Under Pressure

‘Kids These Days’
Dan Witz, "Mo." (2014), Oil on canvas (Courtesy of the artist)

During my final semester of divinity school, I took a required course titled “Shaping Christian Institutions.” The premise of the class was simple and seemed intuitive. Over the past thirty years or so, a wave of anti-institutional sentiment had swept the country, resulting in widespread distrust of America’s foundational institutions: governments both local and national, workplaces, educational institutions, unions and civic organizations, and of course, churches. This was especially true for millennials, and the purpose of the course was to give us the tools necessary to think of institutional renewal that was innovative yet steeped in tradition. One of the instructors actually coined the term “traditioned innovation.” Repeatedly the professors reminded us of the urgency of the task: we need institutions to survive, and a failure to believe in institutions is a failure to believe in our collective future.

Throughout the course we paid little attention to why millennials in particular might mistrust institutions. That fact was simply taken as a given, and most of the readings and discussions focused on the problems this mistrust posed for the institutions themselves and for the lives of millennials. Since then, I’ve found the problem of institutional apathy to be a typical talking point in conversations about my generation and our relationship to the organizations that structure our lives. Everyone knows we don’t trust institutions, and yet few people, particularly those from the generations before us, bother to ask why. Why at this time and in this moment are millennials expressing such dis-pleasure with institutions? Why are we abandoning churches and Rotary clubs, and losing trust in corporations, banks, and universities?

In Kids These Days, Malcolm Harris provides an answer. His book is the story of how life for millennials is different from the way it was for previous generations, but it’s also the story of institutions and their transformation. Understanding what kind of people millennials are becoming requires an investigation into our relationships with the institutions that have formed us and the work those institutions have demanded of us. As Harris writes, “No one chooses the historical circumstances of their birth. If Millennials are different in one way or another, it’s not because we are more (or less) evolved than our parents or grandparents; it’s because they’ve changed the world in ways that have produced people like us.” Harris’s book tries to grasp how the generation born between 1985 and 2000 has been produced.

The main question Harris is interested in is this: What happens when people at increasingly younger and younger ages are trained to consider every aspect of their lives as investments meant to bring a monetary return? The term for this is “human capital,” and Harris walks the reader through the life of a millennial with it in view: our experiences of childhood and schooling, college, work, government, and social life. At each step along the way the speed, pressure, and workload of millennials has increased, while the reward for such efforts has dwindled. School-age students spend more time on homework than ever before. They are increasingly pressured to perform well on high-stakes tests that will determine their futures—all aspects of their lives are thought of in terms of competition with other students to get into a good university. Education, then, is no longer about basic socialization and acquiring a broad base of knowledge, but about preparing for the marketplace by gaining a competitive edge over one’s peers.

The toll our work takes on our minds and souls matters to them only to the degree that it affects the bottom line.

By the time millennials hit college, we have been trained to think of education chiefly as a long-term investment. This helps us make sense of the massive amount of debt we take out in order to finance our education. Rather than looking at student loans as the way universities pass off their own indebtedness—after they have spent too much hiring ever more administrators and building lavish student-life centers—student debt is just one more way in which we invest our future earnings in ourselves. In my work as a youth minister, I recently spoke to a high-school senior about his plans for college. He had applications in to a variety of state schools and was waiting to see the financial-aid packages they would offer. “It doesn’t really matter,” he said “I’m still going to graduate with a mountain of debt regardless.” I didn’t quite know what to tell him; he wasn’t wrong and there’s just no way around the issue. Debt is just the off-key background music of our educational experience. It’s there waiting for all but the most fortunate, and we as a society would do well to consider what we are doing to the lives of young people who know that they will have to plunge tens of thousands of dollars into debt just to get a degree.

The nature of work has also changed. For thirty years, the kinds of labor demanded of workers has expanded beyond just the physical ability to operate a machine or assemble parts on a line. Now more and more work requires both mental ability to think critically and emotional labor to keep customers happy. Think about the differences between the kind of work required from a Ford factory worker eighty years ago and that required today from an employee at a Target store. Different kinds of work require a different kind of formation, and our institutions have adjusted to provide that training.

In addition to these shifts, the rewards, frequency, and reliability of work have given way to inequality, “flexibility,” and precarity. “Until the 1970s [non-supervisory productivity and real wages] grew together,” Harris writes, and “their disjuncture is perhaps the single phenomenon that defines millennials thus far.” We are now paid less for doing more, and at the same time jobs have become harder to find, harder to keep, and harder to schedule. Harris notes one study that found that “nearly 40 percent of early career workers receive their work schedules a week or less in advance.”  These changes to our working lives rarely came up during my “Shaping Christian Institutions” class. A significant problem facing the leaders of any institution is that it was likely established in the days when people were expected to work Monday through Friday from nine to five and earned steady paychecks that gradually increased over time, and if the story Harris tells is correct, those days are over.

The result of these changes is an increase in depression and anxiety among millennials, “bad brains,” as Harris calls them. He writes, “Millennial character is a product of life spent investing in your own potential and being managed like a risk.” It turns out that being raised to view life as a desperate competition for ever-decreasing rewards has taken its toll on our mental health. Rather than expecting our institutions to respond to a populace dealing with increased anxiety, depression, ADHD, and other mental-health problems, we collectively accept these symptoms of the system as the price of progress. A workforce that lives in fear of failing and relies upon the right dosage of medicines to remain attentive and productive accords quite well with companies and institutions that treat people as investments to bring in a return. The toll our work takes on our minds and souls matters to them only to the degree that it affects the bottom line.

 

The strength of Kids These Days lies in its structural and evidence-based account of the effects of increased pressure, speed, and output; Harris doesn’t focus too closely on particular stories that might be dismissed as anomalies. Each chapter is thick with statistics, data, and studies that form a grim yet coherent picture of life for millennials. In my work as a minister, I often try to communicate the way these economic changes affect the lives of millennials. And regularly a member of an older generation will reply, “Well, my nephew did this, and it worked” or “I’m sure that some people have debt because of student loans, but my friend’s daughter ran up credit card debt because of her reckless spending.” This reflex to point out individual exceptions reminds me of the use of hi-def, slow-motion instant replay during sporting events. Slow down and scrutinize any one play and you will find a number of violations of the myriad of rules governing the game. In this case, however, the problem isn’t the individual decisions made within the game, but the game itself. Harris makes a convincing argument that the capitalist economy and the way it has shaped our institutions is a destructive game, and that we are in desperate need of alternatives.

Harris believes that, without such an alternative, things are likely to get even worse. He writes of “Seven Bad Futures,” scenarios that seem implausible only at first glance. Children taking on student loans at ever earlier ages. Algorithms increasingly dictating the possibilities of our lives. Climate change intensifying the vast inequality already present in our world. I could go on, but in each case the speed, pressure, and inequality created by capitalism gives way to destruction even greater than we see now. Harris writes that the prescribed avenues of change offer little hope of producing a real new direction. Voting for progressives, buying ethically made products, volunteering with nonprofits, and protesting in the streets all seem inadequate given what we are up against. Such solutions depend on the dubious notion that uncoordinated efforts can somehow coalesce into a coherent movement capable of changing the rules of the game. This way of thinking doubles down on the individualism inherent in the concept of human capital, and for that reason it will not save us. Harris does, however, believe that millennials will be presented with a choice: revolution or barbarism; change everything about our institutions, or be destroyed by them and by each other.

I wish I could disagree. But though I’m deeply committed to the God-given hope that our institutions can improve, I believe Harris’s assessment is accurate. My own experience of Christian institutions leads me to think that they need to be profoundly changed, but I harbor a great deal of ambivalence about that possibility. I recently read this book with a group of millennials who are members of my church. At the end, I asked them what changes they thought we should make in our congregation in light of Harris’s predictions about the future and our choices within it. The response was silence, our collective imaginations drained of hope for a different future, even within the small institution of our own church.

 

As I write this review, I’m also preparing to take the sixth-through-twelfth-grade youth from my church on a weekend retreat in the mountains. Even before reading Harris’s book I had heard from parents that their children were stressed, overworked, and simply needed space to be with each other. This aligned with one of the most insightful portions of the book on why American children are so unhappy. “American kids and teens across race, gender, and class lines, are spending less time doing things that make them happy (like self-directed play with their friends and eating—pretty much the only two activities they report enjoying),” he writes, “and more time doing things that make them unhappy (like homework and listening to lectures).”

How churches might respond to all this and build a more humane world is still an open question. But they can and should be field hospitals in which the suffering can recover, and experience a different way of living together.

At the church where I grew up, the guiding ethos of my youth group seemed to be entertainment. Students thought church was boring so my church youth group added music that sounded like “cool” secular music. We added laser lights, Playstations, and integrated videos into the Wednesday-night message. The goal was to make church “fun,” a rival more than an alternative to the broader culture. But an alternative is precisely what Pope Francis recently suggested the church needs to become. “This is the mission of the Church: the Church heals, it cures,” he said. “Sometimes, I speak of the Church as if it were a field hospital. It’s true: there are many, many wounded! So many people need their wounds healed! This is the mission of the Church: to heal the wounds of the heart, to open doors, to free people, to say that God is good.”

Now, as I sit and plan the youth retreat, I cannot imagine attempting to entertain them more than the phones they carry in their pockets. If the church has anything to offer them, it is to be a people that embodies a different logic than that of work and competition. We have to offer them a place to be bored with each other. We have to take them and their lives seriously enough to treat them not merely as investments but as people to whom we owe care. The “structured” part of our retreat will consist of praying together, but there will also be free time to read a book, hike through the mountains, or play board games. We will go into town to eat pizza together, and phones can be left at home. Throughout this time we’ll have conversations about their lives. I want to know what they think about the changes that Harris details, to give them space to open up and talk about the pressures of school and work—of their experience of being treated as human capital even if they don’t yet possess the language to understand it that way. I want to let them know that they are not alone in their anxieties, and that they are not to blame for the forces that constrict and trouble their lives. I want to prepare them in whatever small ways are possible for the choices they will face in the future.

It is in youth ministry and ministry to young adults that I have found Harris’s writing most useful. For those of us claiming to be about the work of Christ to heal wounds, it serves as a surgical guide. How churches might respond to all this and build a more humane world is still an open question. But they can and should be field hospitals in which the suffering can recover, and experience a different way of living together. 

 

Kids These Days
Human Capital and the Making of Millennials

Malcolm Harris
Little, Brown and Company, $25, 272 pp.

Published in the August 10, 2018 issue: 

John Thornton Jr. is a Baptist minister in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

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