It's an oft-quoted trope to say that Millennials are lazy and they want everything even when they're just starting out and have built no real experience behind their work. Tristan Harris is here to show the lie in much of that statement with his book Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. For his book, Harris, says that Millennials are people born between 1980 and 2000 and his stated goal is to analyze the trends that have developed Millennials over the past 40 years [^ Page 10].
One of the consistent threads in Harris' book is that we create more value now than our parents did, and yet we get paid less for it and work longer hours for less pay [^ Page 86]. He even shows this trend when it comes to schooling as computers have made so much of school faster, and yet the school day doesn't get any shorter [^ Page 18]. He shows this well with the story of Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine.
In this fable, Danny, uses a computer to do his homework for him and for this genius invention he gets more homework so that he has to do homework. He doesn't get to reap the rewards of his initiative at all. There has been a similar trend in productivity versus increases in worker compensation since 1973. Productivity has increased 77% but worker wages have only increased 12.4%.
People produce more, and take home less just like kids get more done in school and still get homework[^ Page 20]. You also see this with social sites like YouTube, where creators provide all of the value to the channel and most of them recieve almost nothing for their efforts [^ Page 187]. The same could be said for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You get rewarded just like a school child, in a token of value (followers) which are little more than a gold star on an assessment.
For school aged kids this is exacerbated by the fact that we don't view school as work, and in fact many groups expend enormous effort to ensure that we don't measure school like we do work. Harris calls this The Pedagogical Mask, which we hide behind to say that kids aren't doing work.
Whereas the labor of classically employed workers is measured in both total output and wages, we don't measure a student's educational product except in arbitrary and comparative ways, like grades, standardized tests, and school awards. Pedagogical masking disguises the work kids are doing every day and discourages researchers and policy makers from bothering to measure it at all. [^ Page 20]
Another place that younger school children and the workplace mimic each other is the lack of collective bargaining. We don't allow kids to organize themselves and bargain for better schooling[^ Page 16] at the same time unions have been dropping like flies and without collective bargaining a very few superstars take the high wages and the rest are left with scraps[^ Page 90].
The overall conclusion, is that we spend lots of time trying to grab a very small slice of a winner take all pie. That means we spend less time doing things that we enjoy as we quest for that magical finish line of success[^ Page 39]. It also means that what was formerly a "minor" infraction is now a huge misstep in the competition to get ahead[^ Page 165-166]. Where a few teenagers drinking beer in the park was "just kids" in the 1970's and early 1980's, now it's a trip to the Police Station with parents picking you up. Previous generations would have maybe had the beer taken and been sent home, at worst the Police would bring them home and tell them to behave.
The consequences are much bigger now.
This lack of fun stuff, and high risk of a single step off the path has lead to baseline child anxiety being higher today than the anxiety of child psychiatric patients of the 1950's[^ Page 167]. Kids understand that as they're rushed between different events to "secure their future" that they're an investment and parents don't want that investment screwed up. That's a stressful position for kids to be in.
Add to the winner take all economy, the fact that employers want more education than ever. In a recent episode of Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell explores this winner take all attitude when it comes to the LSAT and which school you go to[^ See my notes on the episode [here](https://curtismchale.ca/2019/07/12/the-success-of-the-tortoise-and-the-hare-in-law-and-the-lsat/)].
What he determines is that the law school you go to predicts nothing about your success as a lawyer. The trouble is that people want to hire from the top law schools, and only those that get the highest scores on the LSAT go to those schools. Unfortunately the LSAT favours people that process information without deeply understanding it, a hare. When you look at the Supreme Court you want a tortoise, someone that thinks deeply and processes slowly to make sure they understand all the information. Unfortunately, the episode opens with a Supreme Court judge basically saying he'll only hire people that scored high on the LSAT, which selects for hare's.
Gladwell does acknowledge that different types of law require hares and tortoises. The problem is that the law school you go to is ranked highly on your resume, when it means absolutely nothing. His solution is that you're not allowed to ask or tell what law school you went to.
To combat this, kids take on enormous loans to get to these best schools so that they can get the best jobs. Many of them work[^ Page 44] while in school and 24% of those working students are working full-time. Because employers want more training for their employees and don't want to pay for it, the cost in time and money has been pushed to parents and students[^ Page 25-26].
The cost of this training doesn't stop with schooling, because we now have unpaid internships. Unpaid internships are saying that the most educated cohort of people coming into the workforce provides so little value they can only be hired if they work for free[^ Page 92 - 93]. Even worse is that women and people from lower income families are much more likely to have an unpaid internship while men and higher income families get paid for the same labour.
This trend of pushing the cost of education down the chain has resulted in a 25 billion dollar industry of providing debt to students[^ Page 46]. Students, people with no collateral or credit history, are essentially borrowing against their future earnings, and they'll be paying for it possibly for life. Since much of the school debt in the US is ultimately through the government, you can't even default on your student debt.
This huge debt load that is carried around by students has economists worried that consumer spending will be depressed for a long time[^ Page 58]. People are servicing debt at 28, instead of purchasing their first house. This happens at the same time as the cost of getting into the house market has increased drastically while wages have stagnated[^ Page 100].
If we were getting a better education, maybe the extra expenses of schools could be forgiven. Unfortunately the highest paid staff member is often the football or basketball coach. Maybe one or two faculty members are superstars and get paid very well. Many of the classes in College and University though are taught by teaching assisstants and student teachers who are willing to do the job for very little. This depresses the income of professional faculty.
Yes, your teachers are less qualified than they were 50 years ago, and you're paying way more for school to hopefully secure a much smaller number of spots. Those that don't secure one of the few spots, will struggle along with what is essentially gambling debt. They gambled that they could secure a top spot, and they lost.
While we've seen many great things when it comes to gender equality, from an economic perspective women are often seen as a "lower cost" alternative to getting a man to do the same work[^ Page 71]. In Harris' words:
The increase in paid work among mothers is part of an overall increase in their weekly labor hours, not a replacement for domestic tasks. #80
Yes, men are doing more domestic work than in the past, but they don't take over hour for hour as their spouse or partner works more. Women still do more unpaid domestic tasks compared to men.
In part this trend started because younger people don't have a voice, as I mentioned earlier, since we don't let school children do anything like collective action. This lack of voice is made worse by the huge voice that older people have in the form of The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). The job of the AARP's job is to advocate for things that are good for retired people[^ 109].
Yes, thanks in part to the AARP, we have reduced the poverty of older people greatly, but that money had to come from somewhere and that somewhere was younger people. According to Harris they've juvenalized poverty[^ 110].
Organized sports have taken the place of self-organized play, and though league games count for their college applications in a way that sandlot ball doesn't, kids are missing out on the important experience of following and enforcing their own rules. [^ Page 139]
The Pedagogical Mask also hides al the labour our kids put in training to be star athletes [^ Page 135]. I know my daughter wants to be an Olympic Figure Skater which means she trains 3 - 4 days a week for a few hours at a time. She's 8, and while I have a realistic view of her chances, I do want to give her the chance to see how good she can be.
This holds for football, basketball, baseball...and a myriad of other sports. By putting kids in sports all the time and making sure they are adult led, kids are missing out on crucial socialization.
To Harris, the NCAA hids behind the Pedagogical Mask with players making millions for schools, but getting paid nothing for their efforts. Sure the head coach is often the highest paid public employee, but the atheletes are students first and therefore not worth paying[^ Page 141]. The students are gambling that they can get one of the very few spots in a professional league like the NBA or NFL, and most of them loose that bet.
This same idea goes for authors, and music artists. To even be considered you need a following on YouTube or a huge email list. Music labels and publishing houses don't want to spend the money to build up your brand, like they did with Miley Cyrus. They want a brand ready to go, where they get huge percentages of the rewards and you spent all the marketing time building it the brand they want to suddenly step into[^ Page 156].
This is the same basic concept of pushing employee training down to parents and children. Companies now push all the branding work down to you before you have a brand. Sometimes, they're only willing to talk to you once you don't need them anymore to get anywhere.
While we may think that teens always want to look at their screens, the research shows a different picture. Teens say they want to meet face to face, but they're too scheduled. They're not allowed to travel on their own to different places because their parents are scared to let them out[^ Page 184]. A great example of the slap down that parents get when they try to let their kids be independant came in 2017 when a dad let his kids ride the bus.
I know I let my 8-year-old go across the street to the park alone. We also let her walk a block to the coffee shop sometimes to come have a dad date. We're never worried about how responsible she is, we're always concerned that some other parent will say something or call the Ministry of Children and Family Development on us. Yes, the price of allowing my child to walk a block, which can be seen from my balcony, and walk in a door to a coffee shop where she knows many of the staff by name could be that I have a case opened on my family. All she wanted to do was join Dad for coffee and colouring.
Because of this guarded posture parents feel they must take, kids view social media as their only form of interaction because it's all that's available. Social media is part of being social for young people, and it's seen as deviant behaviour if you opt out[^ Page 178].
What's extra crazy is that on every measure out there kids today are in less danger than they have ever been. They have less sex. They do less drugs and commit less crimes than any generation before[^ Page 188].
When it comes to sex, most illegal drugs, and crime, Millennials are significantly better-behaved than earlier birth cohorts. Moral panics about youth behavior are a historical constant, but now they are especially unmoored from reality. [^ Page 188]
You know who does more drugs than any other cohort, Boomers. Maybe because of the high stakes of any misstep Millennials just don't use drugs at anywhere near the rates of Boomers do[^ Page 191-193].
This high cost of a misstep also translates itself into school and medication. If you can't sit still in school then you must have a pathology and we medicate it so you do sit still[^ Page 170]. We're not medicating for saftey reasons, because suicide rates for kids have been steady for decades. We're medicating so kids conform to the norm of sitting still so they can get educated[^ Page 176]. We're treating so that kids, who have high anxiety like 1950's psychiatric patients, can just get through the day.
As bad as this all sounds, Tristan Harris thinks is going to get worse. One of his first points is that instead of taking out loans, students will start paying out a percentage of future earnings if someone invests in their education now[^ Page 201]. We already see this in some schools
Second, Harris thinks that we'll professionalize childhood even more. We'll start sending them to pre-school for future doctors that uses medical references for everything in the classroom.
Third, we'll be dealing with climate priviledge. Rich people will be able to purchase their way into places that aren't affected by climate change which means poor people will bear the burden of climate change[^ Page 203].
Fourth, discrimination by algorithm will be even more obvious than it is now. We already pay insurance premiums based on risk factors, but how about a toilet that analyses your waste and increases your premiums if you eat poorly[^ Page 204].
Fifth, and maybe most problematic, is Harris' thought that those people that break under the strain or could never keep up to begin with will get put into a cross between an asylum and a work camp. Think a broken mind street sweeper who just couldn't keep up with the pressure.
Sixth, mysogynist backlash, which I think we've already seen in white supremacy riots. Basically, as women do more work that men used to do, men feel threatened in their ability to earn and fight back. Litterally fight with force. Harris says we'll see this more with less educated men who are less likely to believe in gender equality than their higher educated counterparts.
Seventh, be prepared to be fully tracked. Think China and social ranking.
I'm going to spoil the ending because Harris has no solutions. He doesn't think we can purchase products from better companies that will change anything because they're just re-branded versions of the same crap we already buy[^ Page 214].
You won't be able to change anything with your vote because the American political system is designed to keep itself running and reinforce the status quo[^ Page 216].
Volunteering won't work either and non-profits just dance to the tune of rich donors and government which don't really want any change[^ Page 220].
Protests, sure they work until the government has had enough and then the tear gas comes out and maybe even real bullets and guns of a militarized US Police force. Then you better stop protesting or else.
Harris paints a pretty bleak picture and no fix at all. So we get to do more work for less pay. We have to pay to train ourselves now for things that companies used to pay for and pap us for. Homes are more expensive and we make less so it's going to take longer to get to homeownership.
Our fixes at the end of the book won't work but we have the the world we have so we just have to do something with the crap we've been left.
The lack of advice at the end makes the book loose a bunch of value. It's easy to tell us what the problems are and complain, it's hard to come up with solutions to the issues and have a path to make them a reality.
I found the book informative, if bleak. If you're looking to get a perspective on why things may be harder for the current generations making their way in the world, then Kids These Days is a good place to start. I know I've got a bunch of the bibliography on my list for future reading and research.
Photo by: clement127