Malcolm Harris discusses the millennial plight

Why are millennials the way they are?

In a talk given on Notre Dame’s campus, Malcolm Harris, a journalist from Philadelphia, suggested that the common stereotypes—that millennials are entitled self-obsessed fragile snowflakes with no attention span who love eating avocado toast—do not represent anything particularly true about millennials as a whole. Those stereotypes, instead, stem from assumptions made by older generations who fail to understand how the world has changed and how that changed world has shaped the millennial experience.

Harris, the author of Kids These Days and a millennial himself, identifies the post-war changes in the economy as the source of the “millennial experience.” In the post-war era, there was a collapse of the post-war consensus about the role of the state in the economy. According to Harris, this led to a divergence in the 1970s between economic productivity, which continued to climb, and hourly wages.

“This divergence characterizes the millennial experience,” he said.

As a result, the common assumption among older generations that the world is better now than when they entered the job market is false. This assumption rested on the belief that, by acquiring an education, anyone could find gainful employment.

Current data, Harris said, shows that the total amount of outstanding student loans, which was basically nonexistent in the 1970s and 1980s, is skyrocketing and has recently reached 1.5 trillion dollars.

“What the student loan hockey stick graph shows is that the idea that we’re reaching the end of history is wrong,” he said.

Additionally, in spite of all the loans being taken out to pay for more and more education, there is a lack of wage growth. Harris provided several reasons for this phenomenon.

The first is that, by increasing the supply of human capital, with more widespread education, the price of human capital goes down. Harris said we can see this in the attempts by several big tech companies, such as Google, to teach kids to code — by doing so they increase the supply of coders, which will eventually enable them to pay coders less.

Harris also mentioned an increase in employer monopsony and the decline in the unionization rate as contributing factors. The latter, he said, also limits the way millennials think of themselves: they see themselves as individuals, not workers, which hampers their ability to band together to resist these trends.

Another key part of the millennial experience is the importance of building human capital, which is a quantification of the economic value of a worker’s skills and abilities useful in production. As human capital becomes more important to the economy, the pressure on students in schools has increased, since schools are the places where human capital is built.

Harris said that we have held onto the idea that, in the 21st century, labor would be automated and the machines would take care of things–Jetsons-style–even as reality failed to live up to our ideal.

“It feels weird talking about how hard millennial lives should be because the world is so prosperous, but millennials are in proximity to all this prosperity that we’ve been building for centuries, and it’s so close to us that we should be sharing in it. But it doesn’t feel that way, and when you look at the stats, it’s not that way,” Harris said.

These changes have not had positive effects on millennials. One effect is a decline in social trust. In earlier generations, about 40 percent of people said the average person could be trusted. Among Gen X, that number is 20 percent, but among millennials, it has been cut to 10 percent.

“You’re going to be in a tough place if 90 percent of people in your society think other people can’t be trusted,” Harris said.

Along with that comes rising rates of anxiety and depression. “I was skeptical at first because the way we talk about these things changes over time, but the data is brutal. The stress of the average kid now is about that of child psychiatric patients in the ‘50s,” said Harris.

There are also negative material effects. The average millennial has saved less at the equivalent point in life than the average Gen Xer, who had saved less than the average baby boomer.

“This is supposed to be the other way around. We’re supposed to save more over time, not less,” Harris said.

That contributes to the fear that millennials will have to work longer than their parents and grandparents did, especially because data suggests that at some point in the future the Social Security system will become insolvent.

Harris ended his talk with some ways discourse about millennials could improve. He proposed insisting on fact-based claims, watching out for projection by older people, and being wary of marketers who speak about millennials only so they can sell things to them.

Returning to the image of avocado toast, Harris said that, in some ways, it represents the millennial experience. It looks nice, has pretty vibrant colors and speaks to a globally integrated production system that makes it possible, but, when it comes down to it, avocado toast is not a meal. The same goes for the millennial experience: the shiny technology and global supply chains are not enough for a fulfilling, meaningful life. No one gets full eating avocado toast.

Steve Larkin is a sophomore from Maine majoring in mathematics and classics. The only thing he loves more than scratching out his opinions is poutine. Steve can be contacted at