Sociology

I'm Not Trying to Cause a Big S-S-S-Sensation

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A story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel suggests that the kids these days have libertarian leanings:

America's Generation Y (born between 1980 and 1995) is the first to have grown up with the Internet, which leaves it the most liberty-loving generation since the era of Andrew Jackson….Millions of Gen-Yers have grown accustomed to making purchases online tax-free. They download movies and music (much of it pirated), read their news online for free (to the detriment of print media), find recipes online and network with friends and relatives online.

In short, they love their freedom.

This love of liberty translates into a unique political composite. Gen-Yers are less nationalistic and more likely to see all politicians as corrupt than older voters. They support liberalization of drug laws and would prefer to see marijuana legalized. And they are much less likely to support restrictions on immigration than older voters. On these counts, they seem to lean left of center, at least as the political spectrum is defined today.

But they are also free-traders, much more supportive of globalization than older voters. They're optimistic, overwhelmingly believing that they can change the country for the better. And in the most recent surveys, they support proposals to privatize Social Security, which few believe will be there for them when they retire. On these counts, they seem to lean right of center.

Sound familiar? If you're older than Generation Y, it should. In 1995, USA Today published a front-page feature headlined "The GenX Philosophy: Many reject politics, lean libertarian." I can't find a copy online, but I did dig up a Libertarian Party press release that highlighted it and similar stories from Rolling Stone and The Wall Street Journal. A decade before that, in 1986, the Cato Institute issued a book called Left, Right, and Babyboom, which set out "to explain just what political analysts mean when they describe baby boomers as economically conservative but socially liberal -- and what that combination of views means for the system." I expect to read something similar about Generation Z sometime before 2020, and a decade after that we'll have similar sentiments about Generation Z+ beamed directly into our heads by wind-powered nanobots.

So the story keeps recurring, generation by generation, whether or not Washington seems to be in retreat. I see two possible lessons to take away from this. The first is just that we should distrust all broad generational generalizations. With a group that large, you can cherry-pick the data to find almost any pattern you want. The serious sociological study of generations can be fruitful, but most essays you'll see on the subject are not serious sociology. Not in the age of snake-oil salesmen like William Strauss and Neil Howe, whose silly cyclical theory of history somehow survives even when their predictions flop. (Read this op-ed they published shortly after 9/11. As an adaptation of their thesis to what the conventional wisdom expected in October 2001, it's brilliant. As a description of the decade that actually ensued, not so much.)

The other lesson, which isn't entirely inconsistent with the first, is that America could be undergoing a wide social shift toward individualism, an evolution of the sort that Ronald Inglehart described in Modernization and Postmodernization. That's why every crop of twentysomethings can be hailed as more anti-authoritarian than the one before it: because the country as a whole is gradually, in fits and starts, moving further from the old order. That doesn't have anything to do with those large, varied, artificially demarcated cohorts that pop philosophers call "generations." It reflects more deeply rooted social trends.

Whether such a pattern will actually translate into libertarian policy, given the countervailing trends that also exist, is another question entirely. Even if it turns out to be true that the people in their twenties now tend to be more libertarian than the people who were in their twenties a decade ago, the country itself obviously isn't as free as it was in 1999. If that changes, it won't be because there's something uniquely individualist in Gen Y's DNA.