The Millennial Generation Is Proving to Be the Most Politically Independent Yet


Elizabeth Nolan Brown

Millennials are poised to be the most politically independent generation yet, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center. Finally, something that makes me proud of my generation! Actually, there's much to like in Millennial viewpoints, from a libertarian perspective.

Millennials—those born between roughly 1980 and 1995 (some say 2000), also known as Gen Y—are largely in favor of marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage. They worry about the surveillance state. They shun stricter gun laws. Anecdotally, I've known a good deal of young, Occupy Wall Street types who are also incredibly concerned with police brutality, free speech, gun rights, drug policy, and other typically libertarian issues. It's not surprising that 50 percent of Gen Y adults now identify as politically independent (up from 38 percent in 2004). 

Millennials aren't necessarily less conforming to political categories than previous generations (who were plenty paradoxical themselves). But we're less likely to suck it up on certain issues in order to self-identify with either major (or any) political party. And, sure, every recent generation has skewed more politically independent when young. But according to Pew, this year's poll recorded the highest levels of political dissatisfaction in the past 25 years.

Philip Bump says it's hard to see how Pew's new survey could be seen as good news by the Republican party. But boatloads of malleable independents can't be bad news, either. Young independents may tend to lean Democrat, but that's largely because the GOP has mucked things up so badly with social issues and is seen as lacking its own vision of health care reform (plus the first Republican leader most of us knew was George W. Bush).

There would seem to be room for Republicans to pick up young independents if they toned down the culture war rhetoric and focused more on areas where Millennials see President Barack Obama and current Democratic leadership as failing (surveillance, drones, drugs, etc.). But, of course, the GOP is eternally reluctant to court more libertarian-minded voters at the perceived expense of evangelicals. 

A few other interesting findings from Pew's survey of 18- to 32-year-olds: 

  • Only 26 percent are married, compared with 36 percent of Gen X in 1997 and 48 percent of boomers in 1980. 
  • About one-third say they're not affiliated with any religion. 
  • Just over half don't believe there will be any money left in Social Security by the time they retire, and an additional 39 percent think they'll get benefits at a reduced level. 
  • Only 32 percent of Millennials say they're "environmentalists," compared to 40 percent of those in older generations.

White Millennials were more likely to prefer a smaller government that provides fewer services (52 percent) rather than a bigger government that provides more services (39 percent). Non-white Millennials were more likely to favor big government (71 percent to 21 percent), which is similar to the racial divide seen in Gen X and boomers, according to Pew.