The most shocking statistic of all
Millennials as a group have generated quite a bit of controversy. Consider the following quote:
“The children now love luxury; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are tyrants, not servants of the households. They no longer rise when their elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize over their teachers.”
For that pearl of wisdom, we can thank none other than Socrates speaking in the fifth century B.C.E.
My point is that the practice of bemoaning the state of our youth is nothing new. Nevertheless, as the father of two millennials, I do take offence when an author of the caliber of Brett Stephens writing for the New York Times Opinion page states that “the feeling is mutual” regarding the anger millennials feel for the older generations.
It’s easy to point to the ridiculous behavior of some college students as a basis to paint that generation with a negative broad brush, and indeed such generalizations can be very misleading.
Consider that in the late 1960s, an era known for hippies and protests, many college students supported Nixon.
But in fact there are some generalizations we can make about the millennials. First of all, they are very liberal. As David Brooks pointed out, the demographic that defines the support of the various Democratic candidates for President is not income, education or race, it is age. For example, in recent polling, Joe Biden leads among those over 55. For those under 35, he comes in third, generally trailing progressive class warriors Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
The distinction exists not only among Democratic primary voters. According to the Pew Research Center, 57% of millennials consider themselves liberal, while only 12% consider themselves conservative. This ideological difference has had real-world consequences for Republicans. In the last election, millennials favored Democrats over Republicans by a shocking 35 percentage points(!!!!)
Brooks argues that this ideological difference results from the social make-up of millennials. In a sense, he is correct. Millennials are much more comfortable with difference than older cohorts. Remember that most millennials cannot remember an era where anti-LGBT jokes were considered funny, and nobody knew any gay people because they were all in the closet. I remember that era, but my kids do not. Similarly, about 44% of millennials come from a minority background, while only about 16% of older Americans are. As my daughter points out, the average American will be a brown person in the near future. This is the environment in which millennials have come of age.
While their experience with difference does color (no pun intended) their political views, it is not enough to drive the kind of passionate political activism that motivates the “hate” (David Brooks’s word, not mine) they feel for Republicans. Such intense emotion requires something more.
To me, the answer to this question is, as it almost always is, economic. The late great economist Alan Krueger revealed that since 1980, more than 100% of the growth in income has gone to the top 10%. This is a really shocking statistic that we should dwell on for a minute. For the top 10% to have taken MORE THAN 100% of our country’s economic growth since 1980 means that not only have the very wealthy captured all the country’s economic growth since then, but they actually taken some of the income from the other 90%. No wonder people are outraged.
Millennials are the generation for whom this inequality has come home to roost. I am not all that old (51), but I’m old enough to have graduated from a very good state university with no debt, despite limited financial aid and parental assistance. When I graduated, a liberal arts major, my friends and I had little difficulty finding jobs that paid well. I graduated in 1989. Despite the fact that all of the income growth since I graduated has gone to the wealthy, I have still done OK. That is not the case for millennials.
We’re happy to get scraps
Hooray! Wages have gone up slightly! But it’s nothing compared to the CEOs
Just as millennials have come of age in an era of diversity, so too have they come of age in an era of economic upheaval. They may not remember the boom times of the 1990s, but they certainly remember the recession following 9–11, and the terrifying Great Recession of 2008–2009. Despite being the most highly educated generation, they struggle under unsustainable debt, especially in light of the limited job options available to many of them. Indeed, millennials aren’t the only ones who think their economic circumstances are dire. According to Pew, nearly 70% of all Americans, across all generations, say that today’s young adults face more economic challenges than their elders did when they were first starting out.
This problem is what is playing out politically. Consider who millennials support in the Democratic primary: the most combative critics of economic inequality Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. This is true despite Bernie’s weak record on some social issues, including gun control and race. Meanwhile, millennials have responded less enthusiastically to candidates emphasizing identity issues such as Kirsten Gillibrand or Kamala Harris, and they are decidedly cool to less bellicose candidates such as Biden or Corey Booker.
The truth is that millennials are angry, and justifiably so.
While they have struggled, the older generations such as mine have continued to borrow against their future. But while we may cheer the coming denigration of the Republicans, we should remember that the millennials are not only primed for a class war — they are ready to do battle with the older generations who have mortgaged their future.
If we continue to turn a blind eye to their struggles, we will get the comeuppance we deserve. If, however, we start the process of taking responsibility for what we have done and start to address some of the seething issues we have pushed off to the future, we might stand a chance.
After all, at some point, sooner rather than later, millennials and younger generations — who tend, if anything, to be even more liberal — will be the majority. God help us if we don’t take steps to address their needs now. Unless we take concrete steps to relieve their pain, they will have little sympathy for us when it is their turn to be in charge.
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