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How Millennials Became Convenient Scapegoats for a Changing Society

Malcolm Harris' new book argues that grim realities are behind the hand-wringing press about Gen Y.

It seems a reader can barely go a week without seeing at least one news headline about how Millennials are "killing" some industry or product. Generation Y is purportedly wiping out casual dining, golf, diamonds, homeownership, and bars of soap, among other consumer products; news items have also characterized the generation as lazy, vain, and always looking for a handout.

According to Philadelphia-based writer (and Pacific Standard contributor) Malcolm Harris, this hand-wringing disdain toward Millennials unfairly ignores the material conditions that created the generation. In his new book, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, Harris argues that Millennials have set themselves up for success (Harris' book notes that Millennials are the most educated generation) with very little payoff. Millennials carry most of the burden of the nation's $1.4 trillion student-loan debt crisis; their unemployment rate is more than double the national average; they earn 20 percent less than Generation X; and Millennial employees face a higher level of depression than any other generation. Negative stereotypes, Harris argues, point to the economic and sociological forces that have shaped Millennials, not characteristics endemic to the generation itself.

Kids These Days is being released at a time when the its subject generation is contending not only with its own unique set of struggles, but with significant and alarming political and ecological challenges for the world at large, including climate change and the rise of white nationalism. But Harris, a Millennial himself, is not a pessimist, and believes positive social and economic change is possible, largely depending upon the choices Millennials make. In an interview with Pacific Standard, Harris discussed the unique relationship between Millennials and capitalism, today’s brand of youth activism, and the relationship between Millennials and younger generations.


What's the worst stereotype about Millennials you'd most like to provide context for?

I tried to address the idea of Millennial stereotypes in the introduction [to Kids These Days] a bit, but I don't spend a lot of time on it. [The book] is not a counterpoint to the stereotypes because that's mostly a waste of time. What [Millennial stereotypes] really add up to is the idea that Millennials are responsible for the labor relations that structure their lives or characterize our cohort experience—that they are essential qualities of us as people rather than conditioning that's been foisted upon us by structures larger than ourselves.

Throughout the decades, there has always been hand-wringing about "the youth." Are Millennials treated differently—are we more or less maligned—than previous generations of young people?

Every cohort relation between younger and older is fraught in various ways. They're mostly symbolic. The historical circumstances lead to different tensions. The way society is organized now, intergenerational tension characterizes society in one form or another no matter what: Old people have always had problems with young people and young people therefore have always had problems with old people. But with [Millennials], the form that intergenerational [tension] has taken is less cultural and symbolic, and more material.

Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials.

Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials.

There are regular headlines that accuse Millennials of "killing" some product or industry. What do you think this reveals about what's expected or demanded of Millennials in our society?

It's kind of funny, right? It's as if we are our consumer choices. I think it reflects a few things. One is the identification of Millennials with history. So if there are things that happen, it's our fault [simply] because we are the next cohort. So you can project onto us the fault for these shifts that actually characterize us as much as anything. The reason that casual restaurants are closing is because people don't have time and money to afford it. It's strange that we see economists and business people blaming customers for not being able to afford things. Theoretically, that's not our fault, that's the market's fault—if we can't afford things, it's not our fault for not wanting them.

You were involved in Occupy Wall Street, which is a predominantly Millennial movement, and of course there's a long history of student and youth activism in this country. Where do you think Millennials fit in with this arc and are we different in any way?

I think the level of political sophistication has accelerated rapidly in ways that people didn't really see coming; in ways that I didn't see coming. But we moved very quickly. The level of understanding of the average young person of the world and how the world is structured and whose interests and on whose backs, etc. is very, very high, right? And that ties into most [Millennials] not liking capitalism. I think most people understand that this is capitalism and they don't like it. But it clarifies that this is not a system that's operating by our consent. The protests of this generation have clarified the same thing.

Video games have been important for this generation, but the subject didn’t make it into Kids These Days. Gamergate was a formative and also traumatic event for our generation and the current political landscape. Can you speak a bit about video games, as an outsider to that subculture?

Video games are definitely a blind spot for me. I wasn't allowed to play video games as a child. My mother was convinced it was a plot of the military-industrial complex to make us all into gun pilots. Which is not actually a bad guess, as it turned out. So I was always terrible at video games and never played them and never learned anything about them or gaming culture.

But it wasn't that surprising that people play video games all day and they have bad politics. As an outside observer you can see this formation of right-wing misogynist politics and the use of the Internet by organized misogynists, politically organized misogynists. And that made it into the book; that is a thing that I'm certainly concerned about.

What do you think lies ahead for Millennials? And can we do anything that makes the world a better place for Gen Z and those that come after?

We'll see. I'm curious to see what the shape of Gen Z will be, but if we think about what the world will look like 40 years into the future ... if there hasn't been any foundational change, it's going to be a really fucked-up place. And [Millennials] will be, in large part, responsible for that. On the other hand, if there is a major change, which I think will happen, we're going to be, in large part, responsible for that also. We're coming up on a crucial timeframe that just happens to elapse at the same time as our lives. And not thanks to any choices that we've made; it just so happens to be the case.

[As for Gen Z], we continue to live underneath social structures where it’s not like any individual has a good choice, or that individual choices matter that much, so it's going to be about social choices—which we're making all the time, whether we think about them or not. And we're going to have to start thinking about and making choices that way, because, individually, we're not going to be able to treat anybody any differently. So I think it depends on what we do with the world.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.