Turning Kids into Capital

One of my pet peeves is when I hear a colleague refer to our students as “kids.” They’re not: they are younger than us, sure, but they are still adults who can go to war, operate giant metal boxes on ...

One of my pet peeves is when I hear a colleague refer to our students as “kids.” They’re not: they are younger than us, sure, but they are still adults who can go to war, operate giant metal boxes on wheels, make all sorts of weighty decisions, acquire disciplinary knowledge and expertise, and work for pay. When I hear professors refer to students as “kids,” I detect two things: a sort of assumed unbridgeable distance, and condescension. As long as I’m a college professor, I don’t ever want to be caught saying “kids these days!” in such a condescending tone.

Yet in his book Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, Malcolm Harris turns this phrase on its head, and recycles it into a critical phrase with descriptive power: when older generations talk disparagingly about kids these days, they should really look both inward, at themselves, and outward, at the economic substructure that made and make these kids who they are—in other words, look at the older generation and their protocols of competition and wealth accumulation.

The millennial conundrum might be explained as follows: younger people “these days” are under constant pressure to perform, and to practice being on the market. Or, really, as Harris makes clear, children these days are always already on the market: working (without pay, most of the time) to hone skills, prove their worth, increase their value, and ultimately outperform others.

How does this work in practice? I remember a time back in 2008 when, in one class I taught at UC Davis, where I was a graduate student, I ditched “papers” altogether and had my students start blogs and do all their writing online: posting, linking, commenting, creating. The class was awesome, and the students impressed and amazed me with their digital prowess. And I think they learned how to write a bit, too. We’d spend our class time discussing specific blog posts they had written and talking about form, style, etiquette, and so forth. And it was fun; it felt more like play than boring academic work.

But now, in retrospect, I see that this was all part of the millennial predicament. In Harris’s apt description, “Play is work and work is play in the world of social media, from the workers to the users.” In that “disruptive” class at UC Davis I was aiding my students’ ongoing conversion into human capital.

In Kids These Days, Harris provides a vocabulary and a heuristic for understanding how the millennial conundrum plays out in a number of case studies and social settings, from psychotropic drugs and Big Pharma to education, youth sports, and other proto-professional regimes, to social media and the childhood celebrity complex. The research and snapshots Harris provides are engaging and astonishingly translatable.

Rather than a dry or detached study, Harris’s book is a spirited romp through a disturbingly familiar landscape. Helicopter parents and “vigilante moms” are brought into vivid focus, and the trendy concept of “precarity” is given flesh and bones. Harris takes readers from toddler playgrounds to tween TV shows and through college admissions, carefully charting the economic network that holds it all together. Wisely, Kids These Days stops short of offering any easy solution for cleaning up this mess. We end up in the thick of it, implicated and yet perhaps better able to see what’s happening all around.

Reading Kids These Days was an uncanny experience for me. I found myself continually reflecting on my own experiences teaching at the college level—I’ve basically taught millennials over the past 17 years or so, since I started teaching college. From my time in the classroom and dealing with thousands of college-age students over those years, I recognize many of the troubling trends and patterns that define this generation.

I’ve witnessed firsthand the profusion of breakdowns, excuses, disclaimers, and stressors that fuel and beguile kids these days. Things that, when I’m speaking candidly with colleagues, we don’t often know what to do with—because aren’t these things merely the stuff of life, rather than elaborate medical diagnoses or personal affronts?

Children these days are always already on the market: working to hone skills, prove their worth, increase their value, and ultimately outperform others.

But no, life is more complicated these days. Capital has insinuated itself so thoroughly and effectively into the weave of ordinary life that no place is left untouched by it. My students have become “human capital”—and somewhere deep down, if not right on the surface, they know it.

The anxiety and pressure they feel may be annoying from a professor’s standpoint, but it is also completely understandable from a structural perspective. As Harris notes, “Given what we know about the recent changes in the American sociocultural environment, it would be a surprise if there weren’t elevated levels of anxiety among young people.”

These downsides are not the only things I notice, though, when it comes to my students. I also recognize the incredible talent, responsibility, and creativity that many of my students exhibit—things that also feed into what Harris smartly calls “the millennial situation.” It’s hardly black-and-white, and it’s not just about a bunch of hypersensitive spoiled brats.

I’ve discovered a clue about how this works at my own university. There’s a big push to use the content management system Blackboard for more and more of the daily administration and monitoring of classes: for grading, charting attendance and participation (to better track retention), managing assignments, and so on. I’ve been leery of Blackboard pretty much forever, generally disinclined to utilize its various functions for the basic reason that I’d rather not spend any more time on a computer than I have to.

I went into college teaching because I like to sit around with a group of people and talk about things together. My students show visible signs of relief when I tell them we won’t be using Blackboard in our course. For them, it’s probably because it’s one less thing they have to keep track of on their phones or computers. For me personally, if I have to be on a computer I want to be writing, or maybe communicating with other authors or editors—either way, I want to be doing my work in a rather narrow sense.

Notice how I omitted students from my email communiqués in that last sentence. The truth is that I would prefer never to have to email students or interact with them over Blackboard, but to have all my interactions with my students take place in person. (One can dream, right?) It’s not that I’m so old-fashioned, but rather that I strongly believe that there’s something immeasurably valuable—I’d almost say magical—about being together in a seminar space, in dialogue, uncertain of where our conversations are going but delighting in their twists and turns, all learning from one another.

Now that I think about it, “Blackboard” strikes me as vile euphemism for the way that it suggests being in a classroom (real chalkboards on the wall) when in fact its literal meaning involves being out of the classroom—and on a computer. And we know what “on a computer” means: that weird zone in which one stares into a depthless abyss of work, ever more work: surveys to fill out, company customer service emails to read or delete or just let sit there, notifications to acknowledge, commands to Buy Now, Save Big, Click Here, Act Fast … we know this space all too well. It’s the ideal workplace for human capital because it feels vaguely personalized and (still, for now) like the future, like we’re saving time somehow.


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Yet on the computer the reality is that we are producing value with each keystroke, click, and every swipe of the thumb. Many have felt the time warp of internet browsing—that sudden awareness of “How did I end up watching YouTube videos of cats and sitting through Geico ads between clips?” In other words, what passes as “saving time” or creating more “flexible” work or learning space is really about wasting time while producing value—but value that goes somewhere else.

Just think about the very real “deliverables” that occur when students check Blackboard on their phones, and when professors upload PDFs of abstruse articles … The recipients of this value are not those on the college campus. When scholars and students are forced to spend more time online, the inevitable beneficiaries are the internet behemoths that profit from ad sales and the aggregation of personal information.

In the context of rampant pushes by upper administration toward ever more online offerings, Blackboard becomes a shrewd way to shrink the continuum between in-the-flesh classes and online platforms. Ironically, such “innovative” models of higher ed delivery are not being pushed for by our millennial students, but rather are advocated and championed by some of my older colleagues and upper administrators. Of course, neither do the millennial students have the agency or even the memory to say NO to the latest snake oil pedagogy.

Which brings us back to Kids These Days: the economic structure of the millennial generation has been devised by the owners—that is, by a much older generation. This may sound obvious, but it’s a key point of Harris’s book. Facile complaints about how high-maintenance, hyperactive, or overworked students are need to be redirected to the source of their economic subjectivity, back to those who encourage Blackboard and Smart Apps as solutions for smooth, efficient operation. So-called helicopter parents are the go-to scapegoat; but, as Harris shows in great detail, they are just one character in a much larger plot. The market is a big bully, and toys are us.

Kids These Days helped me better understand too how such dynamics also exist at the other end of schooling. For example, my recently retired father has been substitute teaching for the local school district up in Michigan, where I’m from. The other day he told me about a first- and second-grade class in which all the children have iPads, and how as soon as the children are done with their required lessons they are allowed to use the devices to play math-oriented games. My father said he could see why iPads in the classroom are a teacher’s dream: the students become absolutely quiet, plugged in, and tapping diligently at their screens for 20 minutes or so at a time. He observed this with bemusement, but I don’t think my father quite grasped the insidious implications of such a scenario.

Here in the sweet first- and second-grade split classroom was the hushed, relentless training of human capital, in which students are rewarded for quick and efficient work by being slyly given more work—here, in the guise of edutainment. For we know that the true result of being on our screens is to drive the endless “growth of growth,” in Harris’s words, or the process of doing ever more work on behalf of the titans of Silicon Valley and the cash flows that sustain them.

At my university I teach a course called “Interpreting Airports,” an interdisciplinary seminar in cultural criticism focused on air travel. Over this past semester I realized that I needed to take time to explain to my students why we’re doing what we’re doing: it’s not just about “interpreting” airports (or anything else), but only worthwhile if we can also change our actions, change these places (or whatever else we’re interpreting). In other words, the class isn’t merely about removed contemplation. It should result in our rethinking and ultimately reshaping the patterns and trends that comprise day-to-day life.

I’m not suggesting that college students should emerge from class with as-if quick fixes to societal problems, but rather with a revolutionary spirit instead of acquiescence. College students can be trained to be more intellectually reflective, and they will also jump to the task, in good millennial fashion, when prompted. But the trick, it seems to me, is how to help them dwell in the uncomfortable space between musing and action—so as then to act differently. In the context of my seminar this means not just griping about airports, nor merely appreciating them and carrying on, but seeing air travel gradually as something that can actually be changed.

Helicopter parents are the go-to scapegoat, but they are just one character in a much larger plot. The market is a big bully, and toys are us.

As I read Kids These Days I felt affirmed and bolstered in my efforts. Harris sees two possible pathways for the fate of millennials: revolution or fascism. In my class when we read articles about the future of air travel—biometrics and facial recognition scans, ever-shrinking seats, travelers thoroughly reduced to “customers” (if not outright bio-cargo)—it sounds a lot like a fascist dystopia. And yet, humans might still swerve away from this model of transit, toward other forms of mobility. A revolution is still possible.

Next semester I’m teaching a new course, on children’s literature. I’m tempted to start the class with Kids These Days, so as to focus our readings and discussions on structural concerns. Imagine reading Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy Town or Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, Don Freeman’s Corduroy or Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, or Harry Potter for that matter, with the production of human capital and the making of millennials in mind. As Harris makes clear through his analyses, the economic problems of this era extend to the lowest rungs of childhood management, and so it seems more important than ever to look at how the market starts to “drive us mad” at an early age, in the pages of some of most innocuous or precious-seeming books.

One time in a graduate seminar at UC Davis, we were struggling with Marx’s Capital. We were trying to understand the fetishism of commodities, or maybe how surplus value works. Whatever it was, my cohort and I were getting lost in the weeds of theoretical discourse. At a certain point our professor, Timothy Morton, said something that I’ll never forget: he said, “With Capital, just pretend you’re reading a mystery novel. It’ll be easier to understand that way.” And he was right! We all relaxed and started to read Marx for the strange story he was telling, rather than trying to pretend as though we fully grasped Marx’s finer points at every turn.

I was reminded of this as I read Kids These Days, which has the refreshing virtue of being a rigorously Marxist book without sounding cloyingly Marxian. Harris is interested in people—in how actual humans are being affected by a real economic structure, right now. The story Harris is telling is as strange as Marx’s Capital, and even stranger for taking place all around us.


This article was commissioned by Ben Platt. icon

Featured image: iPad School (2012). Photograph by Brad Flickinger / Flickr