NowUKnow examines millennial minds and issues, informed by research data, expert opinion, and reportage about the professional and personal lives of Generation Y.
We know the millennial generation is the most liberal in the modern era — but, beyond that, familiar categorizations fail. Frustrated analysts have described millennial politics as a smorgasbord of paradoxes, self-opposing beliefs in constant metamorphosis, or, simply totally incoherent.
Millennials don’t seem too worried about it. Numerous studies have shown that traditional institutions that have organized and labeled people in previous generations hold far less sway with them. Only about half of millennials identify themselves as a patriotic person compared with 64 percent of GenXers, 75 percent of baby boomers, and more than 80 percent of the Silent Generation, a 2014 Pew Research Center survey found.
Half of millennials describe themselves as political independents and nearly 30 percent say they are unattached to organized religion, according to the survey. Millennials are at or near the highest level of political and religious disaffiliation ever recorded by the center.
They are known as the unclaimed generation. Just 31 percent of millennials say there is a great deal of difference between the Republican and Democratic parties, the study found. Yet according to national exit polls, the young-old partisan voting gaps in 2008 and 2012 were among the largest in the modern era. The youth vote was pivotal in Barack Obama’s first presidential election.
“While they state they have no strong attachment to either party, they are voting Democratic,” says Jeff Gulati, Bentley University associate professor of political science.
In 2012, however, millennials became less involved and impassioned, he says.
In a national survey conducted before the last presidential election by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, only 61 percent of college-age millennials were registered to vote, and less than half said they were certain they would. The opinion divide was also fairly even: 48 percent wanted a Democratic win and 41 percent a Republican.
“It’s a pendulum swing we’ve seen with millennials,” says Gulati. “Young voters are up for grabs.”
They speak an entirely different language than the tired utterances of their elders, according to the Reason Foundation, which recently released its own national poll.
Describing millennials as political non-aligners, Emily Ekins, director of polling for the foundation, notes: “This is a generation raised on the Internet’s horn of plenty; 150 cable channels plus video-on-demand, 50 ways to classify your sexual identity on Facebook, and a heck of a lot more than 31 flavors of ice cream. How can just two measly political choices, whose origins predate the Civil War, win millennials’ fickle brand loyalty?”
Millennials are the most liberal voting bloc in a long time but not at all predictable, especially when it comes to fiscal policy.
Millennial support for economic reforms is notable in multiple surveys — for instance, six in 10 say the gap between rich and poor is one of the biggest problems in the country. And nearly 70 percent say the government should get involved and do more to reduce that gap, found the 2012 Public Religion Research Institute survey. But in multiple studies, including that one, millennials consistently express concern about too great a role of government.
Derek Thompson at The Atlantic notes that when you look at the Reason Foundation and Pew studies, millennials are all over the map when it comes to fiscal policy. Sixty-five percent want to cut spending and 62 percent want to spend more on infrastructure and jobs. Fifty-seven percent want smaller government with fewer services and 54 percent want larger government with more services, if you don’t mention taxes. Forty-two percent think socialism is preferable to capitalism but only 16 percent could accurately define socialism.
They view cultural issues as central to their identities, according to the Reason Foundation study — and they surprise in this arena too. Of all the age groups, millennials are the most supportive of same-sex marriage. Fifty-one percent support gay rights as compared with 37 percent of GenXers. By a wide margin, they support the legalization of marijuana, and a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, found the Pew study.
But their views on gun control and abortion are no more liberal than previous generations. Nearly half of them say it’s more important to protect gun rights than control ownership — and only 54 percent say abortion should be legal in all cases, which is less than GenXers. They are less likely to consider themselves environmentalists than any other generation, according to the Pew survey.
“You see with abortion there is not a large gap in support although that tends to be associated with religious beliefs,” says Gulati. “It may be they are shunning the institutions and acting on their own ethics.”
Although barely half of millennials look to organized religion for guidance, 62 percent say they talk to God, suggesting they are more spiritual then sectarian, according to a recent survey by the Integrated Innovation Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.
It appears millennials are creating their own value system. For instance, nearly 90 percent of millennials say they have a strong work ethic in Bentley's PreparedU survey — even though barely three quarters of adults from older generations agreed.
Does it make you wonder if the generations are just not on the same wavelength?
In September, Nick Gillespie and Ekins, co-authors of "Generation Independent" in a recent copy of Reason magazine, held a seminar in Los Angeles called, “Why Millennials Aren’t Listening To You, and What You Can Do About It.” What a generation, they say, among other things, so filled with contradictions — more democratic as voters but more politically independent than any other cohort.
In a joking manner, they ask: “Will we ever understand them?”
All evidence points to one fair conclusion: We must all learn how.