Quips and Quotes: The Making of Millennials

Author: Sarah Cahalan '14

Editor's Note: As soon as I graduated from Notre Dame, I realized that I never took proper advantage of one of the biggest perks of being at a university: all those lectures. You may not be able to pop by DeBart 101 every week to listen to experts opine about cell biology or geopolitics, but, in this new series, we're bringing the lecture hall to you. Our editors will scour the campus for one presentation per week to attend and share with our readers, reporting back with a quote and a few highlights from the latest event in the life of the mind. 

"The avocado is a symbol of prosperity." 

This memorable statement was one of many that Malcolm Harris made about the official fruit of the 20-something during his October 1 lecture on campus, “The Making of Millennials.” The 29-year-old came to campus to discuss his book, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, and in the process dispelled many myths about the generation that he and I are a part of. 


On the subject of avocados (and their offspring, avocado toast), he posited that they aren’t so much an actual millennial obsession as a stand-in for a wide base of commonly held beliefs about young people. If boomers think millennials are entitled and spoiled, what better symbol could they ascribe to us than dollar-per-item exotic produce that we’ve helped to popularize? 


As Harris sees it, the defining characteristic of people born between 1980 and 2000 is not avocado-esque prosperity but the opposite: A financial life shaped by the collapse of economic institutions. His research has identified an “exploitation rate,” measured as the gap between national GDP and household incomes. When previous generations like baby boomers and Gen Xers came of age, those two figures tended to grow and change proportionally — if the country was getting richer, you probably were, too. As millennials have grown up, though, GDP and household incomes have wildly diverged, meaning we’re getting paid less even as our economy as a whole improves. 


For a deft economic analysis of society’s most maligned generation, check out Harris’ book. And, if he gives a lecture in your city, be prepared: He starts his Q&As by taking questions only from millennials.


Sarah Cahalan is an associate editor of this magazine.