept of self-interest starts to splinter. For young people, I suspect, the idea of specialness looks like a reward but mostly functions as punishment, bestowing on us the idea that there is no good way of existing other than constantly generating returns.
Harris and I were born in the same year, and we were in college when the financial crisis hit, in 2008. As I approached graduation, I watched news footage of crumple-faced families carrying boxes out of foreclosed houses, followed by shots of expensively dressed professionals walking to work at their bailed-out banks. I joined the Peace Corps, and was assigned to Kyrgyzstan. Shortly after I returned to the U.S., in 2011, the grungy, amorphous Occupy movement started blooming; protesters were railing against the impunity of “the one per cent” in Houston, as they were in dozens of other cities across the country. Suspended in the amber of my temporary underemployment, I spent long afternoons hanging around Hermann Square, downtown, making small talk with libertarian lawyers, pan-activists in bandannas and hiking sandals, and a lot of people in my own demographic—millennials coming into their political discontent.
That September, Occupy set up its makeshift camp in lower Manhattan. On the first day of October, some seven hundred demonstrators were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct as they walked on the roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge, blocking traffic. Harris was one of them. He argued, along with many others, that the police had led the group onto the bridge and then arrested them. In 2012, as the case was going forward, his Twitter archive was subpoenaed. Twitter resisted the order, but eventually provided the tweets, which made it clear that Harris had heard the police warning protesters to stay off the roadway. (“They tried to stop us,” he’d tweeted.) He was sentenced to six days of community service. These Occupy stories don’t make it into “Kids These Days”—Harris leaves out his personal experience altogether, keen to focus on structural analysis rather than anecdote. He does observe, though, in a discussion of social media, that “Coke tastes good even once you’ve seen what it can do to a rusty nail.” He continues to make frequent use of Twitter.
When Twenge first published “Generation Me,” social media had not yet become ubiquitous. Facebook was limited to colleges and high schools, Twitter hadn’t formally launched, and Instagram didn’t exist. But the millennial narrative was already taking its mature shape, and social media fit into it seamlessly: the narcissism of status updates, the shallow skimming of shiny surfaces, the inability to sit still. One might therefore conclude that the story of generational self-centeredness is so flexible as to have no real definition—it can cover anything, with a little stretching. But there is another possibility: that social media feeds on the same conditions that have made millennials what they are.
“Over the last decade, anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common reason college students seek counseling services,” the Times Magazine noted in October. Anxiety, Harris argues, isn’t just an unfortunate by-product of an era when wages are low and job security is scarce. It’s useful: a constant state of adrenalized agitation can make it hard to stop working and encourage you to think of other aspects of your life—health, leisure, online interaction—as work. Social media provides both an immediate release for that anxiety and a replenishment of it, so that users keep coming back. Many jobs of the sort that allow millennials to make sudden leaps into financial safety—in tech, sports, music, film, “influencing,” and, occasionally, journalism—are identity-based and mercurial, with the biggest payoffs and opportunities going to those who have developed an online following. What’s more, cultivating a “personal brand” has become a matter of prudence as well as ambition: there is a powerful incentive to be publicly likable at a time when strangers routinely rate and review one another over minor transactions—cat-sitting, assembling ikea furniture, sharing a car ride or a spare bedroom—and people are forced to crowdsource money for their medical bills.
Young people have curled around their economic situation “like vines on a trellis,” as Harris puts it. And, when humans learn to think of themselves as assets competing in an unpredictable and punishing market, then millennials—in all their anxious, twitchy, phone-addicted glory—are exactly what you should expect. The disdain that so many people feel for Harris’s and my generation reflects an unease about the forces of deregulation, globalization, and technological acceleration that are transforming everyone’s lives. (It does not seem coincidental that young people would be criticized for being entitled at a time when people are being stripped of their entitlements.) Millennials, in other words, have adjusted too well to the world they grew up in; their perfect synchronization with economic and cultural disruption has been mistaken for the source of the disruption itself.
This idea runs parallel, in some ways, to the assessments of Twenge and Sasse and other conservative commentators. But Harris’s conclusions are precisely the opposite of theirs: instead of accommodating the situation even further, he argues, kids should revolt. “Either we continue the trends we’ve been given and enact the bad future, or we refuse it and cut the knot of trend lines that defines our collectivity. We become fascists or revolutionaries, one or the other.” It’s a near-apocalyptic vision. But the polarization that permeates American politics—stemming, in part, from a sense that extreme measures are necessary to render our world livable—is especially evident among millennials, some disaffected portion of whom form much of the racist alt-right, while a largerswath has adopted the leftist politics shared by Harris. In the 2016 Presidential primaries, Bernie Sanders won more young votes than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined.
“The newfound popularity of socialism among millennials is an alarming trend,” Sasse writes in “The Vanishing American Adult.” He provides a syllabus that he hopes will steer people away from such thinking, and toward an intellectually mature adulthood, and he dutifully includes “The Communist Manifesto,” so that his hypothetical pupils can properly grasp how wrong it is. It seems more likely that a young person who opened “The Communist Manifesto” tomorrow would underline the part about personal worth being reduced to exchange value and go off to join the Democratic Socialists of America, which has grown fivefold in the last year. One of its members, a Marine Corps veteran named Lee Carter, was elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates in November. He was born in 1987. “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” the critic and theorist Fredric Jameson wrote, fourteen years ago. These days, the kids find it easy enough to imagine both. ♦
see also: Millenials are Screwed