The Millennials are the American Earthquake

This is a super-fascinating article for multiple reasons.

First, it turns out millennials are even more like the 1930s generation than we realized. Not just in their politics, as Andrew Hartman recently argued, but also in their economic practices. Having come of age during an epic financial crisis, they’re now staying away from the stock market, and putting their money in savings accounts—the equivalent, during the Depression, of stuffing your dollar bills in a mattress for fear of there being a run on the banks.

These little gestures signal deep cultural shifts that are ultimately really important for politics. My generation was raised to think that the stock market was our savior. Fuck pensions and Social Security! You can’t trust the state or the long-term future. You can get much better returns from the whiz kids on Wall Street. That millennials are rejecting that kind of message seems hugely significant to me.

I’ve been saying for years that I would love to see a contemporary version of Edmund Wilson do what he did during the Depression: go and report on the everyday life of the Financial Crisis and its aftermath, seeing how the mood and manner of this generation has been fundamentally altered and reshaped by that experience. It may not be quite The American Earthquake—yet—but there certainly are tremors (what Wilson called, in the book’s first iteration, “the American jitters.”)

Second, that the Post thinks millennials earning $40,000 a year have tons of extra disposal income to sock away for their futures seems risible. Given rents and job precarity and student loans that have to be paid off, it seems totally rational to me that a young person in today’s economy would want to be assured that they’ll have money for food and rent come next month. Better to keep it in the bank than tie it up in a long-term index fund or whatever. Having the money near at hand seems perfectly understandable.

Third, the freakout from the Post and the investor class over this is delicious. Wall Street has ever been the antenna of the nation. It registers —inadvertently, unconsciously—movements and shifts that aren’t always apparent to the eye. Not just economic movements but also cultural and political ones. As Jevons said:

Just as we measure gravity by its effects in the motion of a pendulum, so we may estimate the equality or inequality of feelings by the decisions of the human mind. The will is our pendulum, and its oscillations are minutely registered in the price lists of the markets.

What the market is telling us is: the motion of the pendulum is moving in a different direction, the will of this new generation is not like that of its recent predecessors.

Update (9:45 am)

Just a few minutes out, and I’m already seeing tons of responses to this on Twitter and Facebook. Young people telling their personal stories—with precision, concreteness, detail—of their struggles in this economy. I find it all unbelievably poignant.

It just makes me all the more enraged at the Clinonite blather you hear on social media. And not just the Clintonites; it’s also the left. What in the end do we on the left have to offer people today? Medicare for All and free college. Don’t get me wrong; these would be great, and I’ve been fighting for them, too. But they don’t touch the fundamentals of the economy. I don’t mean that in a Marxist sense.

Just think of everyone from the New Dealers to Bill Clinton: all of them had a theory of the economy and how it might improve people’s lives and standing. Clinton’s was bullshit, but he was the last one to even think he had to offer a comprehensive account to people. Perhaps that was due to the hangover from the Cold War, which is now over. Without the challenge of communism, we don’t think we need to give people something like a vision of the economy.

So we let this generation die. We bury them, without having even the decency to perform an autopsy or deliver a eulogy.



  1. Avery July 23, 2017 at 9:52 am | #

    The article doesn’t speak for me — I don’t have money in a savings account. Instead, I have four savings accounts, at four different banks in two countries, and the remainder in gold.

    I’ve often thought about moving the money into Wall Street. But I don’t want to be the last sucker in the country.

  2. fosforos17 July 23, 2017 at 10:05 am | #

    A “generation” is a granfaloon, not a kerass. So is a “country.”

    • Deadl E Cheese July 23, 2017 at 10:42 am | #

      People who make this idiotic claim, that generations have no categorical usefulness, let alone material usefulness, never feel to need to explain if this is the case why age is one of the best predictors of political leanings.

      I mean, it’s not as though the span of human development and death requires different physical and psychological reactions to world events. That’s just crazy talk, wondering how, say, the widespread adoption of the Internet or a bloody war may (or may not have) changed certain humans in a way that reflects how old they are.

      • s. nich July 23, 2017 at 12:04 pm | #

        “People who make this idiotic claim, that generations have no categorical usefulness, let alone material usefulness, never feel to need to explain if this is the case why age is one of the best predictors of political leanings.”

        perhaps there is something useful about it – however, I often see it used in such lazy all-encompassing fashion that it becomes imprecise and contradictory.

        I was born in 1960. Growing up in high school in the 70s I was always told the “boomer generation” was that born between the yrs of 1945-1960. Somewhere along the line that got extended to 1945-1964. Whatever the case, as a 57 yr old, I’m a boomer and I’m lumped in together with people in their early 70s – my elderly aunts, uncles. My political views and theirs differ greatly. My economic situation differs greatly from theirs. Their social security is secure–mine isn’t. They own homes and have pensions. I own nothing and my pension was wiped out. Nor am I alone in my situation-nearly my entire high school graduating class (admittedly, a small school) is in similar dire straits. Yet all I’m told is that I’m part of a rich generation that’s destroyed everything and left nothing to millenials.

        I’m also told that the only generations that exist are millenials and boomers — as if there’s no generation in between. Generational analysis lumps in black people, white people, hispanics, Asians, poor people, rich people, middle class people and every other type of group all in one gigantic category, erases differences & distinctions and puts one grand label over them. I’ve never invested in the stock market, nor does anyone in my extended family, btw. We don’t have that kind of disposable income and never have.

        • Deadl E Cheese July 23, 2017 at 9:20 pm | #

          “however, I often see it used in such lazy all-encompassing fashion that it becomes imprecise and contradictory.”
          Getting more than a whiff of “not all abusers are men” or “that’s reverse racism!” from this.

        • To “s.nich”: You are correct.

          I am an African American born in 1961 (on M.L.K’s b-day, as luck would have it) and I don’t see my experience reflected in the public musings about “boomers”, and I look at those in their seventies and observe how the promises of golden-year social supports are kept for them but are broken for folks like me and like you.

          I think you are on to something and part of the success of the neo-liberal project was its ability to exploit the divisions you list so that a case could be made that some on that list are not part of the deserving generational cohort (also known as “the greatest generation”). Once that argument is made, the rest of it all but writes itself.

        • Michael Fiorillo July 24, 2017 at 1:25 pm | #

          The stoking of inter-generational conflict, via the transparently bogus claim that “Boomers” (I’m one) have eaten all the seed corn at the expense of “Millenials” (my daughters) is a very useful misdirection, one that is probably most often used in the campaign to undermine/privatize/loot/ultimately eliminate Social Security.

          One of my oldest and dearest friends is currently homeless. He worked in publishing for thirty years, raised a son,paid his taxes, but he couldn’t get through his fifties without getting whacked, and so…

          A five-minute online search will amply demonstrate that the majority of “Boomers” are facing poverty, if not destitution, in retirement, and yet somehow they’re the villains. That my daughters and their cohort face even worse in the coming decades does nothing to contradict that.

          It ain’t about young vs. old, it’s about who’s got the money and power, Them and Us.

        • Earl Bodford July 25, 2017 at 7:15 pm | #

          Same here, a 1960 model who is broke making the same thing I did (not adjusted for inflation) 15 years ago. All the factories where I live have closed and the service jobs that are left pay very little. I feel sometimes as if I was sold a bill of goods.

    • Deadl E Cheese July 23, 2017 at 10:50 am | #

      “Just think of everyone from the New Dealers to Bill Clinton: all of them had a theory of the economy and how it might improve people’s lives and standing.”

      You’ve been on a Skowronek kick lately, so I bring up this point from his post-2016 election inteview with The Nation: the person who repudiates the Reagan Regime is not going to be a Bernie Sanders-type and is almost certainly not going to be Elizabeth Warren. Your post puts that prediction of his in stark detail.

      Sanders would probably have won 2016 and might have even gotten a Congressional majority. However, he also wouldn’t have had the mandate to do a reconstruction. He would’ve been in the same position as Obama 2008, though significantly worse off power-wise and legitimacy-wise. Who knows, he may have done a mid-stretch reconstruction of his politics (like Jefferson did, though I also don’t think Jefferson is reconstructive) and finally broke the back of the Reagan regime. But I still think that he was a little too indebted to McGovern-style social democracy to do the job. And more to the point, the Democratic Party he would’ve inherited was still much too indebted to Clinton-style neoliberalism.

  3. Rich Puchalsky July 23, 2017 at 11:11 am | #

    I agree with all of this, but again — this is a blog post about politics and economics that hinges on generational considerations and there’s no mention of the greatest generational concern of all: that ecosystems are being overdrawn by our generations with less and less left for future ones.

    I’m not trying to write a “why can’t you care about this other issue instead” kind of comment. Left politics and economics, as they are presently construed, have no natural lead into ecosystem issues. The reason why the left has nothing to offer is because our ideas have nothing to offer: they are based on a historical situation that no longer holds.

    I’ll try to write up more on this soon. But for now imagine a left where instead of every mention of Marx or some Marx-derived concept there was a mention of sustainability or some ecologically derived concept.

    • Deadl E Cheese July 23, 2017 at 11:26 am | #

      “But for now imagine a left where instead of every mention of Marx or some Marx-derived concept there was a mention of sustainability or some ecologically derived concept.”

      The Marxist left does in fact have a prescription to these problems. In fact they (and I) will go as far as to tell you that the focus on sustainability is a meaningless feel-good liberal buzzword and that actual ecological and climate solutions/damage management will require increasingly strict centralized control.

      The people who are at a loss for solutions are the people who don’t want to use Marxist or more broadly “big government” solutions for whatever reason. Their best plan is, I shit you not, geoengineering helmed by public-private firms. And it gets much worse from there, starting with the focus of sustainability starting with the individual.

      • Rich Puchalsky July 23, 2017 at 11:54 am | #

        That is why Marxist states with strict centralized control have done so well ecologically.

        • Deadl E Cheese July 23, 2017 at 12:06 pm | #

          Go on. Tell me what a non-Marxist paleoliberal climate change solution would look like. Remember, you also have to account for the industrialization of the global south and for the fact that a lot of the trauma from climate change is already going to be ‘baked in’.

          • Rich Puchalsky July 23, 2017 at 12:09 pm | #

            I’m a left anarchist, not a paleoliberal. If you want my ideas on how the left should be thinking about this, I posted a link down thread. If you want my ideas on how we’d have to operate within the existing nation-state system, a link is here:


          • Deadl E Cheese July 23, 2017 at 12:15 pm | #

            I read that dumb link of yours and it’s typical paleoliberal, or more to the point, hippie hogwash that’s purely aspirational and has no policy prescriptions other than ‘we must devalue the need work by [citation needed]’. I put it in the same category as paleoliberals claiming that we can solve our climate crisis with as-yet-undefined geoengineering, though at least they have a scientific underpinning for their beliefs.

            I mean, I admit that my more statist ‘seize control of the means of production and force people to live with vegetarianism/automobile demobilization/deindustrialization’ lacks the part where we get political power, but your solution not only lacks that but also a mechanism of how to get to your endgame once you do have it.

  4. Rich Puchalsky July 23, 2017 at 11:53 am | #

    Here are my ideas on what the left should be about:

  5. David Green July 23, 2017 at 11:56 am | #

    The stock market makes a mockery out of the notion that savings=investment; the real economy suffers while the casino-Ponzi scheme supposedly provides for retirement, while presenting a systemic threat to the real economy. And then the Ms are told that the perfectly sound (although flawed in some ways) transfer system that is Social Security is somehow unsustainable. And of course that federal debt is “bad” and private credit/debt is “good.”

  6. Chris Morlock July 23, 2017 at 12:12 pm | #

    The problem is the catalyst to realignment. Every swing towards working class advocacy and action had some kind of horrible event to trigger it. We might of had our generational chance in 2008 with the financial collapse. What will cause a Sanders or someone else to push through and have the kind of mandate and power they need to swing that pendulum back to some level of sanity?

    That’s why I now consider Obama to be Judas. It’s as if FDR came into power in 1933 and squandered the opportunity for the New Deal, where would be we then? Maybe speaking German,

    With the market up, the crisis seems like it’s been abated temporarily. Another bubble? A national crisis? A World crisis? Presidential power is based on crisis.

    • Deadl E Cheese July 23, 2017 at 12:20 pm | #

      Much like stagflation in the 70s (though our current situation is morally and materially significantly worse than then) the economy for the <20% is already in crisis mode. It just lacks an exogenous event that people can point to and go 'see, so and so is bad for the economy'.

      But like stagflation, even if Trump doesn't experience a discrete recession or inflationary spike, the die is already cast for change. That said, I am fairly certain that Trump is going to experience a recession if he serves out four years due to how high household debt is.

      • Chris Morlock July 23, 2017 at 4:08 pm | #

        I agree there is an existential threat to the working class (including working poor) and things are worse now than in the 70’s, but maybe not as bad as 1929. The problem is there is no existential threat to the plutocratic class, they are doing better than ever. Unless we get an existential threat to the oligarchy, the realignment can be constantly put off, maybe forever.

        The depression and the hyper-inflation of the 70’s did hit them hard. They needed change as much as we did. Now the opposite is true. The crisis I speak of necessary for peaceful political change is an economic one that hits all levels, just like 2008.

        So maybe this realignment is kicked off more like 1917.

        • Deadl E Cheese July 23, 2017 at 9:17 pm | #

          “The problem is there is no existential threat to the plutocratic class, they are doing better than ever. Unless we get an existential threat to the oligarchy, the realignment can be constantly put off, maybe forever.”

          If the assent of the plutocracy is needed for them to electorally allow a re-alignment, then they can enjoy the inevitable revolution instead. Either that, or the plutocrats can either deploy their death drones and herd us all into Morlock camps. I mean, the current situation is unsustainable in the medium-term. Remember, people are so pissed off that Trump of all people is President. And it can get much worse than it is right now. We haven’t even had the inevitable recession yet, let alone a bungled war or major (American) climate change disaster.

          • Chris Morlock July 23, 2017 at 10:31 pm | #

            Morlock camp? Does it have smores and fireside songs?

          • jonnybutter July 24, 2017 at 5:37 pm | #

            Morlock camp? Does it have smores and fireside songs?

            Morlocks are drone-slaves who live underground and do all the work for the idle class- and occasionally eat them I believe. HG Wells’ “The Time Machine”.

    • Michael Fiorillo July 24, 2017 at 2:36 pm | #

      Thank you.

      I tried to make the same argument commenting in the previous post: for me, Obama’s “destiny” (a word he frequently used regarding himself when younger, according to Garrow’s recent biography) was consummated in his intentional avoidance of the political opening that existed in 2008. Everything we know about how he responded to the crisis confirms that, and whatever else he might have accomplished is overshadowed by it.

      Obama was groomed/groomed himself to be that Judas, and it’s a recurring motif in his career (recall Adolph Reed’s prescient characterization of him in 1996): the ambiguous post-Columbia years leading to his self-branding/marketing beginnings as a community organizer, to Harvard Law (’nuff said), to the state senator who was a reliable broker for the local real estate and political interests driving his nominal constituents out of the city… to TARP, Geithner, bankster impunity, etc.

      His greatest achievement as President, from the Overclass’ point of view, was his thwarting and harmlessly diverting the “dangerous” potentialities – think the worker/UE takeover of that window factory in Chicago right after the 2008 election – of that moment.

  7. jonnybutter July 23, 2017 at 1:17 pm | #

    So we let this generation die. We bury them, without having even the decency to perform an autopsy or deliver a eulogy.

    Hell, they often get blamed for their own demise.

  8. jonnybutter July 23, 2017 at 1:21 pm | #

    er, I mean to say they *constantly* get blamed for their own demise, of which the WaPo article is an example

  9. TVeblen July 23, 2017 at 3:01 pm | #

    Actually, household debt service payments as a percent of household disposable personal income peaked at 13.2% (2007Q4) and is currently at 9.98% (2016Q4) which is lower than (1980Q4) and near the secular low of 9.88% (2012Q4). The deeper problem is how workers are ever going to capture the measured (and unmeasured) labor productivity gains of the last thirty years such that American workers have already paid for the raises they never got. Not exactly sure how you could have an ecologically sustainable widespread increase in aggregate demand, but that is surely not an option in today’s political economy even though “infrastructure” is used by pols as the substitute word. Another political economic problem is that most workers do not have “defined benefit” retirement programs and thus are financially and psychologically tied to bond and stock markets that they may want nothing to do with. However, the political class is totally incapable of addressing economic insecurity in any meaningful way. But I’m being way too naive to believe that they could or would.

    • Deadl E Cheese July 23, 2017 at 9:12 pm | #

      “Actually, household debt service payments as a percent of household disposable personal income
      Way to declare that the elephant is, actually, a saber-toothed tiger simply by only looking at the tusks.

      Total inflation since the peak of the financial crisis is only a little over 10%.

      From Wikipedia: Paul Krugman wrote in December 2010: “The root of our current troubles lies in the debt American families ran up during the Bush-era housing bubble. Twenty years ago, the average American household’s debt was 83 percent of its income; by a decade ago, that had crept up to 92 percent; but by late 2007, debts were 130 percent of income.

      Relevant graphic:

    • Deadl E Cheese July 23, 2017 at 9:19 pm | #

      “Actually, household debt service payments as a percent of household disposable personal income peaked
      You are looking at the wrong indicator. Your logic is like looking at the composition of household debt shifting away from housing to college and auto debt and concluding that there’s no nascent housing crisis.

  10. Eric Saunders July 23, 2017 at 3:18 pm | #

    A new socialism for the 21st century should be based along the lines of MMT and the work of Steve Keen and Michael Hudson. Big banks should be broken up and/or speculative profits taxed heavily… Massive debt jubilee. QE on nat’l, state, and local levels for a green New Deal.

    I would also add that C.Wright Mills had many constructive ideas in The Causes of World War 3. JFK tried to actually implement him whether he or anyone in the admin was familiar w/CWM, I don’t know. LBJ did not do so.

    • Chris Morlock July 23, 2017 at 10:47 pm | #

      I’m going to have to read up on some of those references, but my initial ideas about how to base the new pendulum swing to the left in terms of economic issues is to simply copy FDR Democrats of the past. That’s why I find Sanders so compelling- he is basically just a simple FDR dem. Noam Chomsky in an interview recently pointed out this kind of conservative social democrat was now considered “radical” in American politics. Even though Eisenhower would not have blinked at his entire platform, he would have been one of many voices.

      The key for me is to forget many of the 1960’s social Liberalism and definitely reject the 70’s and 80’s neo-liberalism. 1930’s FDR New Deal dems were nationalistic, had extreme class warfare ideology, and exuded confidence in the working class and advocated for it effortlessly. All of that is missing from the weak minded identity politics neo-liberals, constantly apologizing for oppression while pushing hopelessly oppressing free market economic policies.

      I feel like most Americans are what their grandparents were in 1930-1940, hard working socially conservative people who feel they are owed education and healthcare and a decent level of life from hard work. Leave the God, Gays, and Guns at the door and allow diverse opinions on those issues and focus on advocating American society from a class level. Forget the identity politics and practically everything to come out of the 1960’s.

      • Deadl E Cheese July 23, 2017 at 11:37 pm | #

        I don’t think that the New Deal Liberalism of FDR is going to do the trick. People, for better or for worse (mostly better) expect much more out of the government today than FDR or even the articulating LBJ was able to put together during their Presidencies. Granted, New Deal Liberalism would be a huge improvement over the last 40+ years, but it’s not in of itself going to solve the simmering problems of a bloated military, lopsided OECD demographics, and above-all-else climate change.

        If the most compelling vision of the future is ‘McGovern, but with modestly less racism and war’, that will be enough to win elections and maybe even get to a majority, but it won’t permanently put neoliberalism to bed.

        Granted, I am a democratic socialist and a MMT-style post-Keynesian, so I think that any reconstructive coalition will have to incorporate those things. But I also feel that a reconstructive opportunity shouldn’t be squandered rehashing old fights from the 70s-80s.

  11. lazycat1984 July 24, 2017 at 11:00 am | #

    The mechanisms of control are too pervasive. People are apathetic or dispirited. The US and the west are headed toward a third world two tier society. Ecological degradation will just make the dystopia complete. The only hope is not ‘working within the system’ incrementalist politics, but the prospect that the Archons will crash the system into a brick wall out of pure stupid hubris. Which is not at all unlikely.

  12. b. July 26, 2017 at 12:57 pm | #

    The “investor class” managed to blame FASB 157 for the housing bubble and get Congress to revert it, which was the decisive measure to “save” many of not most financial institutions from having to report

    I am rather confident that the same congressional-financial-industrial complex will be able to railroad negative interest rates and “bail-in” subordination of deposits to stockholders as a replacement for deposit insurance to make sure that “saving accounts” stay as captured as the monthly 401(k) “buy-in” into a market that is all risk, no return over any horizon shorter than 12 years. Savings accounts are no more a safety net than pension funds. Taibbi’s story on the upcoming GSE “reform” illustrate well how the US system of corporate and national governance will convert any crisis into an opportunity for further profit extraction from public and individual funds. If the abolition of cash will be necessary, it will certainly be attempted.

    Nothing more needs to be said about a political class in which a septuagenarian is the most believable candidate to represent the youngest generation of voters. There is a 50 year gap here, and Obama’s evisceration of the Democratic Party in his preventive war on competing candidacies for 2012 and beyond was merely the end of a long, depressing period of political cannibalism in which the ‘stablishment devoured any hint of alternatives in a futile attempt to appear respelectable to an imaginary and off-balance “center”.

  13. b. July 26, 2017 at 1:07 pm | #

    “Medicare for All and free college [..] don’t touch the fundamentals of the economy.”

    You lost me there. The Student Loan/College Tuition Bubble is, after mortgages and car loans, one of the most profitable government-sponsored profit extraction scams there is. The absence of an affordable health care not controlled by corporate employers is one of the biggest obstacles to self-employment and small businesses.

    Comparing the US economy to e.g. Germany, one of the biggest differences is the absence or presence of small scale business. Nobody needs “jobs”, not even a functional economy. “Jobs”, like the “Job Training” you rightly deride, are just another con to channel public funds into corporate profits.

    Is an automatic increase of the minimum wage coupled to increases in Social Security payments also not going to “touch the fundamentals”? Mandatory representation of employees on the board of directors of public traded companies? Limiting copyright terms to the duration of patent coverage, and adding a “use it or loose it” proposition to all intellectual property regulations to force unused works into the public domain? Which measures do you think will touch the fundamentals of an economy that is on the brink of the next Great Recession?

    • b. July 26, 2017 at 1:15 pm | #

      Fees on High Frequency Trading?

      The Fundamentals of the economy today are 2000 and 2008. The Fundamentals of the economy today are that the fracking bubble is collapsing at current oil prices. The foundation of today’s economy is a concept of growth that eats tomorrow to barely feed everyone today, as we are entering the age of Peak EROEI, in which growth will first stagnate and then quite possibly reverse.

      If Medicare for All and free college education won’t touch the fundamentals, any conceivable political coalition that could a Congress that could get these passed …will.

  14. Richard H Caldwell July 28, 2017 at 3:37 pm | #

    Your update is right on target. We need a completely new paradigm.

  15. b. January 31, 2018 at 6:36 pm | #

    Not being in the stock market for Great Recession 2.0 – the Obama Rewind – would be the right move, but negative interest rates and the coercive bail-in – deposits converted into stock of financial institutions in receivership – make even the savings account suspect. Non-profit banking in credit unions might be the last out.

    Until the Millennials realize that Launch On Warning, outsized nuclear arsenals, illegal wars to benefit the war profiteering classes at every strata, and the complementary threats from climate change and diminishing EREOI are going to negate whatever unilateral – libertarian? – moves they make to ride it out, nothing will change for them. Show me an anti-war movement based on principles, and I will see a future.

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