Most stories about “millennials” focus on middle-class, educated twentysomethings, while the ones who grew up poor or working-class are simply ignored. Welcome to Uncovered, a series that sheds light on this forgotten group of our generation.
A generation is a strange idea. There are babies born every year; human societies don’t reproduce on staggered schedules. What is it then that distinguishes an individual born in Generation X from Generation Y or Z? Is there a last baby in one generation and a first in the next?
At its most basic level a generation is when a quantitative change (birth year) comes to refer to a qualitative change. Over time a society mutates, and at a certain point in that development we draw a hazy line to mark a generation cohort and give it a name.
Most of the books on millennials—the first in 2000, with a bunch more showing up right around the 2008 financial crisis—were published by Baby-Boomer management consultants. With titles like Managing the Millennials, Millennials & Management, and Keeping The Millennials: Why Companies Are Losing Billions in Turnover to This Generation—and What to Do About It, these books offered psychological insights about young employees that older bosses could put to work. That the advice was often contradictory (millennials only care about money/millennials don’t care about money, millennials want to be coddled/millennials want autonomy), which served as evidence of just how mixed up millennials were. The underlying question for these authors, however, was stable: How do we profit off these kids?
These books are more concerned with millennial behavior (and how to change it) than its causes. This perspective blurs environment and adaptation, finding a happy coincidence in the similarity between the millennial character and the exigencies of the surrounding world. Bruce Tulgan gives a perfect example of this kind of thinking in his 2009 book Not Everyone Gets A Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y: “Institutions may be in a state of constant flux, but that’s no problem. Gen Yers are just passing through anyway, trying to squeeze out as much experience and as many resources as they can.” The sort of transient scavenger life Tulgan describes doesn’t sound like “no problem;” it would be more accurate if he said “but that’s their problem.”
An exclusive focus on desirable employees means certified millennial experts are focused disproportionately on highly educated upper-class young people. Even if being a millennial means you’re less likely to have a good job, the analysts are preoccupied with the young people who defy the trend. Professional employees come to represent the generation even though they’re much less representative in every way than their low-wage counterparts.
These professional millennials are overly represented in popular media coverage, in which the lion’s share of attention seems to go to the silliest millennial anecdote of the day—take, for instance, the recent New York Times story about the wacky millennial workplace at Mic.com. When the author wants an outside expert on labor and young Americans, he turns not to a sociologist or an economist but a consultant to Goldman Sachs who characterizes most millennials as “mission focused and values based.”
But even though millennial analysis can easily devolve into vacant managerial thinking, that doesn’t mean they’re not worth analyzing as a group. New York Times technology reporter Farhad Manjoo calls the millennial “mythic” and points to consultants who are now trying to undo employers’ generational stereotypes. “Millennials aren’t real,” he writes. “Macroscale demographic trends rarely govern most individuals’ life and work decisions.” This is a bizarre claim, and Manjoo doesn’t offer any evidence to support it.
Researcher Jean M. Twenge, on the other hand, thinks the role of birth cohort is undervalued as a determinant of personality. Like genetics and family circumstance, the era into which a child is born has a great influence on the kind of life they will lead. Twenge writes in a 2000 paper, “Each generation effectively grows up in a different society; these societies vary in their attitudes, environmental threats, family structures, sexual norms, and in many other ways.” This idea makes some common sense: People are products of their specific time, even millennials.
If we have an inkling that millennials are indeed different, then it’s worth digging into why. It’s certainly a better use of time than complaining about it.
Millennials don’t emerge fully grown from the crack in an iPhone screen; to understand what millennials are, and to make good use of the concept, we must first understand our place in social trends over time. If millennials emerge around 35 years ago, as most accounts have it, then that’s a clue. We can do a sort of historical body scan, look at major social trends that spike (or dive) around that time. These are some of the loudest beeps.
“The accumulation of money is not a goal for Millennials.” — Thom S. Rainer and Jess W. Rainer, The Millennials: Connecting to America's Largest Generation (2011)
When politicians want to appeal to millennials, the cost of education is the first thing they reach for. Between 1979 and 2014, the price of tuition and fees at four-year nonprofit U.S. colleges, adjusted for inflation, has jumped 299% at private schools and 380% at public ones, accelerating faster than housing prices or the cost of medical care or really anything you could compare it to except maybe oil. Over the same period, the number of applicants has doubled, which a required econ class told me means the demand isn’t price-sensitive: Millennials don’t feel like they have a choice. It’s understandable that higher education means something very different to this generation than generations past.
Fifty years ago, higher education was a choice for young Americans, and they had a chance at a stable career with livable wages either way. If they opted for college, tuition was an expense, but students could even pay for it themselves with part-time and summer work. Now, education costs are so high that the average student takes out tens of thousands of dollars in debt just to attend, and very few young Americans can go to college and be self-sufficient. Whether on the government, banks, parents, or financial aid committees, college-bound millennials are set up to be dependent into their twenties by policy.
Because of this daunting investment, the stakes for high-school students are higher too, necessitating AP classes and a full schedule of extracurriculars. What the average millennial does as a kid and a young adult has an outsized effect on their future life chances as compared to past generations. If you don’t collect enough trophies before you’re a teenager, you can probably kiss a competitive school goodbye. And real wages for people with associate’s degrees has actually fallen since the 70s. By the time millennials are young adults we have already been repeatedly divided into success and failures, and a lot of those labels are designed to stick.
There’s a lot to mock in these precocious kids and their helicopter parents whose hearts are set on Harvard. The amount some parents invest in their children is ridiculous, and buying a secure life for your son or daughter when some people can’t afford the same is contemptible, even as most Americans aspire to it. But very few parents are rich enough to pass down that much money; the best almost anyone can offer their children is a better shot. Increasing income inequality means more and more of them will fail.
The higher rate of college attendance, application, and qualification along with the huge increase in cost mean that millennials are a new kind of investment vehicle. Money—whether from loans, scholarships, or savings—becomes education, which becomes tomorrow’s skilled (and semiskilled, and deskilled) labor. Squeezing out experience and resources, as Tulgan puts it, is a necessity; if you don’t juice the most out of every opportunity, some other kid will, and there goes your shot. These elevated stakes go a long way toward defining the millennial experience.
WORK AND PAY
“If you hire someone to unload boxes from a truck and that person wants to be an ideas guy, you need to get that individual to focus his thinking and learning on how to better unload boxes from the truck.” — Bruce Tulgan, Not Everyone Gets A Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y (2009)
The job market millennials face would be unrecognizable to past generations. The victories won by the mid-century organized labor movement have largely evaporated, and though workers have continued getting more and more productive, wages for most have been stalled for as long as we’ve been alive. Growing economic inequality manifests both between and within generations: Young households trail further behind in wealth than ever before, and while a small number of hotshot finance pros and app developers rake in the big bucks and big resentment, wages have stagnated and unemployment increased for the rest.
In an unfortunate twist of fate, increased education without a corresponding increase in labor organization has put wage workers in a worse position. Buoyed by productivity gains, corporations are less dependent than ever on individual workers or even their unions. Employers convince kids and their families to invest in training by holding out the promise of good jobs, while firms use “educational” pre-training—including its ultimate form, unpaid internships—to reduce labor costs.
The better workers get, the more money and time we put into building up our skills, the worse the average jobs get. If everyone is trained and prepared and in debt to become an “ideas guy,” then there will be more ideas guys unloading boxes. And the more efficient they make the unloading process, the fewer workers needed, the higher the skill requirements, and the lower the pay. It’s a mean trick, and employers are laughing all the way to the bank.
Another way to read this graph is that millennials are the most profitable workers around.
When some older commentators compare the current labor market to past ones, they disguise the profound and lasting changes that have occurred over the past few decades—think the “Old Economy Steve” meme. Why don’t you just get a job? The elder generations are more honest about labor market polarization when they set the stakes for childhood education and achievement so high; where you end up on the job distribution map really is more important than it used to be.
It’s harder to compete for a good job, the bad jobs you can hope to fall back on are worse than they used to be, and both good and bad jobs are less secure. The intense anxiety that has overcome American childhood flows from a reasonable fear of un-, under-, and just plain lousy employment. Millennials don’t just feel like investment vehicles, we feel like risky investment vehicles.
“Of course, what the federal government does to help children doesn’t matter nearly as much as what states and cities do with police and social workers.” — Neil Howe and William Strauss, Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation (2000)
There are many overlapping explanations for the rise of American mass incarceration—the drug war, more aggressive prosecutors, the ‘90s crime boom triggering a prison boom that then started growing all on its own, a tough on crime rhetorical arms race among politicians, more efficient police work. But whatever the reasons, the U.S. incarceration rate has quintupled since the 1970s, and mass incarceration has come to occupy a central place in our national discourse.
We tend to think this is a trend that only affected adults directly, but a 2012 study from the Academy of American Pediatrics found that since 1965, “the cumulative prevalence of arrest for American youth (particularly in the period of late adolescence and early adulthood) has increased substantially.” By the age of 23, the study figures that between a quarter and 40 percent of millennials will have been arrested. Another generation’s youthful hijinks are a millennial’s criminal record.
The incarceration trend is even worse for millennials of color. The ratio between black and white incarceration increased more between 1975 and 2000 than in the 50 years preceding. Millennials deal with a criminal justice system that’s not just more intense and more aggressive, but more racist, at least when it comes to prisons. Sociologist Victor Rios concludes in his book Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, “Today’s working-class youths encounter a radically different world than they would have encountered just a few decades ago. These young people no long ‘learn to labor’ but instead ‘prepare for prison.’”
Activists and scholars have raised incredible awareness about mass incarceration and the reality of what police and prosecutors do, especially in the last few years. But no one talks about being arrested as a #MillennialProblem. Part of the reason is that stories about millennials tend to focus on white, traditionally employed, cisgender people, but also because crime is down. Millennials are better behaved by almost any metric than past generations—less sex, less drugs, less violence—so it doesn’t make sense to characterize us as criminals. And what else do you call people who get arrested? There’s enough flexibility in the labor market that the millennial management industry doesn’t need to consider how being on probation might affect an employee’s life, so the consultants don’t bother.
We have to deal with the fact that the American police have taken a newly active role in deciding which kids get to grow into safe and secure adults, and which don’t.
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In light of these major social shifts, the idea of the “millennial” looks more important. We need a way to talk about the how alterations to American society collect in the individuals who make up that society. An important step is to stop treating management consultants as credible voices about the changing state of our social relations simply because corporations pay them. Their job is to help companies get more out of workers. They shouldn’t be the ones we turn to if we want an outside, holistic view.
Defining millennials means trying to understand what is unique about our “sociocultural environment,” which is harder than coming up with tricks to make young employees stay in the office later or invent ways to unload boxes. We need actual rigorous scholarship into how America has come to treat children and young adults over the last few decades. It would be nice if we got some before the seas swallow up the continent.
Malcolm Harris is a freelance writer and an editor at The New Inquiry. He lives in Brooklyn.