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,
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