I don’t normally regard myself as a Millennial, possibly because I’m a university instructor and it’s uncomfortable to think of oneself as being in the same generation as one’s students. Truthfully, though, I’m right on the edge. Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times recently declared that, “If you’re older than 34, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you’re no longer the wave of the future.” The article was dated March 12. Damn. I missed relevance by six lousy days.
I think of Millennials as younger siblings, which makes sense because my younger siblings are Millennials. Like a good older sister, my instinct is to take their side when our elders start finger-wagging. Once the elders leave the room, though, I myself can get a little advice-happy. Recent hand-wringing over Generation Y has been giving me that Big Sister feeling.
Elders are worried because, as a new Pew survey suggests, today’s young adults are foregoing traditional forms of human association (religion, marriage, political parties) in favor of laptops and smart phones. Millennials like to forge their own connections. They aren’t terribly interested in the traditional outlets.
The big sister in me feels the urge to point out to these Boomers and older Gen-Xers that when the young eschew traditional community, they are mostly just doing what they have been taught. Consider the mantras that they were bombarded with throughout their youth. Stay in school. Believe in yourself. Have safe sex, which of course meant sex without STDs, but also sex without babies. The emphasis for today’s new adults has always been on self-perfection. Obligations to others were supposed to slide gracefully into the picture at some later date, but for most of them, that hasn’t really happened yet.
Millennials Learned From Previous Generations
Millennials have always been encouraged to think of themselves as little sui generis packages of productivity, stepping out into a world of opportunity. Drowning in advice about maximizing personal potential, they were never taught about putting down roots, or exercising loyalty to clan or creed. In the abstract, they have the magnanimity of the self-consciously privileged. So, for example, they show an impressive willingness to support elderly entitlement programs, given how little they expect to profit from them. In the concrete, though, they like and expect to have their personal preferences catered to, and thanks to Steve Jobs and his entrepreneurial cohorts, they have experienced this to a greater degree than any generation in history.
This may help explain why some see personal convenience as an almost sacred entitlement. University professors all have a good stock of horror stories about the things students think it reasonable to demand of them. I’ve had a student ask if I could make a special trip to campus to discuss his paper on Thanksgiving Day. I’ve had students suggest that it would be entirely reasonable to ask me to find a babysitter for my children so that I could come give them a make-up exam at a time that didn’t overlap with their lacrosse team’s pancake breakfast. Today’s college students seem infused with an untroubled confidence that the whole world is gazing on their blossoming potential with a benign smile and an overflowing eagerness to help. No wonder they’re optimistic about the future.
Many of them have already experienced some rude awakenings, and those who haven’t probably will. They know something about indebtedness and sluggish job markets, but very few appreciate the scale of our nation’s fiscal woes. There will be some bitterness when they realize just how much they’re going to pay for the entitlements their elders voted for themselves. (Perhaps we should rename them “the Cinderella generation” to hasten their comprehension on this point.) Frustration will build as their paychecks remain small, with few promotions on the horizon. The upward mobility that Millennials crave will be elusive, and they’ll scramble to cope. Ten years from now, it’s pretty much a given that they won’t be so burgeoning with hope. Perhaps the day will come when I’ll actually miss the bright-eyed, rose-tinted selfishness of today’s undergraduates.
What Does The Future Hold?
What happens when youthful hope begins to fail? Well, it really depends. Not everyone reacts the same way. Sometimes immature hope melts softly into a more sober maturity; other times it crashes swiftly into despair. Millennials are not well grounded in familial and communal support structures, and this is a serious cause for concern. Support from elders can spell the difference between salutary struggle and self-destructive descent.
Nevertheless, the day will eventually come when they recognize the fragility of their community-less existence. As twenty recedes into the distance and forty looms on the near horizon, they will feel a yearning for rootedness, connectedness and the comforts of home, and their professional and financial disappointments will underscore the value of goods that go beyond money. At that point, Millennials will start trying to reinvent the wheel. Will I sound overdramatic if I suggest that the future of our civilization may depend on their success? And that older Americans might want to get a jump on things by ensuring that helpful resources are ready to hand?
Playing prophet is always dangerous, but at such a juncture it’s almost necessary to try. On the religious front, a familiar story is likely to unfold. The great religions will survive, proving for the umpteenth time that their wellsprings of tradition and spiritual wisdom equip them to speak to every age and every kind of person. Religions that grabbed the spotlight in virtue of their “relevance” or “modernity” will become a historical footnote.
With respect to marriage and family formation, the future is more difficult to read. Millennials have positive attitudes towards marriage in the abstract, but they don’t understand what it is or how to go about it. It’s entirely possible that a self-conscious embrace of exaggerated gender roles might become fashionable a decade or two hence, when the allure of a choose-your-own-adventure love life gives way to a desperate craving for structure. On the whole, that probably wouldn’t be such a bad thing. On the other hand, ignorance also leaves the young vulnerable to more insidious varieties of relationship re-invention. Cult-like communes, harems or sunset-clause marriages might all be possibilities. It’s hard to rule anything out when people are desperate to find some ordering principle for their sexual relationships.
Now is the time, therefore, to start talking up the benefits of conjugal fidelity. Monogamy is chic right now, so that’s a good starting place. But young people are still having trouble with marriage, because they are too quick to demand emotional fulfillment and financial stability, and too slow to volunteer commitment and self-sacrifice. It may not be too late to teach them that good marriages are built, not won or discovered. It’s certainly worth trying.
Arguments About The Size Of Government Aren’t Fruitful
Politically the situation is delicate. Naturally, both parties are eager to woo the young into their camp, but since the young themselves are in a state of flux and transition, it doesn’t seem wise to remodel whole political platforms according to their preferences. (Of course, many of my students have breezily insisted that politicians should be doing exactly that, but I file that suggestion in the same place as the “Thanksgiving Day office hours” idea.)
The path to wisdom might lie instead in the realization that younger voters crave meaning and fulfillment, but don’t identify with traditional political debates about big versus small government. That they have vaguely positive feelings towards government is not really too worrisome; years of broken promises and heavy taxes are likely to remedy that. Still, they may not respond easily to traditional “starve the beast” arguments for small government. They don’t see government as a beast, and in any case, small government is always more appealing to people who have other robust communal resources on which to draw. Millennials are sorely lacking in that regard.
Thus, Republicans should look for ways to re-articulate fundamental truths about human nature in ways younger voters can understand. Opportunity is of course a core Republican value that invariably appeals to the young, but in the years ahead, Millennials may also start to respond to messages about bolstering marriage and family. So long as I don’t present it as an argument against same-sex marriage, I find that my students are extremely sympathetic to the claim that marriage is in trouble, and that this is a serious social problem. At the very least we should be working hard to eliminate marriage penalties in our tax code and entitlement policy, but we should also take pains to foster (and broadcast) a healthy marriage culture among conservatives themselves.
Another good strategy for Republicans would be to aggressively seize the mantle of children’s rights. Democrats of course like to present themselves as the defenders of the innocent, but in the case of children, it’s easy to show how egregiously wrong this is. Young voters are already more pro-life than their parents, and as their own children are born, they may be energized by concerns about the crippling effects of welfare dependency on children, the callous way in which teacher’s unions have sidelined children’s interests in favor of their own, and the general realization that children’s interests have consistently been sidelined in favor of adult benefits, adult relationships, adult professional interests and even adult desires to nurture. Republicans might make some headway by suggesting that perhaps grown-ups should be society’s grown-ups, instead of asking kids to shoulder the burdens of their misguided efforts at self-discovery. This message might resonate with Millennials who are looking for alternatives to the empty ambitions of their earlier years.
Conservatives sometimes lament the way that their political enemies have managed to brand themselves with the good name of “liberty,” while they themselves are left with a label that suggests reactionary heel-dragging. This could become an advantage, however, once Milliennial optimism begins to wither. We may be glad of the chance present ourselves as the “conservers” of faith, family, community and the opportunity to build a better lives for ourselves and our children.
Millennials are still on something of a youthful sugar rush, but for better or worse, this kind of energy is ephemeral. Eventually they will go looking for a more substantive diet. Check the conservative recipe book, and we may find we have a few old standbys that are still very serviceable.
Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas. Follow her on Twitter.