The Millennial misconception

The Devil's Advocate

“Generations, like people, have personalities,” wrote the Pew Research Center in an introduction to its detailed 2010 report on the characteristics of young voters, “and Millennials — the American teens and twenty-somethings who are making the passage into adulthood at the start of a new millennium — have begun to forge theirs: confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and open to change.”

Indeed, we are quite liberal — at least for now. We are more racially tolerant, secular and open to alternative lifestyles and family structures than any other generation, according to Pew. We came out in force for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

And the fact that we are projected to nearly double as a percentage of eligible voters by 2020 has Democrats buoyant about their political future and Republicans (appropriately) scrambling to become culturally and socially modern. Some commentators have suggested that the rise of the Millennials will contribute to a long-term leftward realignment in American politics.

This may well be accurate. But another reading of the Millennials’ political views is also plausible — one that should be sobering to Democrats still celebrating their 2012 victory. Namely, that Millennials are first and foremost individualists and that our current allegiance to the Democratic Party is merely a product of our libertarian tendencies on cultural issues, not a broad embrace of the liberal vision for the country. There is evidence suggesting that once Millennials achieve our social objectives — when, for example, gay marriage is universally accepted, marijuana is legal and access to birth control is no longer debated — we could move swiftly into the Republican camp.

For example, Millennials are somewhat less likely than members of any other generation to say that the government favors the rich, according to a 2011 Pew study. And on entitlement spending, arguably the most important budgetary issue the government will need to grapple with in the coming years and decades, Millennials are also quite conservative.

A whopping 86 percent of us support some degree of privatization of social security. This is striking when you consider the ease with which Democrats massacred President Bush’s 2005 social security privatization proposal. In the same vein, Millennials are more likely than members of any other generation to prioritize low taxes and deficit reduction over preserving benefits. And 74 percent of Millennials told Pew they support “changing Medicare so people can use benefits toward purchasing private health insurance” — the essence of Paul Ryan’s failed Medicare plan, which Democrats successfully painted as extreme.

Some of the Millennials’ apparent indifference toward strong social insurance programs can probably be explained by the illusion of invincibility that tends to accompany youth. But there is also, I think, a cultural reason — an underlying sense of individualism and that is unique to my generation.

Psychologist Jean Twenge, the lead author of a study on the behavior and character traits of Millennials published earlier this year, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that Millennials have been raised to place “more focus on the self and less focus on the group, society and community.” This culture, she said, “emphasizes individualism, and this gets reflected in personality traits and attitudes.” Among other things, Twenge’s study found that in 1971, college students placed financial success at No. 8 on their list of priorities, but that it has consistently topped the list since 1989.

We also think quite highly of ourselves. As New York Times columnist David Brooks has pointed out, “College students today are much more likely to agree with statements such as ‘I am easy to like’ than college students 30 years ago. In the 1950s, 12 percent of high school seniors said they were a ‘very important person.’ By the ’90s, 80 percent said they believed that they were.”

In other words, the data don’t suggest a generation that should be naturally sympathetic to a progressive, communitarian economic message. I hope I’m wrong, but I doubt the Democrats’ rallying cry that “we are all in this together” will resonate with self-assured, independent Millennials in the long-term.

None of this is to say that the Democrats’ advantage with Millennial voters is limited exclusively to social issues. Millennials are more environmentally friendly, more supportive of school funding and more open to cuts in military spending than older voters.

Nevertheless, it is quite likely that once the Republicans drop their 1950s social sensibilities, many Millennials will be won over by the party’s message of economic individualism. So Democrats, I hate to say this, but don’t count on us.

Contact Jason Willick at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @jawillick.