Last month Fox News released a poll showing Hillary Clinton leading Bernie Sanders in Iowa by 14 percentage points. But the amazing part of the poll was the generation gap. Among likely caucus-goers under 45, Sanders was crushing Clinton 56 to 34 percent. Among the older voters, Clinton was leading 59 to 24.
When you look at numbers like that you get the impression that this millennial generation, having endured the financial crash and stagnant wages, is ready to lead a big leftward push.
Indeed, a Harvard Institute of Politics poll of Americans 18 to 29 found that 56 percent want a Democrat to win the White House while only 36 percent favor a Republican. The leftward shift is striking even within the GOP. According to the Pew Research Center, young Republicans are much more moderate than older Republicans. Among millennials who lean Republican, only 31 percent have consistently conservative views. About 51 percent have a mixture of liberal and conservative views.
But philosophically millennials are harder to pin down. According to the Harvard Public Opinion Project, 37 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds identify as liberal and 35 percent identify as conservative.
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If you look at how millennials actually live, you certainly don’t see a progressive counterculture. In fact, you see what you’d expect from a generation that lived through a financial crisis, family instability and political dysfunction. You see an abstract celebration of creative transformation but a concrete hunger for order, security and stability.
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, millennials change jobs less frequently than people in other generations. And a study of 25,000 millennials in 22 countries by Jennifer J. Deal and Alec Levenson found that at least 40 percent expect to stay with their current employer for at least nine years. Forty-four percent said they would be happy to spend the rest of their career at their current organization.
Millennials travel and move less than earlier generations. They are less likely to have cars, and their relative lack of driving time is not compensated for by the use of other modes of transportation.
Another glaring feature of millennial culture is they have been forced to be self-reliant and to take a loosely networked individualism as the normal order of the universe. Millennials have extremely low social trust. According to Pew Research, just 19 percent say most people can be trusted, compared with 40 percent of boomers.
This leads to detachment from large entities. Just 32 percent of millennials say America is the greatest country on Earth, compared with 50 percent of boomers. Millennials are very suspicious of organized religion. Thirty-five percent say they are unaffiliated with any religious group, compared with 23 percent of Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980).
Just 26 percent of millennials are married, compared with 48 percent of boomers at that age. Only 42 percent plan to have kids. They are also having less sex. A study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior projected that millennials would have eight sexual partners by middle age while boomers had 10 or 11. According to a survey from the online dating service Match, 49 percent of people in their 20s have not had sex in the past year.
The general impression one gets is of a generation that is stressed, energetic, creative, skeptical and in the middle of redefining, and thinning out, the nature of affiliation. Its members have been thrust into a harsher world where it is necessary to be guarded, and sensitive to risk. They want systemic change but there is no compelling form of collective action available. Their only alternative, which is their genius, is to try to fix their lives themselves, through technology and new forms of social interaction, rather than mass movements.
Their attitudes toward Social Security perfectly reflect this stance. Most millennials expect to see no Social Security benefits by the time they retire. But they oppose reforms to take money away from older workers to distribute it downward. They just figure they’ll take care of retirement individually, often using algorithm-based investment vehicles like Wealthfront.
Politically, this means that millennials may lean Democratic, but unless Barack Obama (or Bernie Sanders) is on the ticket, they don’t strongly attach to the party and it is not clear that they will vote. They didn’t in the 2014 midterm elections. It could be they are more interested in improving their lives by having richer experiences, and not through the sort of income transfers that come out of Washington.
My own guess is that millennials will be a muted political force, at least in 2016. But there will be some giant cultural explosion down the road. You just can’t be as detached from solid supporting structures as millennials now are and lead a happy middle-aged life. Something is going to change.