Misreading Millennials

The politics of a rising generation

The Millennials -- the teens and young twentysomethings born after 1981 -- are coming of age at a time when American culture's longstanding youth fetish is reaching autoparodic proportions. Adults today may not smoke dope with the neighbor kids like American Beauty's Lester Burnham or throw raging keggers like the over-30 frat boys of Old School, but these pop culture fantasies of regression are symptomatic of an elder generation that often grotesquely identifies with, is fascinated by, and seeks to live vicariously through its offspring.

During the 1990s, federal spending on kids rose faster than spending on seniors or working-age adults for the first time since the 1920s. Yet for all our national obsession with doing things "for the children," there's little agreement on the political character of the largest demographic cohort since the baby boom. The Millennials serve as a political Rorschach test, with partisans of the left and the right each seeing their own proclivities as dominant.

Conservatives can point to a 2002 survey conducted by the University of California at Berkeley, hardly a noted bastion of right-wing bias, that found today's teens are far more likely than adults to support prayer in school, federal aid to faith-based charities, and restrictions on abortion. Or to a recent Newsweek Web piece on "The New Cool" that noted the rise of a conservative sensibility even in self-consciously edgy youth magazines. Or to a study by the Harvard Institute of Politics that found college students supporting the war in Iraq by a ratio of 2 to 1. A much cited (and much ridiculed) piece in The New York Times Magazine even coined the cringe-inducing term "Hipublicans" to describe the new collegiate right.

But it's not clear that even self-identified young conservatives fit their own pigeonhole. Jim Eltringham of the Leadership Institute, which helps right-wing campus clubs and newspapers get off the ground, attributes the growth of campus conservatism to a backlash against the left's hegemony in university faculties.

Today's students bridle against the academic left's assault on America and American institutions, he argues. But this means that many students are really concluding only by process of elimination that they must be "conservatives." It remains to be seen whether the value set driving such a trend is conservatism per se or merely a kind of reactive nationalism.

Those who lean left can adduce evidence of their own to suggest that kids today are good little progressives. According to the Institute of Politics survey, college students' trust in the federal government, while down from its post-9/11 peak, remains 15 percentage points higher than in 2000, a drastic departure from Generation X skepticism. Then there's the case made by Anna Greenberg of the Kennedy School of Government. While their Gen X predecessors were a highly conservative bunch, Greenberg writes in The American Prospect, Millennials have "halted these trends toward Republicanism fairly decisively." She cites their "progressive, populist" attitudes on the environment, gay rights, and affirmative action.

While Greenberg qualifies her conclusions, she also overreaches in inferring a political sea change. She quotes figures showing that today's students are more apt to identify themselves as Democrats than are Gen Xers in their 30s. But since a cohort's views may change as it ages, the comparison is far less revealing than one between the same age group at different times. And Greenberg makes no mention of that Institute of Politics survey, which finds Democratic and Republican self-identification running neck and neck among students at 29 percent and 26 percent respectively. Both parties have lost ground since 2000, with more students now declaring themselves independent, but Democrats have fallen further in the same span of time.

Perhaps the problem is not the data but the models used by partisans. Since our central political metaphor is the left-right spectrum, trends that don't fit well into binary categories tend to be misidentified. To more accurately understand Millennial attitudes, it's useful to dispense with old categories and look at broader cultural trends.

The early 1980s saw the beginning of a significant change in parenting philosophy: Gone were the days when parents were encouraged to seek personal fulfillment, assured that their kids would turn out fine so long as they were given plenty of latitude for their own development. The phrase latchkey kid, a media scare term two decades ago, has all but vanished from the press. Social scientists at the University of Michigan found that from 1981 to 1997, the early childhood years for Millennials, children's unsupervised "free" or "unstructured" time declined by 37 percent.

Millennials are the most doted upon, fussed over, and scheduled generation in living memory. Although far less violent than their counterparts of a decade ago, they have grown accustomed to attending schools that resemble airport security lines. In an article in Sweden's Axess Magazine, William Strauss and Neil Howe, generational studies gurus and authors of Millennials Rising, call today's young adults "America's new conformists," observing that they "believe in security rather than radicalism, political order rather than social emancipation, collective responsibility rather than personal expression."

The defining youth icon of the early '90s was the suicidal Kurt Cobain, the apotheosis of the alienated loner. Now the airwaves are dominated by synchronized, interchangeable boy bands and Gap ads featuring khaki-clad clones. Standing out is out; fitting in is in. As Strauss emphatically says, "This is not a libertarian generation." Gen Xers were stereotyped as politically "apathetic," but as a character in the foundational Gen X film Slackers notes, withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy. Millennials do not withdraw in disgust: They are not only more conformist but more sanguine about politics.

Scott Beale, author of Millennial Manifesto, attributes this attitude in part to the political scandals that shaped the different generations. Other recent youth cohorts recall Watergate and Iran-Contra -- scandals involving institutional abuse of power. But if you say scandal to '80s babies, they're more likely to think of the furor over an intern's position on the presidential staff.

"Millennials," says Beale, "might look at politics and say 'these people suck,' whereas Gen Xers and baby boomers before them were more likely to say, 'Man, these people suck and the system sucks.'" The new attitude may make Millennials dangerously susceptible to that old utopian mantra: "If only we had the right people in charge..." As Strauss observes, boomers and Gen Xers were "raised not to follow Hitler or Stalin; Millennials were a post-consciousness raising generation."

Once those cautionary examples begin to fade, so does the skepticism of power they engendered. Strauss posits that the next decade may see the emergence of a new "middle class populism" if the jobs available as Millennials begin to graduate from college don't match the high expectations set by the tech boom of the '90s.

Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff confesses alarm at the new mind-set he's seen in his visits to American colleges, a trend he half-jokingly describes as "fascism in youth culture." If that characterization seems hyperbolic, we can at least say that Millennials are a highly nationalist and communitarian generation.

Yet Rushkoff does see a way proponents of limited government might appeal to them. Millennials, he points out, are already powerfully engaged in their communities -- they are disproportionately likely to volunteer at the local level -- and highly goal-oriented in their own lives. If they can be convinced to see government intervention as a barrier rather than a supplement to their local activism and personal aspirations, they may warm somewhat to libertarian ideas.

Or perhaps that's just the Rorschach test talking. Although Gen Xers were often accused of being apathetic, their skeptical, ironic, self-sufficient, and entrepreneurial qualities gave them a natural inclination toward libertarian views. Millennials have no such affinity. If their political engagement continues to be shaped by collectivist ideas, many of us may soon be nostalgic for apathy.

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