Election 2016

Millennials: Disillusioned, Politically Disengaged, And…Getting More Libertarian!

Majority agrees that "government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem."


The big headlines coming out of a new Harvard Institute of Politics poll of millennial voters (ages 18 to 29) have been that almost half believe the "American Dream" is dead. Just 17 percent think the country is heading in the right direction, versus 44 percent who thinks it's going south and another 37 percent who aren't sure.

Those sorts of findings paint a picture of a disillusioned, despondent group but they only scratch the surface of the poll's genuinely comprehensive and interesting look at millennials. There's actually a lot positive news in the findings, especially from a libertarian perspective. Twenty-five percent classified themselves as politically independent (not leaning toward either Republicans or Democrats) and only 9 percent considered themselves "strong Republican" and 17 percent "strong Democrat."

For all the talk about political correctness and continuing racism on campus, 51 percent agreed with the statement "I feel comfortable sharing my political opinions at my college without fear of censorship or negative repercussions." Just 14 percent disagreed, suggesting that campuses are neither the hotbeds of repression or racism that various people seem to believe.

This bit, with its Reaganite undertones, jumped out at me:


As Reason found in its 2014 poll and analysis of millennials, there's not a huge amount of super-tight philosophical consistency throughout the results. Yes, "government is the problem," but at the same time, large numbers of millennials want more government spending on…well, the things that would come their way (education, health care, etc.).

Yet there is a general ethos that's pretty evident, too. Just one in five are politically engaged and relatively few see political affiliation or even political action as the most important part of their lives. And there's this, too:


I can see why either conservatives or liberals might find such answers disquieting. But from a libertarian perspective, it's inspiring to see that younger Americans are skeptical of the efficacy of government action and diktat. This is broadly consistent with the idea that millennials are growing up in a different world than any of us who remember the moon shot or the Cold War did. Theirs is a crypto-libertarian, decentralized, and DIY world in which most people inherently grok that quality-of-life improvements and self-fulfillment are going to come through commercial and voluntary activities rather than old-fashioned politics and top-down programs.

The poll also sketches out millennial attitudes about work as an expressive activity, rather than simply something you do to earn money so you can enjoy yourself during evenings and weekends. Sixty percent agree that "being successful in a high-paying career" is important to them but 58 percent also agree that having a "job or career that benefits society" is important. Fully 85 percent say it's important that having time spend with family and friends is important, so millennials are neither simply careerist or atomized, trustless drones, either (that latter charge was popular a few years back).

Lord knows that every generation is filled with an effectively infinite number of douchebags (trust me, I'm a baby boomer), but it seems to me that millennials are actually a pretty happening bunch. Yes, they're facing a terrible economy (abetted if not fully a function of stupid 21st policies enacted by Republicans and Democrats alike) and an entitlement-funding crisis that threatens to steal every nickel from them.

As Emily Ekins and I wrote back in Reason in 2014, when it comes to ideology, they definitely lean libertarian in many obvious ways but they remain up for grabs. The best thing that libertarians can do is help them understand that the world they want to live in is one characterized by "Free Minds and Free Markets." We've got the right prescriptions regarding the size, scope, and spending of government, especially if you value a world that is dynamic, individualized, innovative, prosperous, and filled with endless opportunites to leave the world better off than you found it.