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13 November 2017updated 04 Aug 2021 1:22pm

Kids These Days and iGen: two competing visions of what makes a millennial

Malcolm Harris and Jean M Twenge explore the most maligned generation of them all.

By Houman Barekat

It is the lot of each generation to be frowned upon by its elders, but the opprobrium routinely heaped upon millennials is something else. Barely a week goes by without some solemn think piece disparaging their chai-latte-guzzling, social-media-gorging ways, their fecklessness and narcissism. In a timely new book, the Philadelphia-based journalist Malcolm Harris issues a robust rebuttal of these stereotypes. Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials contends that, far from being being lazy and coddled, millennials – broadly defined as the generation that came of age in the first decade of the 2000s – are being systematically ripped off and overworked.

Harris, who was born in 1988, is an editor with the left-wing online journal The New Inquiry and was heavily involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Here he spotlights a historic rupture in the meritocratic social contract that has governed American economic life for decades – the idea that if you work hard you will be rewarded.

“By every metric,” he writes, “this generation is the most educated in American history, yet Millennials are worse off economically than their parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents.” The higher education loans system saddles graduates with so much debt that many end up poorer, in terms of net income, than their non-college educated counterparts. (Harris notes that the lion’s share of revenues from tuition fee hikes goes towards a burgeoning stratum of managerial workers, rather than teaching staff.) They are then served up to the mercies of an employment market that has changed beyond all recognition since the baby boomers’ heyday. The term “precarity” was, until recently, largely confined to academia. It is aesthetically unlovely and spellcheck still rejects it, but as a signifier for the casualisation of labour in the 21st century it is probably here to stay:

Precarity means that jobs are less secure, based on at-will rather than fixed-duration contracts; it means unreliable hours and the breakdown between the workday and the rest of an employee’s time; it means taking on the intense responsibility of “good” jobs alongside the shoddy compensation and lack of respect that come with “bad” jobs; it means workers doing more with less, and employers getting more for less.

The pressures of economic competition are producing a mental health epidemic, exacerbated by the overprescription of drugs for hyperactivity or depression. It is this blend of material insecurity and chronic fretfulness – rather than a penchant for avocado toast or hook-up apps – that truly defines the zeitgeist. Indeed, millennials are statistically better behaved than baby boomers when it comes to partaking of drink, drugs, sex and crime. “Far from being the carefree space cadets the media likes to depict us as, Millennials are cagey and anxious,” Harris insists. The alleged narcissism of young people’s social media habits needs to be seen in this light to be properly understood – it’s not escapist lassitude but hyper-conscious, high-stakes engagement with the world.

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At times, Harris interprets the data a little myopically to fit his thesis. For example, he cites a substantial diminution in theft and violent attacks in schools as evidence that existing school disciplinary regimes are unnecessarily heavy-handed, though one might just as easily claim the statistic demonstrates their efficacy. For the most part, however, the book is coherently argued and persuasive. Though it is exclusively focused on the US, many of its insights can be applied to the UK. The rise of Corbynism has been, at least in part, a response to the conditions Harris laments; conversely, the Tory party’s ongoing failure to deliver on its ideological mission of creating a “property-owning democracy” threatens to erode its electoral credibility. People are increasingly coming to the conclusion that the game is rigged against them, and mainstream politics must address this or face the consequences.

Harris, still in his twenties, is standing up for his peers. By contrast, Jean Twenge, a fortysomething psychology professor at San Diego State University, approaches contemporary culture with precisely the kind of needling solicitude you might expect from someone whose previous books have titles such as Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic. The demographic purview of her latest book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood *and What That Means for the Rest of Us, is narrower than Harris’s: she focuses on those born between 1995 and 2012, the first generation not to have known life before the internet. Twenge draws on data comparing shifts in social attitudes from one generation to the next, alongside interviews she has conducted with young Americans, to paint a picture of the cohort she calls “iGen”.

They are sleeping with their phones under their pillows, checking social media last thing at night and first thing in the morning. They spend an average of six hours a day on digital devices – in their leisure time alone – and are less likely than their predecessors to go to parties, probably because they’re in non-stop virtual contact: “The party is constant, and it’s on Snapchat.” Twenge is justifiably concerned about the impact this may be having on their wellbeing and development. The rise of smartphone use has coincided with increases in anxiety, depression and suicide; a severe drop in the number of teens getting the medically approved minimum of seven hours’ sleep per night (down 22 per cent from 2012 to 2015) might also be linked to smartphone use.

We learn that iGeners favour a “slow life strategy”: they are less likely to date, have sex, drive, work, or drink alcohol. Twenge believes this has rendered them markedly more risk-averse than preceding generations, with a heightened sensitivity to emotional upset. She rightly derides some of the more egregious excesses of the campus activism around “safe spaces” and the no-platforming of controversial speakers, but for every pertinent point there is a dubious generalisation. For example, the author feels it’s regrettably dweeby that students are now more likely to report a complaint to a member of staff than directly confronting the person who has aggrieved them: in labouring her point about the importance of fortitude, Twenge lapses into the macho dogma that equates civility with mental weakness. She is on still shakier ground when extrapolating her argument into the macropolitical realm, tenuously linking her observations about iGen lifestyles with the decline in support for traditional party politics. To attribute this development to a nebulous notion of coddled individualism is a speculative leap too far.

“Maybe if I name their generation,” Twenge quips, “my kids will listen to me when I tell them to put on their shoes.” It’s a truth said in jest: ultimately, books like this tell us more about their authors (and their target readership) than their purported subjects. iGen’s existence speaks to contemporary anxieties about maintaining a sense of control in rapidly changing times.

The most heartening aspect of the book is the intelligence, pragmatism and compassion demonstrated by Twenge’s young interviewees, who seem to understand their world with greater clarity and sanguinity than many among the commentariat. As Miles, 22, puts it with devastating simplicity: “I don’t want to have a child when I’m not sure if I’m going to have a job tomorrow.” That’s not selfish, it’s just plain sensible. 

Houman Barekat is co-editor of “The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online” (OR Books)

Kids These Days
Malcolm Harris
Little, Brown, 261pp, $25

Jean M Twenge
Atria, 352pp, £18.99

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This article appears in the 08 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship