Defining the millennial
Non-fiction: Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, Malcolm Harris, Hachette Book Group, €22
The Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 was inspired by anger. America's young people had risen up - finally - to express their rage against the system. There was plenty to be upset about: the financial crisis; banks careless of their customers' money but propped up by the Government; an educational system that (in the US) left students shackled with tens of thousands of dollars of debt. The system seemed rigged. Even after the protests began it took days for big media organisations to consider covering them.
The movement was a mine of paradoxes, though, with apparently well-heeled youngsters tapping out subversive messages on their Apple Macs and iPhones in Zuccotti Park. Over time, stunned by police aggression, its membership dwindled and it fell apart, though not before splitting into two main groups: the wealthy Occupiers and those who had less. The irony was complete.
Malcolm Harris was an early Wall Street occupier, and is now a 29-year-old self-described communist and editor of an online magazine. In Kids These Days he undertakes to define his generation, to explore their historical context and "understand not only why we are the way we are, but in whose interests it is that we exist this way."
The book was anxiously awaited in the US and named one of the season's most anticipated publications by New York Magazine, Publishers Weekly and Nylon. (When it came out there last autumn, it prompted a flurry of analyses about problems that still haven't gone away.)
Without doubt, a book about the plight of twenty-somethings needed to be written, as millennials approach their thirties and start to ascend in the workplace and in public life. In the US, millennials are the largest generation, their population size giving them potential power equal to that of the baby boomers. But in contrast with the boomers, they're mired in financial hardship. Many live with their parents or in shared accommodation. They're less likely to own their homes and more likely to experience poverty than any other generation. Millennials face spiralling inequality that pits the Babyboomers against their grandchildren, a job market that has sputtered; in the US, those ferocious college debts, which currently sit at $1.3 trillion; and in Europe, significant youth unemployment, which is double the rate for all other ages.
Harris is rightly mad about these trends, but his writing, which his publishers describe as "brilliant, crackling prose," is full of unnervingly mixed metaphors, and hyperbole that too often stretches the rules of syntax. His argument frequently dissolves into a rant, and it can feel as though you're at a dinner party sitting beside someone who can't (or won't) stop talking.
Harris paints his generation as victims. "The entire way we talk about education turns students into lab rats, objects of experimentation and feedback," he writes, adding that "millennials were born in captivity". The aggressor is a bogeyman from a range of authority-figures: parents, policy-makers, teachers, the Government, big business or simply The Man - a term that he actually uses.
Problems exist too with the way Harris frames the issues. When he talks about how competitive the professional landscape is for his generation, he highlights the extreme example of the life of a concert violinist. Kids whose parents want them to excel at the instrument must begin before the age of eight, he laments; and an influx of musicians from China and South Korea is making it harder than ever to succeed as a soloist.
But - even though millennials do have a particularly competitive environment to contend with - this is a red herring that doesn't help to prove his point. Someone wanting to become a concert violinist during the mid-20th Century would have embarked on a career that was just as daunting.
What's most striking is that Harris largely excludes himself from the narrative. The book offers the occasional anecdote: the fact that he volunteered during college, and later worked at a non-profit, for example. But Harris doesn't give much more information than that. We don't know whether he went into debt or whether his parents paid for his college education; what sort of privileges he went without, or had access to. Though his Twitter feed outlined his activism in great detail, he omits to discuss his role in OWS, or the fact that he was arrested and did six days of community service. A critique of what he did and why (and whether it had any impact) would have deepened his discussion.
Despite the absence of information about his background, Harris is everywhere in the book - complaining and making judgements ("I think," "I feel justified") about the status quo.
Ultimately Harris is too much within this book, a sufferer like his fellow millennials, lacking the distance needed to craft a persuasive argument.
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