Q&A: Getting Millennials Off That Treadmill

Originally published in The American Prospect on December 6, 2017.
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How are millennials stereotyped as lazy, despite being a highly efficient and productive generation? Why are millennials characterized as spoiled and entitled, yet just 6 percent of us expect to one day receive Social Security benefits like those enjoyed by current retirees? In Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennialswriter Malcolm Harris explores these and other questions—unpacking the precarity, the economic pressures, and the contradictions surrounding those born between 1980 and 2000. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Rachel Cohen: Let’s talk a little about “human capital.” What does that mean?

Malcolm Harris: Generally speaking, human capital is the skills, abilities, talents, accomplishments, and resumes that go with you when you work. It refers to the relationship between workers and owners. What some people get wrong is thinking that we own our human capital, and that we can sell it. That’s not true. We don’t own ours, and nobody is legally allowed to own human capital—[i.e. slaves]—anymore.

You say that kids today take fewer risks, and it’s partly a result of parents adopting a “risk elimination” approach to childrearing.

Through various means, we’re forcing or compelling kids to take fewer risks. Children are living increasingly conservative lives, especially compared to the immediately preceding generations. And some people talk about it like millennials are wusses, scaredy-cats, we need our mommies—stuff like that—but that’s all irrelevant because children do not raise themselves or define the world in which they come to be. In other words, we have to look for the sources of that risk-averse behavior with practices elsewhere.

I think we can find them in this idea of human capital and treating young people like appreciating assets—which gets you into the realm of risk management. In this economy, the competition has grown steeper, and the consequences of error have grown higher. The ability of people to accept risk has gone down—so you have all these risk-elimination strategies for parenting, which is very hard to live with.

Tell me about the story of Danny Dunn, and why you think it’s relevant for our time.

Danny Dunn was this children’s story I read when I was a kid that I found on my parents’ shelf. It was written in the 1950s, and it’s about this boy whose mom is a housekeeper for a scientist. Danny is always getting into the scientist’s things, and one day gets a hold of this computer. Now this was a ‘50s-era computer, so really a prototype, a slow machine. You could ask it questions and it could be programmed to tell you answers. Danny finds this and decides he’s going to use this machine to do his homework faster, so that he and his friends can get out of school more quickly.

Some other teachers find out and tell Danny that he can’t do that—that it’s cheating. Danny says, no, everyone can use technology, and I’m just using it to lighten my workload. What’s wrong, Danny asked, with doing my work faster with tools?

And this reflects a larger social tension at the time and over the second half of the 20th century: whether workers would get the benefits of technology or if owners would. Would productivity-enhancing tools result in people working fewer hours a day and getting more leisure time, or would people work not just as hard, but harder with this technology integrated into their lives?

What we see in Danny Dunn is that he ends up getting more homework as a result of his computer, and ultimately does more work than he had in the first place. In our modern economy, there’s this idea that if people work hard and get more education, use the available tools and technology we have, build more human capital then they’ll be better off. But we actually see that most people aren’t better off at all.

You explore the idea that more and more skills-training has become the burden or responsibility of the job applicant, rather than of employers who could train workers on the job.

It’s all about saving costs. It’s obscene that a company as rich as Google complains about a lack of skilled workers and that they want someone else—whether it’s a charity, or a 501(c)(3), or the government—to teach people how to do the work Google needs, and to pay for that training. Google should be paying for it, and the idea that this isn’t the response every single time someone says “skills gap” is wild. We should be saying, no, we won’t re-engineer the entire public education system for your benefit, and we’re not going to waste our kids’ time teaching them things they’re likely never going to use.

Wouldn’t the counter-argument to that be that we’re not really doing this for the companies’ sake, but for the students’? So they can earn decent livings?

But we know that when everyone does this, the aggregate effect is that wages go down. But that’s what companies want: They want it to be cheaper to pay for coders and workers with digital skills. If governments really wanted to help kids succeed in the labor market, the best correlate with high pay is union membership. Teach kids how to collectively bargain and join a union in schools. If schools wanted kids to get good jobs, strong jobs, no matter where they end up, they would teach them how to stand up for themselves and others on the job market. But we don’t have any classes on that. We have “here’s how you can get ahead by getting skills.”

On a related note, as you look at how barriers to enter various professional fields have changedyou talk specifically about music artists, comedians, and actors. Can you say a bit about this?

It’s sort of like the homework machine example with Danny Dunn. It used to be that you could get together with your friends and make music. And if you found somewhere with lots of space, and a sound-system, you could perform with other people. That’s what you could do as an individual. Now you have to do literally everything—produce your music, promote your music, release your music. You can do it, you have all the tools, and there’s nothing that’s stopping you from making the next big hit. But with that ability comes the responsibility, and people will start shouldering more and more of those tasks. So if I want to be a musician, I can’t just say I don’t want to do that graphic design for my album because I’m practicing my music. No, you have to go design your album, or find someone who can do it for you. You can no longer say, well the record label will take care of it down the line. The label won’t even look at you unless you have that done already. And this functions across the entertainment industry and beyond.

You note that no longer will attending a good school and landing a good job necessarily lead to ample leisure time. You say, “for young people who are working hard to put themselves on the successful side, they’re setting themselves up for more of the same. This road is no mountain climb: It’s a treadmill.” I related to that passage, though it certainly feels bleak.

It is bleak but I am actually optimistic. I just think optimism has to be realistic. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the jobs of the ‘50s and to that split of the national GDP between labor and capital. People who think that we can aren’t really looking at the facts or the numbers, they’re just sort of hoping. And that’s not being optimistic, that’s wishful thinking, naiveté, or delusion. Optimism is looking at the world, and at America, and seeing that history isn’t over. History is still going on, and this social system—with all its implications—is not the be-all-end-all of life on this planet. There are other ways in which we might be able to organize ourselves. That is my optimism, though I don’t think change will come in a nice, clean, or easy way.

You also say that millennials enter the labor force “structurally, legally, emotionally, culturally, and intellectually dissuaded” from collectively organizing as workers. Yet polls show that millennials are pretty supportive of unions. Is this a contradiction?

No, because we’re not stupid. Our cohort is starting to develop a political consciousness and it’s a pretty radical one compared to anything we’ve seen. Bernie Sanders got more young people’s votes in the primary than Clinton and Trump combined. We’re starting to develop this collective political consciousness, but at the same time, we’re still stuck in systems that demand individual competition from us in ways that we know are not in our collective interest. If you’re competing all the time, the implications are that you enter into this arm’s race situation, a death spiral, where kids are competing over everything constantly and never getting a chance to relax. We know this isn’t good for us, this system isn’t working for us. But in terms of power, there’s not a lot of choice right now.

What should parents or schools be doing differently?

I don’t think I have a lot of great advice for parents or schools. The problem is we have our policies and society built around everyone trying to get the most for their own child as opposed to thinking about everyone’s children. It’s the same with schools—everyone’s success is someone else’s failure. But this is a collective action problem; it’s not something we can solve by changing the behavior of individual parents or schools.

That said, teachers don’t have to give these standardized tests. The official union position is that these high-stakes tests are bad, yet teachers have been crucial in administering them.

What about kids? Can they be doing anything differently?

I focus on kids’ labor in the book. I think kids could be organizing for student power, organizing for less work, to work less hard. We tend to demonize that desire or interest but it’s in every worker’s interest to work less hard.

What is your ultimate hope for the book?

I hope it gives people, young people in particular, a frame for their experience and for the changes they see in the world. I hope it might be useful for thinking about American society and their lives in a different context, maybe one they haven’t heard before.

The longer we keep debating things like avocado toast, asking if young people are spoiled, the longer we talk about those things, the more we ignore things that are actually true—based in fact, evidence, and data.

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