Money  /  Book Review

The Kids Aren’t Alright

A crucial new work of generational analysis explores how society turned millennials into human capital.

When we talk about generations, we tend to talk as if history has always been divided up into them. But the idea of distinct eras of cohorts each defined by some unique spirit is not timeless. The notion of a generation was borne of a conception of history as a machine of progress—a claim central to Enlightenment ideology. When philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder coined the term “Zeitgeist” in 1769, he assumed time was a progressive force driving history forward. Developing this idea, Hegel imagined historical progress as a series of dialectical steps, each bringing the Geist, or World Spirit, closer to its realization of reason and freedom.

To this day, the notion of generations remains haunted by the Geist—the tacit presumption that each birth cohort signifies progress. Little wonder that millennials have proven such a conundrum for media narratives. Because for millennials, as author Malcolm Harris points out, the progress ideology “doesn’t jibe with reality: Somehow things got worse.”

Harris’s new book, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, is a crucial work of generational analysis in part because it severs the connection between the idea of generations and the presupposition of progress. The book is not an explicit critique of this essentialist notion of generations, however, but something more practical: a corrective. Against a glut of reductive clickbait stories dedicated to asserting “Millennials be like [insert broad observation]” Harris (with whom I worked a number of years ago at the New Inquiry) takes up the task of asking why millennials are the way they are, and then providing an answer. As he states in his introduction: “if Millennials are different in one way or another, it’s not because we’re more (or less) evolved than our parents or grandparents; it’s because they’ve changed the world in ways that have produced people like us. And we didn’t happen by accident.” The pages that follow are a careful and convincing study of how specific material conditions account for the way millennials be like—and, crucially, “in whose interests it is that we exist this way.”

Kids These Days offers a historical materialist analysis, but Harris is too committed to accessibility to use that term or to mention Marx even once. In prose that is precise, readable, and witty, he explores the economic, social, and political conditions that shaped those of us—myself and Harris included—born between 1980 and 2000. Harris’s central contention is that millennials are what happens when contemporary capitalism converts young people into “human capital.” After reading his book, it seems ill-advised to understand millennials any other way.