illustration by Tyler Gross

At this point it should come as no surprise that millennials are out for blood. You’ve heard it before: We’re “lazy,” we “ruin elections,” we feel “entitled,” and our most defining feature is our lust for murdering industry after industry in broad daylight, without the tiniest bit of remorse for diamond sellers, real estate agents, Applebee’s, or Business Insider. But the reason behind our heartless disregard for late capitalist shrines to consumerism may surprise you.

In Millennials and the Moments That Made Us, Seattle writer, filmmaker, and millennial (b. 1984) Shaun Scott attempts to parse meaning from the baby boomer perspective of the millennial generation, by examining the cultural history of the era in which millennials came to adulthood. Scott begins in 1982, with the end of the mid-century “golden age” of capitalism. This was a time that saw union power at its highest, subsidies that allowed (mostly white) Americans to buy homes, social welfare programs funded by progressive taxation, and ongoing anti-communist propaganda. In contrast, says Scott, millennials were born into the economic project of neoliberalism, one of austerity and mass privatization of all industries. Starting with the devastation of social programs and unions under Ronald Reagan, the neoliberal stage of capitalism was actualized by Clinton and the Bushes, with only some half-measure reforms under Obama.

Scott divides the book into four parts: “Childhood (1982-1990),” “Youth (1991-2000),” “Young Adulthood (2001-2011),” and “Adulthood (2012-present).” Coming from a millennial born in 1984, the pop-cultural history reads half as cultural and economic analysis of television, commercials, movies, and music of the day, and half as a memoir chronicling Scott’s childhood in a Queens housing project with Jamaican immigrant parents. Scott beautifully weaves in narratives about watching Ghostbusters cartoons as he waited for his parents to come home from work at night, and later dropping out of college with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, facing the “gig economy,” and spending 14-hour days scooping ice cream at a Seattle music festival.

Each chapter is broken down with subheads that create a sense of fragmentation mirroring the late capitalist landscape of heavy commercialization which cuts up the television we watch (adverts), the spaces we occupy (billboards), and the internet hyperlink rabbit holes we follow. But in certain places, these intentional distractions can still frustrate when Scott’s prose is cut off just before he completes the connective tissue to tie it all together. (See: the excellent-but-in-need-of-edits comparative analysis of Grandmaster Flash’s song “The Message” and Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean.”)

Millennials and the Moments That Made Us is a strong collection of ideas that more than debunk cultural conservatives’ hand-wringing over “kids these days.” Scott points out the absurdity of “millennials are killing X” articles in their refusal to address the material conditions of millennials’ lives—namely, that we’re the first generation to come of age amidst neoliberalism, we’re the most racially diverse generation in American history, and we’re the first generation in American history that is poorer and has a lower standard of living than our parents. “These concrete socioeconomic and political realities should be the basis of any conversation about millennials,” Scott writes. “Because outside of them, millennial identity has little meaning.” What’s insidious about the intergenerational culture war is that it follows the exact framework the capitalist class put forth (the very term “millennial” was created for targeted marketing). While the olds may call us lazy, the fundamental contradictions of capitalism not only persist—they become more grossly coercive. Millennials work longer hours for less pay, so we drive for Uber on the side to make up the difference. Meanwhile, wealth continues to accumulate at the very top. In truth, millennials aren’t killing anything—capitalism is just continuing to eat itself.

Millennials and the Moments That Made Us
by Shaun Scott
(Zero Books)