Stephanie Mehta is a deputy editor at Vanity Fair. She has worked as a staff writer and editor for the Wall Street Journal, Fortune and Bloomberg.
Malcolm Harris is the thinking person's Berniecrat. His book, "Kids These Days," offers a comprehensive, data- and research-driven look at the trends and anxieties that led so many young people to zealously support Sen. Bernie Sanders's quixotic bid for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. Millennials are better educated and more skilled than previous generations, yet they are saddled with more debt and fewer stable job prospects than their predecessors. To hear Harris, a millennial himself, tell it, they're overworked, undersexed and stressed out. No wonder so many of them embraced an anti-establishment candidate who campaigned for free college education and railed against corporate greed. "Were someone to push the American oligarchy off its ledge, the shove seems likely to come from this side of the generation gap," Harris writes.
Harris sets out to dispel much of the conventional wisdom about his peers — that they're entitled, tech-addicted and in need of constant validation — using a novel approach. He analyzes millennials through the lens of "human capital," an economic concept that refers to the investments that go into making a resource (in this case, people) more productive. By this measure, young adults born between 1980 and 2000, with their competitive schools, unpaid internships, organized sports and music lessons, indeed should be very valuable. But they find themselves thrown into a job market that, thanks to globalization, increased productivity and the "gig economy," doesn't reward them for their inputs. If you don't count people in finance careers, college-educated young adults have seen their real wages drop 8.5 percent between 2000 and 2012, and unemployment rates for recent graduates have nearly doubled since 2007. Far from being entitled, millennials are disadvantaged. And the always-on devices they supposedly love so much? Technological advances are part of what's killing their professional prospects.
It's a stark and compelling picture, but in Harris's book, it's fairly bloodless. The few real-life examples of struggling millennials offered by the author are gleaned from the research papers, books and articles he cites to support his arguments. To disprove the myth that most undergrads are rich kids coasting through school while their parents write tuition checks — only about 19 percent of full-time students finish four-year programs on time, Harris reports — he writes about a student who was falling asleep in class. When queried by her professor, who assumed the young woman had been at a party the night before, the student revealed that she worked the graveyard shift at a local grocery store to make extra money. I yearned to know more about this student. Where did she grow up? Was anyone helping her pay for school? How does she feel about the job market she's going to face after graduation? To find out, I might have to read "Paying the Price," a book Harris draws from, which was written by the professor who confronted the student.
Anecdotes about entry-level Wall Street analysts, an aspiring professional athlete, singer Taylor Swift — all come from other sources, not original interviews. That's a pity, for what better way to explode preconceived notions about millennials than to offer some three-dimensional portraits of individuals living through the challenges Harris describes?
And in his keenness to knock down every unfair generalization about his generation, Harris peppers his book with straw-man arguments, some so absurd that they distract from the potency of his message. In an otherwise astute assessment of profiteering and greed at colleges and universities, the author wants us to be shocked, shocked that there are opportunists in these establishments. He writes, "Since almost all colleges are nonprofits, we assume people work in higher education for reasons other than financial gain, whether it be commitment to teaching the next generation, a passion for contribution to the sum of human knowledge and understanding, fear of social life outside the academy, or some combination of all three." It's as if he's never heard of Division I college football or interacted with the support staff at a university bursar's office. I stopped short when he mused, "If it is every parent's task to raise at least one successful American by America's own standards, then the system is rigged so that most of them will fail." It's a throwaway line, but Harris seems to be positing that parenting is transactional, a notion that may advance the book's narrative that millennials are investments but one that surely will rub any well-meaning parent the wrong way.
All these quibbles — and I realize the critiques make me sound like a grumpy old Gen Xer — might be excused if Harris offered ideas for how millennials and future generations could band together to restore upward mobility. Instead, he practically shrugs in the concluding chapter, "Books like this are supposed to end with a solution, right?" He then proceeds to offer the pros and cons of various traditional levers citizens use to affect change, such as participating in elections, making smart buying decisions, volunteering and protesting.
I get it: Harris doesn't want to devalue his analysis by concluding with a tidy, too-pat blueprint. But his reluctance to offer anything resembling a millennial call to arms feels like a cop-out. The author may not have all the answers, but here again, some outside voices might help. Surely there are smart activists and organizers who can lend insight and proactive suggestions for reversing millennials' fates. Indeed, Harris suggests, somewhat naively, that mounting pressures may push his cohort to "become the first generation of successful revolutionaries." In fact, there have been other triumphant rebellions in U.S. history, starting with the colonists who ousted the British. The volunteers and protesters of the civil rights movement — including Sanders — were revolutionaries. Millennials may be different from previous generations, but it doesn't mean they can't learn a thing or two from the past.
By Malcolm Harris
Little Brown. 261 pp. $25