A comprehensive analysis of the sociopolitical status of the generation known as millennials, those between 18 and 33 years of age, showed some disconcerting trends for fans of traditional American institutions. The millennial generation is the largest generation ever born, exceeding even Baby Boomers, meaning as boomers pass away and millennial come of age America could be on the verge of profound and meaningful change.
Pew’s study came away with six key takeaways, four of which are relevant to this discussion.
Despite facing the bleak prospect of being the first generation in American history to be less well off than their parents, millennials are highly optimistic. Eight in ten of all who were surveyed said they had enough money to live the life they wanted to live. While this may seem crazy on its face, it’s worth considering we’re discussing the generation that is fully embracing the ‘sharing economy.’ Services like Air B & B and Uber allow Americans to travel for cheap.
Optimism shouldn’t be confused with complacency however. The resistance to SOPA and PIPA, the grassroots organization for Bernie Sanders Presidential bid, and the resistance rallies to Donald Trump’s Presidency show millennials are politically engaged and willing to fight for what they want. As they age and face the realities of student debt and mortgages, their political activism will concentrate even more heavily in changing the system.
Millennials are the most racially diverse generation in American history. 43 percent of 18-33 year olds are non-white. This in and of itself is going to reshape the political landscape, as the Republican Party will completely have to shift its platform if it hopes to remain politically viable. But instead of acknowledging increasing minority populations and adapting in earnest, major components of the right coalition has gone the other way, embracing nationalism and xenophobia. Trump has seemingly built a significant minority of these individuals, and it’s tough to see how they transition to increasing diversity.
This split between the moderate right pushing for racial inclusivity and the more radical right pushing for the opposite could cause party realignment in and of itself. It’s not unthinkable to imagine the party splitting and becoming two separate parties. If even 10 or 15 percent of the Republican Party leaves and forms its own, Republicans would undoubtedly have to rework alliances in an attempt to compete with Democrats. A progressive, conservative, and centrist party is easy enough to envisage.
Lack of Trust
Although not inherently a political question, the Pew survey asked how trusting millennials are of other people. The poll found just 19 percent consider people to be trustworthy, this contrasted with 40 percent of baby boomers. This lack of trust surely translates to cynicism towards the powerful elite, and if there’s one political determinant we can make about millennials it’s that.
The information age gives young people a transparent look into the misdeeds and corruption of government, which has shaped their approach to politics. As some older Democrats have noted, these issues just weren’t known about like they are today. Even when the transgressions of CEOs or Big Banks were known about, there wasn’t thousands of articles about them pasted all over the internet in combination with wall to wall news coverage.
This is a recipe for a radical redistribution of social, political, and economic capital. As millennials begin running for office and voting in higher numbers, the formal institutions that dominate America are going to be on the chopping block. Many politicians and older voters take concepts like the banks being too big to fail for granted, which millennials find laughably absurd. Young people are also intensely concerned about climate change, which is going to shape the energy industry in the coming decades.
Lack of institutional attachment
The polls most important finding was that millennials have fewer attachments to traditional political and religious institutions. A shocking 50 percent of all millennials labeled themselves political independents in 2014, up from 40 percent in 2007. This compared to just 32 percent of boomers who embrace the title of independent. In terms of religion, more than a quarter of all millennials don’t identify with a religious affiliation.
The implications are clear and hugely important. Millennials think the system is broken. While they skew significantly left, millennials think the Democratic Party is a defunct organization. For older Democrats, the party has to take in big campaign donations to compete with the litany of billionaires pouring money into Republican coffers. For millennials, Democrats who take big campaign donations are sell outs who represent their funders and not the people.
Younger Republicans have also given a big middle finger to the Republican Party. This has taken shape in a couple different ways. One way is the alt-right movement, which many young conservatives have attached themselves too, that things the establishment is completely corrupt. More moderate millennial Republicans tend to fundamentally disagree with the party on things like gay rights.
This is a development that has the potential to fundamentally reshape American politics. We already see coalitions building among the young. If you divided 18-33 year olds by their broad belief systems, you would probably have to divide it into five groups. There’s progressives who supported Bernie Sanders, alt-right conservatives who want to blow up the system, very moderate Republican types, and Ron Paul/Gary Johnson supporting libertarians.
Now, maybe Democrats and Republicans will find a way to unify these disparate factions, but it’s going to be a tough sell. None of the four groups I’ve listed above are really represented by either political party in Washington, and as millennials get older, they’re going to become increasingly frustrated with that reality and attempt to do something about it.
It’s hard to envision a system with more than two parties in the United States, but the two parties are increasingly failing to meet the demands of young people. If a popular independent candidate were to run and make all the right moves, it’s easy to see how cracks in the system could develop into fault lines and the current party infrastructure could break down. If that happens, realignment will likely include a more Representative government that includes more than two choices.