Crossposted at Future Majority.

As I mentioned the other day, Neil Howe has revisited the politics of Millennials in a report co-authored with Reena Nadler, titled “Yes We Can: The Emergence of Millennials as a Political Generation.” Howe and Nadler examine the political motivations of today’s young people through the lens of the the framework Howe and his late research partner, William Strauss, produced a decade ago. The report, which was released by New America Foundation as a part of its Next Social Contract Initiative, is available in a .pdf file here. This report, and Peter Levine’s report, titled “The Millennial Pendulum: A New Generation of Voters and the Prospects for a Political Realignment,” will be released at an event at the New America Foundation (1630 Connecticut Avenue, NW 7th Floor, Washington, DC). Participants include Neil Howe, Reena Nadler, Peter Levine and Scott Keeter (Director of Survey Research at Pew Research Center), and Hans Riemer (National Youth Vote Director for the Obama campaign and former Political and Issues Director for Rock the Vote).

The first portion of the report rehashes what the Millennial Generation is, how it fits into American history, and the generation’s collective personality. In fact, Howe and Nadler examine the development of the Millennials using the seven adjectives Howe and Strauss used to describe Millennials in their book Millennials Rising: special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, conventional, pressured, and achieving.

Eventually, Howe and Nadler delve into the development of the Millennials’ political personality. Conceding that it is too early to know whether or not the Millennial trend toward the Democratic Party is a sure thing and that Millennials are somewhat complex politicos, often taking hybrid positions, Howe and Nadler label Millennials as “politically and economically liberal but socially and culturally conservative.” The authors compare the politics of today’s youth with the views of “Reagan Democrats,” seeing similarities in each generation’s political orientation.

At first, the conservative label threw me off. I remembered reading in Generation We that Millennials are much more tolerant socially than their elders. For instance:

On race, too, there’s strong trend among Generation We toward seeing race as fundamentally a nonissue. In 2003, almost all (89 per-cent) of white 18- to 25-year-old Millennials said they agreed that “it’s all right for Blacks and Whites to date each other,” including 64 percent who “completely” agreed. Back in 1987–1988, when the same question was posed to white 18- to 25-year-old Gen Xers, just 56 percent agreed with this statement.

Gallup data from a 2005 poll underscore these findings; 95 percent
of 18- to 29-year-olds said they approve of Blacks and Whites dating, and 60 percent of this age group said they had dated someone of a different race. In addition, 82 percent of white 18- to 25-year-old Millennials in 2003 disagreed with the idea that they “don’t have much in common with people of other races.”

But it is their views on sexual preference issues that are perhaps the most strikingly liberal. On gays, the views of Generation We are far more liberal than that of their elders. For example, in a 2007 Pew survey, an outright majority (56 percent) of 18- to 29-year-olds supported allowing gays and lesbians to marry, while the public as a whole opposed gay marriage by a 55-to-37 majority.

Millennials are also concerned about political trends that put tolerance at risk. In an April 2005 GQR poll of 18- to 25-year-olds, 64 percent believed that religious conservatives had gone too far in invading people’s personal lives, and 58 percent thought the country needs to work harder at accepting and tolerating gays, rather than work harder at upholding traditional values.

But Howe and Nadler weren’t necessarily talking about same-sex marriage and abortion (which Millennials do not view either more progressively or conservatively than their Boomer parents). Instead, they were focusing on the Millennial fondness for the family structure. Emphasis is mine.

Millennials are maintaining strong emotional, physical, and financial connections with their families as they enter adulthood. Throughout their childhood and adolescence, they have been more likely than the last two generations to trust their parents, depend on their support, and discuss important personal matters with them. Looking ahead, Millennials also place great importance on starting their own nuclear families. They are less interested than their Boomer parents in reforming family life and discussing (or arguing about) “family values.” Most prefer to take the importance of families for granted and try to make them work. Like older liberals, they support a broad definition of acceptable family structures. Like older conservatives, they believe that strong families are the cornerstone of a stable and livable society.

[…]

Despite this family-oriented “traditionalism,” today’s youth are more likely than older Americans to believe that unconventional families can be just as close and stable as traditional families. Millennials believe that the opportunity to participate in family life is so important that nobody should be left out. This generation is nearly twice as likely as older Americans to favor gay marriage, and they are the only age group that favors allowing gays to adopt children.

Republican youth, as Mike noted earlier this week, like to see a path back to parity among today’s youth in the “socially conservative” nature of Millennials, but as you just read, this proves to be fool’s gold. This isn’t your Republican Boomer parent’s “socially conservative” philosophy.

Furthermore, what Howe and Nadler don’t substantively touch upon is that Millennials are much more apt to think economically when thinking of matters of national importance. Arguments over the fabric of the nation consist not of abortions and the possibility of gays marrying each other, but of the social safety net and entitlement reform. The fiscally liberal Millennials will be placing much more emphasis on defining its pro-government priorities in the budget than on any social viewpoints, especially given the nature of the economic crisis. This certainly counts for something and can’t be overlooked when assessing the next twenty or thirty years of politics.

Howe and Nadler center their report on “ten imperatives” they think will form the Millennial political agenda moving forward.

  1. Strengthen Community
  2. Trust the System
  3. Minimize Personal Risk
  4. Support the Family
  5. Be Upbeat and Optimistic
  6. Make Capitalism Work Better
  7. Champion Unity over Diversity
  8. Favor Realistic and Multilateral World Leadership
  9. Seek Consensus and Decorum in Politics
  10. Plan Ahead for the Long-term

I don’t think any of these would necessarily surprise those of us interested in Millennial political behavior, other than the way Howe and Nadler have Millennials supporting the family compared to our conservative counterparts. One thing to underscore might be the economic liberalism of today’s young people. Again and again, Howe and Nadler point out the pro-government, pro-regulation mindset among the generation, careful to include that Millennials don’t despise business and the markets. Raised amid excessive individualism, Millennials tend to see a group solution to many crises, and so with our global financial crisis, it’s only natural that they look to an institution like the government for solutions.

Looking into the future, Howe and Nadler underscored entitlement reform as something Millennials will use to grab a hold of the political discussion. Howe and Nadler predict that future-oriented Millennials will be the generation with the political ability and will to make tough, sustainable fiscal decisions, reforming Social Security and Medicare.

All in all, Howe and Nadler’s report is a good start. Millennials are clearly already starting to impact our politics in a major way. But I think there’s more that can be said regarding the future agenda for the generation, especially given Howe and Nadler’s prediction that Millennials will coalesce behind one party in a civil, pragmatic way. For example, at what point does the climate crisis begin to supercede entitlement reform as the largest challenge? Will we be recovered from today’s mess in time to deal with that? A great foundation, but I’ll be looking for more to read on this in the months and years to come.

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