It took me awhile to get through Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days, but not because the subject is dry, or because Harris isn’t an engaging writer.
It took some time to read because it’s a punch to the gut. It’s uncomfortable in its implications that we are well and truly fucked, and that we’re in this mess because of deliberate, completely avoidable decisions made by the Behemoths of Capitalism.
The only appropriate response to Harris’s book is anger. I had to put the book down at times and come back to it a few days later, once I’d cooled down.
The premise, which Harris lays out with unadorned clarity, is simple: we’re living in the logical conclusion of capitalism. The “growth at all costs” mantra meant that once corporations had squeezed all the capital they could out of traditional working hours, and out of adult workers, they set their sights on our leisure, and on our kids.
Capitalism has always rewarded those who have found ways to monetize new life processes, but technology combined with the growth of the finance sector has accelerated this process. The Internet and social media are three-way relations among people, corporations, and technology, and they represent a major advance in the efficient organization of communication and productivity.
At one point in the 20th century—during the heyday of “embedded capitalism” that reigned in the post-war West, and which was overtaken by neoliberalism in the ’70s and ‘80s—firms invested in training their people. It was a risk, but one that often paid off in increased productivity and efficiency in their workforce.
At some point, though, firms realized they could reshape the American education system, turning it into a vehicle for job preparedness instead of institutions for learning in the traditional sense. Colleges were eager to rush into this new partnership, because as capitalist firms themselves, it meant they could advertise a new metric to their customers: the rate at which their graduates found work in their chosen fields.
Not coincidentally, having a standard metric of success created an elegant ranking system for all institutions of higher education. Combine the job placement rate with the average earnings of graduates, and you have a nice, tidy ROI.
That turn meant not only that “safer” areas of study overtook fields with more meandering paths to the job market (think finance and business in relation to English or history), though of course that did happen. It also meant that firms had effectively lessened their risk by passing training off onto universities. Why invest your own money into training future employees when colleges can do it for you?
Of course, as soon as colleges started shouldering that risk, they started looking for ways to pass the buck themselves. And so they did, transferring the risk onto their own customers: high school students and their parents. They did that by turning applicants against each other. If there were only so many spots available in prestigious universities, then applicants needed to prove their worth and compete against each other for those spots. That competition looks very familiar to us today: high school students now spend a significant portion of their free time preparing for standardized tests, volunteering (which looks good on a college application), and otherwise growing their worth as human capital.
And it only gets worse (and younger) from there: if high school students are competing with each other, then it makes sense to get a head start. Parents start “investing” in their kids in middle school, squeezing all the piano lessons and study time in as they can. And if middle school students start competing against one another, it suddenly becomes necessary for them to get a head start, so why not make grade schoolers compete? And if grade schoolers are competing… you can see where this is going.
Harris speaks with considerable authority (especially given his age) on so many other subjects that could themselves fill a book, but he ties it all together nicely, so that we’re left with a clear picture of what we’re up against. It’s a maddening read, but one that should be required reading for anyone struggling to understand the trying times we find ourselves in.