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.