If you enjoy sweeping studies about arbitrary generational groupings as much as I do, be sure to check out the new Pew Social and Demographic Trends on Millennials. David Frum says the survey is a warning to conservatives. Others worry about the implications of the findings, as well. I’m skeptical. Even if we accept the idea that an entire generation shares a collective aspiration and worldview, the news about Millennials, a group that includes every person born between the years 1981 and 2000, isn’t new or particularly scary. Times change. Every generation has a new set of problems. Human nature is unmoved.
Younger Americans, not surprisingly, have a healthy cynicism towards government, politics, big institutions and even about their fellow man. There is a long-standing social science query that goes like this: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?” And, generally speaking, only 19 percent of Millennials said “yes,” compared to the 31 percent of GenXers, 37 percent of “Silent Generation” – otherwise known as the folks who fought World War II — and 40 percent of Baby Boomers.
A heartening response. Since we’re generally speaking, it’s worth pointing out that we GenXers (everyone born between 1965 and 1980) had the capacity for critical thinking wrung from our souls by conformist authoritarian-loving Baby Boomers (everyone born between 1945 and 1965) – and this includes teachers, politicians and the producers of all the sanctimonious television sitcoms of my childhood.
Don’t worry, you’ll have GenX to blame for all your shortcomings.
Yes, Millennials, like young people through the ages, are more apt to believe in quixotic solutions for society’s troubles. In other words, more of them are liberal. But when asked specifically about the state’s role in society, white Millennials favor a smaller government that provides fewer services over a bigger government that provides more services. Non-white Millennials, by a wider margin, prefer bigger government that provides more services. This mirrors the split we see in all other generations. Millennials also consider themselves political independents. That’s a growing trend in every generational subdivision. I have confidence that once this fresh generation is tasked with cleaning up the colossal government-generated fiascoes we left them, many will undergo a serious change of heart. Political affiliation isn’t static, after all, and neither is the world that informs an individual’s views.
We also learn that Millennials are less religious. Perhaps we’re destined to be a more secular nation, we will surely be more diverse, but remember that Americans become more religious as they grow older. According to another Pew survey, 34 percent of older Americans say religion has grown more important to them over the course of their lives and only four said it was less.
Millennials are also, as I first learned though media reports, “digital natives,” or as Pew explains the “only generation for which new technologies aren’t something they’ve had to adapt to.” Which is really silly. Weren’t the Gen-Xers the only generation that didn’t need to adapt to microwave ovens and televisions? And weren’t the Baby Boomers the only generation that didn’t need to adapt to cars and telephones? Guess what? We’re all natives of technology.
And, like all other generations, Millennials believe they’ve got it pretty rough. They have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty, and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than Gen Xers or Boomers at the same stage of their “life cycle.” They have a higher level of formal education — a third of older Millennials (26 to 33) have a four-year college degree. Most will get married later, yes, but their life cycles will be longer. They’ll experience far healthier ones, live with less pain and fewer diseases. They’ll have more consumer choices, live in a more productive economy, travel more, see more, and know more. The dollars they do spend will bring back more in return. Just like every other generation before them. That might be why, despite their supposed skepticism, Millennials are slightly more upbeat about America’s future than GenXers, Boomers, or Silents.
Granted, one isn’t jaded overnight. Millennials will, once they get older, grumble about how America is screwed. They’ll be voting in the most important elections of their lifetimes many more times. They’ll complain about Generation Z’s crummy work ethic and romanticize their own sports heroes and cultural achievements. But our best hope is that they’ll stop hanging catchy nicknames and junk social science on the next generation.
David Harsanyi is a Senior Editor at The Federalist and author of the forthcoming The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy. Follow him on Twitter.