Not Every Kid-Bond Matures
Millennial habits so often mocked and belittled in the press are the survival strategies of a demographic “born into captivity.”
Malcolm Harris. Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. Little, Brown, 2017.
On a recent visit to my parents, my mother asked me whether I want to have kids. Being 30 and single, an uncle to a niece and a nephew through both my siblings, I’ve started to get questions from older generations about my plans to reproduce. This began later for me than it does for women and is a fraction as oppressive, but to be honest I’d thought male privilege would shield me from it entirely. When this defense failed, I forestalled a line of inquiry from my mother by talking about climate change. Even as I said it, I knew it was an already hackneyed form of stonewalling. You can defend any uncertainty these days by evoking melting ice sheets and disappearing permafrost.
But she’d never heard anyone take this tack before—at least not since her own generation’s “population bomb” version of the same story. “That,” my mom said slowly, “is so heavy.” Over the course of the rest of my visit, she mentioned it to others my age for confirmation, to others her age in incredulity. “Gabe says nobody in his generation wants to have kids because of climate change. Did you know about this?”
How could the gap between us be so great? What seemed to me such a commonplace as to be evasive and impersonal appeared to my mother as a serious human quandary—which, in fact, it is. I’m more politically optimistic than my mother, yet I was taken aback to realize how much darker the future seems to me than to her. Then I remembered: she’s a boomer, I’m a millennial, and this is the song of the season.
There hasn’t been a generational divide this pronounced since the 1960s. The flare-ups that have occurred have been aftershocks of the 1960s—as in the 1992 confrontation between World War II veteran George H. W. Bush and draft dodger Bill Clinton with the wife who didn’t want to bake cookies. Generational analysis rarely got beyond generic psychobabble: the “greatest generation” were stoic, laconic survivors, boomers the spoiled offspring of Dr. Spock, et cetera. The actual “life chances” of the generations were not meaningfully different, and politics did not line up with the generations. Clinton’s best generational slice of the electorate in 1992 was the senior vote, but he performed pretty evenly overall, winning between 41 and 50 percent in every age category. Neither party enjoyed any significant preference from the young or the old in particular.
The contrast with today could hardly be starker. Republicans have consolidated the elder vote and Democrats enjoy the default support of the young, who largely don’t vote anyway: as we know from the maps on our social-media feeds, Hillary Clinton would have won something like forty-five states if 18–25-year-olds had cast the only ballots. And she was the distant second choice of these so-called young millennials in the Democratic primaries, far behind the left-wing challenger. The reawakening global left of the past decade, of which Bernie Sanders was the American electoral incarnation, is, in terms of its age distribution, uniform: the Indignados and Podemos, Syriza (alas), the Arab Spring, Occupy, the Gezi Park protests, South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters, Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, the Kurdish revolution, Black Lives Matter, Nuit Debout and La France Insoumise, Momentum and Jeremy Corbyn, the Democratic Socialists of America—all are or were movements of the young.
While striking, this massive political generation gap is a symptom of something deeper. Whatever it is, we register it in complaints about the supposedly “bad” work ethic of young employees or scolding about keeping good habits: our smartphone-induced fidgetiness; our infamous predilection for avocado toast over mortgages; the decline of Applebee’s and Buffalo Wild Wings, laid low by millennial distaste. (Cf. the swelling genre of listicles about what consumer brands millennials are killing. Cf. also all the articles about millennials and their love of listicles.) You hear it in stories of adult children who move back in with their parents. It’s in the 52 percent of teenagers who have told surveyors that they don’t identify as straight, and the perplexing—if encouraging—news of resurgent youthful interest in public libraries. For good or ill, something has gone profoundly awry in the intergenerational transmission process.
Under ordinary circumstances, the institutions built by the old are repopulated by the young, who adjust them for new circumstances but leave them basically the same, in turn handing them over to the next generation. The possibility of successful passage through the institutions of society is what makes a person follow a normative rather than deviant life course: being a woman or a man roughly the way she or he is supposed to, partnering and reproducing in the socially standard fashion, trying to get ahead or at least get by according to prevailing ethics of education and work. In our society, this has meant (in ideal-typical middle-class terms) homeownership, an occasional vacation, sending your kids to college, and retirement. Historical continuity—the integrity of social institutions over time—works itself out on the individual level: people may feel they are making distinct, agonizing life choices, but for the most part they are living out those institutions predictably. An institution is, at the end of the day, just a pattern of social behavior repeated long enough. On the other hand, if the institutions aren’t processing enough people into the proper form—if too many can’t or won’t do family, school, work, and sex approximately the way they’ve been done before—then large-scale historical continuity can’t happen. The society can’t look tomorrow like it does today.
While it feels as though we are heading toward some such break, there have not yet been many serious efforts to understand our national crisis in terms of generations. This is why Malcolm Harris’s new book, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, is a landmark. Remarkably for an author of a trade book on such an on-trend topic, Harris makes a politically radical argument, undergirded by a coherent and powerful Marxist analysis. You can very well imagine buying this book in an airport, and because Harris is a compelling and funny writer, you’d get through it before you landed. But you might land a different person: the book is devastating. “American Millennials come from somewhere—we didn’t emerge fully formed from the crack in an iPhone screen,” Harris writes. In his view, we are, down to our innermost being, the children of neoliberalism. The habits so often mocked and belittled in the press are in fact adaptations to tightening repressive and exploitative pressures, the survival strategies of a demographic “born in captivity.”
Capitalism’s generation-long crisis, in Harris’s diagnosis, has imposed enormous competitive pressure on the young to produce “human capital.” This concept, a core one in neoliberal economic thought, is meant to quantify the bundle of economically valuable human qualities—education, skills, discipline—accumulated over the course of a life. It’s in the book’s subtitle because it’s the key to Harris’s argument. The hidden hand that shapes millennials, producing our seemingly various and even contradictory stereotyped attributes, is the intensifying imperative—both from the outside and also deeply internalized—to maximize our own potential economic value. “What we’ve seen over the past few decades is not quite a sinister sci-fi plot to shape a cohort of supereffective workers who are too competitive, isolated, and scared to organize for something better,” writes Harris. “But it has turned out a lot like that.” Capitalism is eating its young. It’s only feeding us avocados to fatten us up first.
Harris works through this argument by following the millennial through the stages of life—as far as we’ve yet gotten. A remarkable feature of the book is how Harris is able to apply this single explanation to dozens of disparate if familiar symptoms. Again and again, he yanks the disguise from some behavior seeming to belong to a discrete field—parenting, education, pop culture, or the labor market—and finds that it was actually neoliberalism all along. Harris points out that, beginning in childhood, so-called helicopter parenting and the measurable decline of unstructured play are actually forms of risk management. Given how social inequality in the world at large has worsened competition to get ahead, “parents are told—and then communicate to their children—that their choices, actions, and accomplishments have lasting consequences, and the consequences grow by the year.”
From the preoccupation with bullying to the design of playgrounds and the school policy of zero tolerance, Harris finds the world of childhood increasingly redefined by actuarial caution. Most of all, though, he finds it in the classroom. School is just a form of unwaged work, masked by the ideology of pedagogy. The surplus that kid-labor creates, rather than going to any immediately present boss, pools up in the students themselves, to be tapped by future bosses. When children do schoolwork, they labor on themselves. “By looking at children as investments, we can see where the product of children’s labor is stored: in the machine-self, in their human capital.” The steady increase in homework, the growing apparatus of testing and school accountability, and the pressure for longer school days and school years are just what you would expect once children have been turned into financial assets. Many of the observed social-psychological attributes of the young generation result from undergoing such processing into a human commodity form. Childhood is a “high-stakes merit-badge contest,” teaching kids to be “servile, anxious, and afraid.”
At the end of childhood, some millennials go to college to continue accumulating human capital. Harris is a peerless observer of the harrowing economic costs of “meritocracy,” and his chapter on college abounds in withering aperçus. “College admissions offices are the rating agencies for kids,” he writes. “And once the kid-bond is rated, it has four or so years until it’s expected to produce a return.” Because the pressure to accumulate human capital is so intense, students will bear enormous costs to do it. Far from the coddled children of stereotype, Harris points out, most college students are “regular people—mostly regular workers—who spend part of their work-time on their own human capital, like they’ve been told to.” Exhaustion, overwork, and even food insecurity are common. Colleges themselves, meanwhile, reap obscene rewards from their gatekeeping position by offering a worse product for a higher price: hollowed-out pedagogy from exploited adjuncts and graduate students, masked with “shiny extras unrelated to the core educational mission.” Aggrandizing administrations bloat on student debt, the key to the whole scheme. Student debt, Harris argues, is a bloodsucking Keynesian stimulus, turning the value of the future labor of young borrowers into the capital to build stadiums and luxury dorms today, jacking up tuition even higher and allowing another round of borrowing and building.
But not every kid-bond matures. Students who can’t keep up are diagnosed, drugged, and punished. The extraordinary proliferation of mood and attention disorders among the young, and their development into a lucrative pharmaceutical market, is only the logical complement of the human-capital-accumulation regime of testing, supervising, and debt collecting. Depression, Harris notes, is up 1,000 percent over the past century, “with around half of that growth occurring since the late 1980s.” While there’s always a question about changing diagnoses with this sort of figure, Harris is convincing that there’s more to this phenomenon than an artifact of measurement. So too the growing punitive apparatus waiting to catch kids who fail: “We can draw a straight line between the standardization of children in educational reform and the expulsion, arrest, and even murder of the kids who won’t adapt.” On this account, mass incarceration, too, is a generational phenomenon, and it makes its first appearances inside schools, which are now heavily policed zones, as are the public spaces in which working-class kids congregate. “Millennials are cagey and anxious, as befits the most policed modern generation,” Harris writes. In this way, the book effectively argues that widely different experiences of neoliberalism—from the grasping student’s anxiety for good grades to the young person of color dodging the cops—are nonetheless part of the same social process.
The immediate impulse driving human-capital accumulation is the need to compete in a labor market more unforgiving than anything in memory. This is one of the most familiar elements of the millennial critique of the world we’ve inherited, perhaps best embodied in the meme of “Old Economy Steven”—a yearbook image of a smug and blotchy young white man with an echt mid-’70s look: pageboy haircut, wide-lapeled shirt, some kind of necklace. “Why don’t you call and ask if they’re hiring?” says the supertext on one version; the subtext reads, “Hasn’t been on a job hunt since 1982.” “Pays into social security,” offers another. The kicker: “Receives benefits.” The story Harris tells here isn’t new, but it lies at the core of millennial experience: “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.” The meme itself conveys something distinctively millennial: not just precarious employment but awareness of our own precariousness, which our elders refuse to accommodate or even acknowledge.
Though media stereotypes often portray millennials as brittle, wheedling, and demanding, for the most part young workers are docile enough to have bent themselves into whatever shape capital has required. Millennials aren’t fragile—they’re overstretched. This is the most human-capital-intensive generation in history, productive far beyond the wages it garners. “From our bathroom breaks to our sleep schedules to our emotional availability, millennials are growing up highly attuned to the needs of capital markets,” Harris writes. “We are encouraged to strategize and scheme to find places, times, and roles where we can be effectively put to work. Efficiency is our existential purpose, and we are a generation of finely honed tools.” Racing to stay ahead, young workers accept low wages, sweatshop working conditions, and insecure arrangements. They do not expect that their employment will grant access to the social benefits enjoyed by their parents and grandparents—written off by Harris as history’s most entitled generations, anomalies not likely to occur again. Rather, the emblematic figure of the millennial workforce, the clearest expression of its tendencies, is the intern: the worker whose labor is disavowed entirely, made out to be for her benefit, like the labor of schoolchildren.
For Harris, even millennial forms of creativity and self-expression are captive to this logic. The young are transforming the entire culture, he argues, through the way that their human-capital-accumulation strategies are working themselves out in the culture industries. Pointing to professional and college athletes, musicians, tween entertainers, online pornographers, and YouTube stars, he repeats his point: depressed entertainment profits have produced an arms race, causing aspiring performers, actors, and writers to laboriously produce their own stardom rather than wait to be discovered. He tells the story of Chicago rapper Chief Keef, who released more than forty songs for free online and created his own label at age 16 without any corporate involvement: “By the time Interscope signed Keef, he was already a bona fide star, with the kind of brand they would have otherwise had to spend money developing.”
While the restructuring of these industries allows for some Cinderella stories, its overall effect is to intensify exploitation, by others or by oneself. For Harris, this is both a way of interpreting mass culture today and a metonym for a classic millennial habit. “Older Americans like to complain about the way many young people obsessively track our own social media metrics, but it’s a complaint that’s totally detached from the behavior’s historical, material causes,” he writes. “Personal branding shifts work onto job-seekers.”
On social media—the heart of the matter, naturally, for a book on millennials—personal branding becomes indistinguishable from social life in general. The destruction of childhood as we once knew it by parents, teachers, and police has driven kids into social media for their “flirting, fighting, and friending.” Once online, these formerly free activities can be commodified, the living activities of childhood vacuumed up as data and monetized. Despite cyclical moral panics over new drugs or hookup culture, teens—busy engaging in their social lives online when they’re not doing homework—actually use fewer recreational drugs, drink less, and have less sex than their equivalents in prior generations. It’s risk aversion again, says Harris—fuel for Silicon Valley profits now and more disciplined workers later.
The summation Kids These Days gives us is harrowing: here is a generation hurrying to give in to the unremitting, unforgiving commodification of the self. Harris predicts a future of debt servitude, confinement for the “malfunctioning,” worsening misogyny (though his gender analysis is less coherent than the rest of his argument), and total surveillance. Millennials, that is, are the first generation to live in the dystopia to come. Harris’s politics are revolutionary, and he dismisses any lesser mode of collective response to the thoroughgoing crisis as—to use his simile—akin to playing with a toy. Ethical consumption, electoral politics, philanthropy and nonprofits, and social protest are all just switches and buttons, yielding fun noises and flashing lights but having no effect: “The series of historical disasters that I’ve outlined, the one that characterizes my generation, is a big knot. There’s not a single thread we can pull to undo it, no one problem we can fix to make sure the next generation grows up happier and more secure.” What you do with a knot that you can’t untie is cut it.
Harris emerged as a writer with anarchist politics over the past decade, particularly in the New York milieus of Occupy Wall Street and the New Inquiry, though one can find his writing in this magazine and early issues of Jacobin as well. The window of possibility, the feeling of historical openness, that was generated by the Occupy moment did not stay open. The halves of the anticapitalist left, embodied on the one hand by Harris’s anarchism and on the other by the emergent democratic socialism of Jacobin, became incompatible—a rupture to which Harris’s work feels like a partial response. You can actually watch this happen in real time in a video of a 2011 panel at Bluestockings bookstore on the Lower East Side. The same day that thousands had rallied to defend the occupation against a police raid, anarchists Harris and Natasha Lennard squared off against socialists Jodi Dean, Doug Henwood, and Chris Maisano in a contentious exchange off which one can read much of the substance of intra-left developments and conflicts of the past six years. Periodically, the camera pans around the packed bookstore, and a sharp eye can pick out a large number of prominent figures from New York’s left-wing world of letters.
The whole thing quickly takes on a generational tone. “The sit-down strike was invented decades ago by unionists,” says Maisano. “It wasn’t a bunch of kids running around the University of California writing stuff on the wall.” (Off to the left, Harris and Lennard roll their eyes and laugh.) The socialists propose workplace and student organization and campaigning for free higher education. Harris answers the socialists with a slogan from the 2009 University of California occupation: “A free university in a capitalist economy is like a reading room in a prison.” Henwood—a man nearing 60—mimes masturbation in response to Harris, at the time 22 years old. One moment, though, stands out as particularly prescient. It’s a question from an older man in the audience. This isn’t going to last forever, he points out. “What happens when the occupation ends? What happens when the tumult and the shouting of the ecstatic moment dies? Who remains? Who maintains the continuity? Who draws the lesson? Who draws the lesson—what a question for a school abolitionist.
About a year later, Harris sniped at the Chicago Teachers Union during its 2012 strike against school closures, widely seen as a rare instance of heroism and victory on the left. He wrote on Twitter that teachers don’t “like or care very much about the kids,” comparing them to prison guards whose word we wouldn’t accept about the best interests of prisoners. His line, that he supported the strike but opposed the school system itself, was hard for many comrades to swallow. Earlier the same year, he mounted a defense of his generational analysis, in which he mocked his critics, especially Henwood, for missing the point because they were ‘old.’ Henwood shot back that readers should check in with Harris in ten years, by which time he’ll have transitioned from revolutionary anarchism to marketing.
In many ways, Henwood could scarcely have been more wrong about Harris. Five years later, the younger writer has published a book calling for youth revolution and recently seemed to risk his book contract by publicly rooting on Twitter for the death of the Republican congressman Steve Scalise. Harris doesn’t seem to have mellowed. But there’s something more interesting at stake in this debate than male-writer egos, old and young. In a less ad hominem register, Henwood might have raised a valid question: can the political impulses that Harris represents, the ones that come out of our generation’s distinctive experience, mature into potent collectivity? Or are they individualist from the root, bound to decay into posture and then a racket—absent the guidance of more seasoned activists, or without connection to struggles more deeply historically or socially grounded?
While there are of course old and young anarchists and socialists alike, the political division that has reemerged over the past decade on the left still pivots on this question: What is the proper relationship to the past for those of us who want to make a new future?
The more traditional socialist left argues for continuity. We’ve been doing occupations since forever, Maisano said; let’s rebuild social-democratic institutions like CUNY, Henwood said. Socialism may be embraced by the young now, but in this version it still looks and sounds like Bernie Sanders—still a project of recuperation as much as invention, resuming an effort interrupted by the neoliberal caesura. In some guises, such historical continuity is humbling and useful. In others, it’s boomer narcissism run amok, reducing every left-wing proposition from a young person to an opportunity to force the past into the present. “Don’t repeat my mistakes,” cries the old socialist to the new one. The result can be formally radical but quite often conservative in affect and mood, dabbling soberly in the far-fetched notion that you can change the structure of society while everyone stays the same kind of people. This is one way of understanding why whiteness and masculinity continue to bedevil the socialist left, even in its committed antiracist and feminist quarters. A left that maintains a tether to a usable past is bound more tightly to the historical American nightmare. It can’t rush toward utopia, because it’s committed to engaging with people as they are and nudging them along.
The insurrectionary left, on the other hand, wants year zero. The power of the occupation, Lennard pointed out, is that when you step into it, you become someone else. The problem with becoming someone else, though, is that you’re disinherited from your history, so you can’t wield it effectively to understand the present or get ready for the future. It’s life in a permanent now, a condition reflected in anarchism’s traditional weakness when it comes to strategic calculation and engagement with state institutions—those durable, blunt objects. What was predictable about Occupy’s destruction—in fact, what was predicted at Bluestockings that night—was for this reason hard to prepare for until it was already under way.
It is, in its way, a generational question. If you kill your parents, you won’t hear their warnings, and then you’ll eventually just become them without realizing it. If you listen to them, you’ll become them on purpose. The question is how to become new and stay that way, how to be a stable point moving steadily from past into future without a neurotic relation to either—neither clinging nor leaping. This is the existential core of the strategic question on the left. It’s a question about growing up.
Harris is a leaper. There are no preparations to make, for him, no slow and steady work to chip away at power structures and create strategic opportunity. He imagines no source of transcendence in the millennial experience itself. If things break our way, it will be simply the intrusion of events. He anticipates some great departure, seemingly coming all of a sudden as Occupy did. In the book’s rushed coda, Harris points vaguely to some approaching test of unknown shape for the millennial soul. “We don’t know for sure when or where our crucial moments are coming, but we do know that they are.” We will, he predicts enigmatically, become “fascists or revolutionaries, one or the other.” What determines the timing of this reckoning or its outcome is unspecified, except that it would help if we can be “lucky and brave.” This much I agree with.
Since the days of Occupy, Harris has gotten older, and like most of us as we’ve gotten older, he’s hardened some. Kids These Days wants to be a political economy of millennials the way Capital wanted to be a political economy of the working class, a story of how structural processes produce abjection, then crisis, then transformation. But—like Marx, though not for the same reason—he doesn’t quite close this circuit. Harris experienced defeat, and he can’t help but telegraph the hopelessness it created. Kids These Days is the story of the objectification of millennials, not the subjectivity that they make from that objectification. At the end, we’re still playthings of history, not its agents. Addressing the deunionization of the American workplace, he describes his cohort as “the perfect scabs.” Of acquiescence to the internship, he writes, “Only a generation raised on a diet of gold stars could think that way.” Millennials are captive to fantasies of upward mobility, a “fool’s errand.” We’re “so well trained to excel and follow directions that many of us don’t know how to separate our own interests from a boss’s or a company’s.” We are, in his telling, incapable of trust, crippled by anxiety, unwilling to stand up for ourselves or one another, and sexually stunted: “Like Calvinists who thought the heaven-bound were preordained but unknown, everyone has to act as if they are saved, even though most are damned.”
While the diagnosis is persuasive in its way, Harris seems unusually willing to set aside our generation’s quite impressive record of resistance in the streets and at the ballot box. (On Twitter and in his published record he is visibly a regular, passionate observer of international social movements.) The catalog of movements of millennials, if not yet thick with victories, is nothing to sneeze at either. Moreover, it’s clearly a work in progress. His own experience at Zuccotti, mine in the labor movement, and those of millions of our comrades around the world in social and political struggles of all kinds sit uneasily with the existential skepticism that the book avows.
The problem may be that Harris seems to see our generation as the whole of the question. He’s right that one can see the crystallization of our world in what’s happening to our generation. But this clarity is possible exactly because it’s only a part of the picture. Without engaging with the larger social landscape, Harris can’t get a view of what exactly might dislodge the current pattern. This, one supposes, is why such a sharp analysis concludes with a hand wave about future “crucial moments.” Millennials are not alone, and we are not the only ones facing life changes of momentous social consequence. Generation is not actually just an identity. It’s a relationship: no children without parents, no millennials without boomers. And all of us should have noticed by now that our parents are starting to get old. This will impose new obligations on us and open up new opportunities.
The aging of our parents’ generation will produce a new peak in the country’s age structure. When the boomers were young, less than 10 percent of the population was over 65. Today, we’re around 15 percent, and we’ll get to 20 percent as quick as 2030—then stay there for some time. Our society has never gone through anything like this before. It’s likely to slow economic growth significantly all on its own—in addition to whatever other drags will be operating at that point. It certainly will put enormous pressure on social support and caregiving systems, likely beyond what they can sustain in anything like their current form. Harris writes that millennials have been written out of the social contract of midcentury American liberalism, whose crown jewels are Social Security and Medicare, social-insurance programs for the elderly. But the beneficiaries whose entitlements he resents, the boomers, may end up being written out, too.
The sharp pressure on elder-care and health-care systems engendered by the boomer demographic decline will be more than a statistical outlier. Health-care prices, already rising, will skyrocket as demand spikes. Medicare and Medicaid, if they’re still intact in anything like their present form, will face attempts by the right to impose steep cuts. Nursing homes will become overcrowded, leading to the torture of old people—something that the Trump Administration recently moved to weaken elders’ legal power to sue over, not coincidentally. (The old folks left behind in California and Texas and Florida nursing homes after recent disasters—lethally in the latter case—are a precursor of this coming nightmare.) The demand of older Americans on fixed incomes for affordable places to live will collide with housing markets that, if current conditions still obtain, will probably be even more out of control than now. What you should imagine is not debates in Congress over Medicare reimbursement policies, though these will happen. What you should imagine is homeless shelters packed with octogenarians.
Many of these processes are already under way. Today, health care accounts for nearly one-fifth of the economy and one-seventh of the labor market. It expanded right through the Great Recession. Home health aide is the fastest-growing job in the country. It’s a 21st-century job—unregulated by labor law, afflicted with falling real wages, taking advantage of the heightened desperation for work of women, immigrants, and people of color. Usually it involves caring for Medicaid patients—in other words, people still shielded (if barely) by parsimonious 20th-century social protections.
The young and the old don’t become who they are, and live the lives they live, independently of each other. In Harris’s bad future, we’re all the home health aide. But as the old grow in number, we’ll have to make a choice. The right will probably attempt simultaneous attacks on programs for the old and on the working and living conditions of the young, arguing that screwing over the young (though they will call it increasing opportunity) is the only way to sustain the threadbare safety net for the old. Grandma can only have a decent twilight if her home health aide’s wages get pushed down to $7 an hour. Further unraveling of the welfare state, falling wages, worsening inequality—this is the route to Harris’s apocalypse. Maybe it ends well, but if the old are reducing the young to peonage and the young are abandoning or torturing the old in their nursing homes, it’s a bit hard to imagine coming out the other side happy with who we are and what we’ve done.
The need to replace parents and care for the old always marks a watershed in the life course, but it isn’t usually a mass event capable of rewriting the social contract. A crisis of such breadth and intensity as we are likely to face seems the only possibility for breaking the political deadlock currently pitting young against old. If there’s a path to political resolution short of apocalypse, it runs through the young growing up and assuming the caretaking role, and compelling the old to accept care on our terms—and with it, our political hegemony. Either we rebuild democracy around care provision, as the political theorist Joan Tronto argues we must, or we lose it as Harris predicts.
This is not an idle fancy. One sees it nowhere more clearly than in British politics, upended by action from both ends of the age structure at once. On the left, the Labour Party was transformed by a movement of the young, a movement emerging from the 2010 student protests, which installed Jeremy Corbyn as the party’s most left-wing leader in a century. Corbyn then escaped his universally predicted demise in the general election, holding the Conservatives to a hung parliament and setting himself up for victory down the road. By all accounts, the turning point in the campaign happened when the Tories unveiled their party manifesto, which included a proposal widely derided as a “dementia tax.” This idea would have required long-term-care patients to forfeit all assets above £100,000, including their homes. (We do a version of this in the US to the Medicaid recipients who make up two-thirds of the population of our nursing homes.) The response was so withering that Prime Minister Theresa May stumbled to reverse herself almost immediately, but the damage was done. The “about-face awoke a largely dreary election campaign,” as the New York Times put it.
In the end, the old still voted for May in huge numbers—69 percent of those over 70. It was the young, perhaps imagining the way that care burdens would be dumped onto them, who brought the socialist Corbyn within reach of power. The age structure of the vote was almost perfectly symmetrical: for every ten additional years of age, a voter was 9 percent likelier to support the Tories. The old will certainly never enact social transformation themselves. They are even likely to obstruct it. But it is nonetheless our relationships with them that may lead us to a sustainable program for its pursuit—a way to move forward in our lives and in history at once. If we see our millennial identity as a relationship to our elders, rather than an abject identity, then an avenue of transcendence short of apocalypse opens up: in this collective relationship, new solidarities may form, new varieties of care, love, and responsibility may take shape—and, from them, power. Millennials may yet figure out what we need to do politically from the labor we’ll need to perform in our lives.
We have our examples in this country, too. In that famous picture from Charlottesville, we see a young black man—Corey Long is his name—shooting fire from a spray can at a wormy white fascist brandishing a Confederate flag like a club. So far, we’re in Harris’s world here—in fact, I believe I first learned the term antifa from his Twitter page some years ago. But if you look at the photo, you see over Long’s right shoulder a frail-looking older white man, whom Long, it emerges, stepped forward to defend against the physical menace facing them, including the actual discharge of a gun in their direction.
This is an image, then, not only of the escalating racial and ideological confrontation gripping the country but also of intergenerational solidarity and protectiveness. In this sense, it is quite far from the fantasy of antifascist defense as irresponsible youthful adventurism. The scene is made all the more tender by the fact that the 23-year-old Long is actually an elder-care worker. This, care for the old, is his job. He probably doesn’t usually do it with fire, but it’s good to know that’s part of the skill set that this particular millennial has accumulated. One can be quite sure that his job is a shit job, but he appears committed to the principle, and in that, there’s something more.