The Myth of Enduring Millennial Liberalism
Millennials entered the popular imagination in 2008, when pollsters found people born between 1980 and 2000 were overwhelmingly supportive of Barack Obama for president. While the term had been used earlier, the dramatic election results that year permanently established the new designation. Millennials voted for Obama by an impressive two-to-one margin, 66 to 32 percent, higher than any group other than African-Americans. As a result they were labeled as ideological left-liberals, a solid base for Democratic victories for as far as the eye could see.
This view of millennials as left-leaning was reinforced by the more recent gay marriage debate, where polls found millennials supporting same sex marriage much more than other generational cohorts, at 70 percent, 10 percent higher than the next most supportive generation. As millennials surged this year to become America’s largest generation, this solidified the view of them as Democrats-forever, especially by a media with liberal predilections.
But this characterization has always been a myth.
A Reason-Rupe Poll last year presented a more nuanced view. A majority of millennials did tell pollsters they preferred a larger government with more liberal services. But when asked about such a government if it required higher taxes to pay for the services, 57 percent preferred a smaller conservative government with fewer services. Almost two-thirds not only thought government was usually wasteful but preferred free markets to a regulating government. Yet, substantial majorities supported government to provide for the poor, build public housing, support college education, and guarantee living wages (although the question did not mention the level of government required to achieve such goals).
Two-thirds of millennials did self-identify as moderate or strong liberals on social issues, generally were opposed to government restrictions on lifestyle matters, supported same-sex marriage legalization, and opposed government restrictions on abortion. Yet, as on economic issues, there were qualifications. Only one-quarter of millennials favored legalizing abortion “in all cases,” but most would restrict them only under some circumstances. Even for same-sex marriage legalization, only 25 percent said they felt so strongly about the matter that they would vote against a candidate on those grounds alone, as opposed to 20 percent who would not vote for a candidate who favored such marriages.
Even politically, Pew found that millennials changed over time, being rather evenly split between Democrats and Republicans in the 2000 election, zooming to 53 to 37 percent toward Democrats in 2004, and up again to 62 to 30 percent for Obama in 2008; but they were back down to 54 to 43 percent Democratic in 2014.
Way back in 2010, when the Pew Research Center first popularized the category, millennials were asked open-ended questions about what were the “most important things in their lives.” The five most spontaneously-mentioned priorities were: becoming a good parent (52 percent), having a successful marriage (30 percent), helping others (21 percent), owning a home (20 percent), and living a religious life (15 percent); only then followed by having a high-paying career (15 percent) and having more free time (9 percent). Millennials reported closer relationships with their families and were much more supportive of a responsibility to care for elderly parents than earlier generations. These do not seem to be wildly leftist views.
What is most obvious about millennials is that they are less trusting of individuals and less comfortable with social institutions, including government. A mere 19 percent told Pew in 2014 that most people can be trusted compared to twice that level of trust among seniors that year. Half called themselves independents rather than identifying as Republican or Democrat, compared to only a third of their elders. And while they were three times less attached to institutional religion as seniors, still only 29 percent said they did not belong to a religion at all.
Pew found fewer millennials considered themselves religious, patriotic, or environmentalist than any earlier generation. Still, 86 percent said that they believed in God, although with less certainty than older Americans, and only 11 percent said they did not believe at all. All in all, the only convincing support for the liberal typecast was that only 26 percent of millennials were married compared to 36 percent of Generation Xers and 48 percent of Boomers.
Even the marriage stereotype might be premature. A new forecast by Recent Demographic Intelligence notes that when the oldest of the millennials reached marriageable age in their twenties the economy was just recovering from the Great Recession, a time when all groups were delaying marriage or having children, married or not. Now, as the millennials are nearing their 30s, 59 percent of children born to them had married parents in 2015, which RDI forecasted will rise to 77 percent over the next decade. More are getting married, having children, and buying homes. Pew estimated that while the marriage rate of millennials will remain below earlier generations, in the end only one quarter will remain unmarried.
Why do millennials seem to be settling down like earlier generations, especially when a recent study in Germany by Rachel Margolis and Mikko Myrskyla found that married people with children are sadder than those without? Self-described “Gay Uncle” Brett Berk—who considered himself happier because he and his partner never had children—questioned why so many prefer having children anyway. He concluded that other studies do show that longer-term life satisfaction is higher among those who have children, because at the end they “feel they have accomplished something meaningful.” They “feel supported in their old age by the close community of relatives they’ve created.” Apparently millennials came to the same conclusion.
In sum, millennials seemed perhaps a bit more liberal on social and economic issues than the population but not much. A prediction: as millennials mature they will become increasingly conservative and indeed, with the younger millennial unemployment rate still double the overall rate, will probably even vote Republican in the 2016 presidential election, undermining the myth entirely.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution, and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term and one of his campaign strategists.