Boomers vs. Millennials, in Fiction and in Life
Malcolm Harris and Daniel Torday Take on a Generational Divide
Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days is a nonfiction account of the dire straits so many millennials find themselves in today: maligned as entitled and lazy, millennials are poorer and more precariously employed than their parents and grandparents all while facing a shrinking social safety net. In Daniel Torday’s new novel, Boomer1, thirty-something academic Mark Brumfeld is forced by debt and lack of work to move back into his parents’ basement, where he goes viral recording videos that rail against Baby Boomers’ stranglehold on the job market. Harris and Torday spoke over email about generational conflict, Karl Marx, and the resonances (and divergences) between their books.
Malcolm Harris: What made you want to write about this set of conflicts in particular?
Daniel Torday: I kind of came at this novel from two separate disparate spaces. First, I was reading a bunch of Shakespeare for my last novel, and while I was in the early acts of a read of Julius Caesar, something about the way Mark Brutus and Cassius talked about Caesar just sounded so much like the strife between millennials and boomers. I went back to the Bard’s source material in Plutarch and it was even more stark—Mark Brutus reads younger there, even, than he does in the play.
I also was in the midst of a fraught job search. I was looking for an academic teaching job, admittedly a specific world to try to enter. But I kept applying to jobs where 75-, 80-year-old men—it was almost always men—were still teaching, gumming up the works. So there I was, feeling that strife, while also watching my solidly millennial students coming out and finding nothing, having to move into their parents’ basements. And then the hard part is always: how to dramatize it?
Which is to say I came at it from a bit of a solipsistic and anecdotal place. I purposely didn’t do much research on that front. But I’ve got to say—reading your book, I was just floored. Half of me wished I’d read it before I started writing Boomer1—but honestly I think I would’ve been so intimidated by your seemingly effortless erudition and the sheer breadth of your empirical tools at hand, I might have put my own project down for good. That’s not even to mention your deeply convincing voice. So I guess I kind of just want to ask something Neanderthal-inflected like: How you do that? Why you so smart?
MH: You’re far too kind. I definitely didn’t come from a first-person or anecdotal/journalistic perspective. My interest is always political, and this project started when I was in college and was part of a left-wing student group organizing against a prospective tuition hike. When the housing crisis hit we tried to do something useful with all the fear and confusion around us and we planned a teach-in connecting housing debt and student debt. Most of that research was in primary source data, and I got comfortable doing that kind of work. I’m not a huge fan of the anecdotal mode, though of course there are times when it’s useful. And it’s funny that you say empirical because that’s not my thing either. In some ways I start with the answer—class conflict—and work back. I think it’s best to start with what side you’re on.
One problem with that though is that I’m stuck in reality, whereas you can play out alternatives. I don’t want to spoil anything, but Boomer1 takes place in part in the New York left-wing intellectual/political/media milieu in late 2011. I was there, and most of us were spending all our time on one thing. Was it a conscious choice to swap out the events in your book for Occupy Wall Street?
DT: Occupy Wall Street was very much in the front of my mind as I got started, for sure. I’m close with a number of n+1 editors, and I felt so impressed by all the energy those folks were putting in. I read the gazette they put out religiously. I was teaching full-time, had two babies in the house, and my wife was in residency after med school; the idea of traveling was impossible, so I lived vicariously. I actually had an early draft [of Boomer1] where Mark goes to a bookshop and finds the AdBusters call to action and heads back to NYC and becomes a central figure in the movement, is propelled from there—but it felt way too on the nose. It was constricting. So as you say, with the leeway to fictionalize and imagine, I just wanted to answer some of the big criticisms that came out of the movement. I feel like people kept asking, Who is the central figure of this movement, and what’s the precise thing being asked for? And so creatively I wanted to start from a premise that dispelled those questions: the leader is Mark Brumfeld, and the demand is that boomers must retire.
But circling back, I love your answer about the political. I think when I say “empiricism” I probably mean something reductive like “oh wow he knows numbers!” But the ideological drive underlying your book feels so useful, and stringent in the best way. It’s funny—I like to read a lot after I finish work on a book, to fill in some of the intellectual material that I fear could derail me while I’m writing (I was a philosophy minor after all). So to fill in gaps about the idea of generations, I’ve been reading a bunch of Karl Mannheim, and these awful contemporary writers Strauss and Howe who seem like straightforward snake oil salesmen. But what were the guiding voices for you? I’m guessing a lot of Marx and Engels. Do you read economists, too? Are you a Chomsky guy?
MH: I like numbers, and they can be a really useful rhetorical tool, but I don’t go to the numbers for answers. Anyone who works with student debt numbers in particular knows you can use uncontested data sets to tell all sorts of stories, some contradictory. So I do read economists—researching the book I even went back to George Becker and the Chicago school, because they really developed this theory of human capital. Some of their stories are important and useful. But I would never go to them for truth.
For truth I go to Marx. And his name doesn’t appear in Kids These Days at all, but it’s definitely the scaffolding. Not just in terms of modeling how conflict structures society and the focus on the relations of production, but also very specific capitalist dynamics. There’s a section in Capital Vol. III that tries to explain the strategies capitalists use to maintain profitability long-term, and the principal one is the intensification of exploitation. Getting more out of workers and paying them less. Well, that’s exactly what we’ve seen. He says there’ll be an increase in market-related work from women and children, and we see that too. So that’s my method: strap on my Marx goggles and dive into the numbers. I’m not like a Talmudic scholar type about it though; I like reading the contemporary interpreters.
I was curious about the politics in Boomer1. One of our protagonists is obsessed with Emma Goldman, but his understanding of class struggle ends up totally redirected through generational struggle. Which is funny to me because around 2011 I was catching a fair amount of flack from democratic socialists for using a generational frame at all. The American left didn’t get comfortable with generational analysis I don’t think until the 2016 Democratic primary proved it would be a useful tool. How important do you think generational conflict is to the current moment, and how do you see its shape?
DT: There are two separate, important topics in here, so I hope it’s OK if I answer them both: first, as a novelist, I feel there’s a wall between my politics and the way I write. I hew pretty closely to Chekhov’s thing about how his job isn’t to weigh in on topical matters, but to describe as accurately as possible the way the people he observed acted, lived, talked. This carries over for my favorite writers—I can love Naipaul and Houellebecq just as I love Grace Paley. Saul Bellow’s books are so beautiful even if his politics and his aesthetics grew deeply divergent and problematic. I think it’s because the sheer act of showing how flawed, complicated people think is inherently political. If you could get any of the characters Bob Woodward puts on the page from our current fascist regime to read about the Yiddish-speaking immigrant Augie March, it’d be a whole lot harder for them to do the evil they’re doing.
This is also the point at which I’ll confess . . . I’m not sure I believe in the concept of “generations.” It’s such an abstraction. I’m always more interested in phenomenology than Marxism—it’s just an inescapable bent in me. I’m always most interested in what a human is thinking and feeling in a given moment. That said, I’m also not sure that’s what’s called for in this moment, and so there’s a tension in Boomer1, to be sure, between those instincts. If I was given the opportunity to read your book or mine, Clockwork-Orange-Wagner style, aloud to Stephen Miller, I’d choose yours in a heartbeat . . . while maintaining deep skepticism about “generations.” Cohorts, sure—we have common experience with the people we were born in the same year-ish with. But what are the limitations beyond that in trying to define how many cohorts make up a generation? Even roughly how many? It moves into the realm of the occult for me, fast.
For me the idea of generational conflict was interesting for that very reason—I wanted to test characters I loved in a realm that pushed past our experience, to let those forces of identity politics I heard starting to grow loud in the past decade work on them and see how they responded.
MH: I don’t think there’s anything occult about the accumulation of quantitative (birth year) differences building to a qualitative (generational) difference. Hell, in an abstract sense that’s the scientific formula for all observable phenomena. But that doesn’t mean analysts can be lazy about those differences and labels, which I think a lot of the generational analysts are. And that’s being charitable. Usually it’s a marketing sub-field, that’s what Strauss and Howe do, that’s where “millennials” comes from. Salesmen. And consumption data is easy to collect, but that’s not what truly characterizes generations. Basically I think you need some serious theory and research to talk about generations in a rigorous way, and that’s what I tried to do in the book.
On politics and art I’m with John Berger. And that’s a real easy one to say. Berger is so uncontroversial somehow; as a leftist he was a fellow-traveler in good standing but one who never joined the Party. He created great art in his novels and was himself one of the great appreciators of art, which we in the west find incommensurate with our authoritarian idea of communism. But he wasn’t some squishy Orwell type talking about individual expression.
There’s this wonderful conversation he has with the UK art historian Benedict Nicolson about the painter Renato Guttuso, who’s thought of mostly as the “bad” kind of communist artist, drawing heroic workers, etc. Nicolson is making a very familiar argument about, you know, everything can be a valid subject for art, you can find truth wherever, in complicated individuals—and Berger is having none of it! When Nicolson complains that Guttuso would never draw corrupt workers, Berger says he’s right not to because “arbitrarily isolated facts can only lead to triviality in art . . . A work of art is moving in direct ratio to the degree to which it extends our experience of significant, objective facts.” This goes back to the empiricism question. You start with the truth, you start with the significant, objective facts: class relations, class struggle. You don’t start with a sunflower. And anyone who thinks that perspective can’t produce great art hasn’t read G. or To the Wedding.
I don’t want to get into the government conspiracy part of this story, but it’s not very well hidden these days. God, I’m like one of those stickers you see on the street: “Google ‘CIA Paris Review‘!”
DT: Well said! I too am a Berger fan, and not currently wearing a tinfoil hat. And I should probably clarify: I didn’t get a sense of any occultism in your deeply researched and deeply felt book. I think I’m responding more to the pain of reading people like Strauss and Howe—and feel that maybe there’s something about the broad view that can lead mountebanks like them to exploit big ideas.
And maybe it’s an OK place to land in saying that it isn’t surprising their “book,” The Fourth Turning, is a big influence on Steve Bannon. Reading it I found it hard to believe a grown person could take charlatanism like that seriously. We’re lucky to have intelligent grownup millennials like you to slam the door on that stuff.