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book review

The Globe and Mail

On Sept. 29, 2011, whispers abounded that Radiohead would play a secret show for Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York's Zuccotti Park. By the next day, the rumour had metastasized and hundreds of fans had tromped to downtown Manhattan in anticipation, prompting some militant occupiers to scrawl makeshift placards on pizza boxes: "If you're only here for the band, go home."

Needless to say, Radiohead did not show up to play a casual acoustic set for the city's disenfranchised. But six years later, the perpetrator of the hoax, Malcolm Harris, has written a book that retains all the humour and good-natured absurdity of his original stunt. Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials is a formal report on the state of the millennial generation, using a confluence of data trends to explain subjects ranging from the labour market to internet fame. Harris posits that millennials were the first generation raised as investments, tiny pinnacles of productive machinery meant to accrue in "human capital" over time, which accounts for the starkly unprecedented divisions between millennials and the previous generations.

Since primary school, millennials have been taught to "reach for the stars," effectively raised under the cozy rhetoric that they can be anything they want to be if only they try hard enough. Harris unpacks the insidiousness of this logic, noting that children are made to start working by the time they enter junior kindergarten. Time is scheduled, inflexible and filled with activities such as violin lessons meant to amortize over the course of their lives. For example, a primary school in Elmwood, N.Y., cancelled its annual variety show because administrators did not think that the six-year-olds could spare two days off from their regularly scheduled work. Essentially, children are handed a job long before they are eligible for the work force: To make themselves as attractive as possible to future employers.

"If more human capital automatically led to a higher standard of living, this model could be the foundation for American meritocracy," Harris writes. Yet all this extra labour hasn't increased millennials' standard of living. Instead, studies show that the most educated generation in history is actually worse off economically than their parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents. "Being under 35 now is correlated with poverty wages," Harris writes. The education system is designed to generate the most human capital possible, but the en masse increase in competition doesn't advantage individuals. Rather, the more kids are deemed "high achievers," the less likely the hours they spend doing extra math homework are likely to pay off.

Millennials have been taught to fear and avoid failure, unlike the previous so-called slacker generation. And yet somehow millennials have ended up the butt of all slacker jokes, chastised for being lazy, entitled and eating too much avocado toast. Harris actively demonstrates what's at the end of the road for most millennials who do everything right: a $16-an-hour job and "disillusionment, depression and feelings of worthlessness."

I read Kids These Days in fits and starts. Every time I went to go read it, a pit of dread suddenly filled my stomach and I found an excuse to go do something else. My reluctance to dive into the book was akin to a sick person avoiding the doctor's office because they're afraid to learn their diagnosis. It's the old adage of "ignorance is bliss" taken to the extreme: survival as a form of self-preservation.

Yet if the cohort of card-carrying millennials born between 1980 and 2000 ever want things to get better, we need to stop avoiding the present and learn how to advocate for ourselves. Right after local news websites DNAinfo and Gothamist were shuttered by their billionaire backer after attempting to unionize, one particular passage struck me in the gut: "Muscles atrophy and solidarity can't be relied upon if young workers don't learn and practise it." Harris knows that late capitalism has set us up to fail, and it is only tools such as a basic universal income etc., that will dig us out of this modern morass.

Isabel Slone lives in Toronto. Her work has appeared in Toronto Life, Fashion and The Walrus.