Talkin’ Bout My Generation

February 19th, 2009 at 9:56 pm | 6 Comments |

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The affronts of punditry and the commentariat have left us bruised and battered. Assailed as the “dumbest generation” and a group of “narcissistic praise hounds”, view under-30s suffer from regular assaults on their integrity, work ethic and intelligence. But how does the world look to someone born in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and how do conservatives appeal to “the generation that only takes ‘yes’ for an answer”? The fact is that these two questions are double-helixed: conservatives can only appeal to a segment of the population if they take the time to understand its circumstances. As such, I will be embarking on a series of articles that I hope will present some insight into the world of ‘the millennials’.

One of the most distinguishing factors of the millennial generation is its demographic diversity. Today’s youth are increasingly multicultural, and are more likely to have grown up in racially-diverse neighborhoods. The once-universal nuclear family faces competition from an array of different childhood circumstances, such as single-mother households, single-father households and separated parents. In 1972, nearly 85% college freshmen reported that they grew up in a household with two parents. In 2006, that number dropped to around 70%.

As a demanding age group, we figure that since we can customize our virtual profiles, cell phone ringtones and desktop backgrounds, our employment can be customized as well. Indeed, loyalty and lifelong employment are vestiges of the past, abandoned for flexibility, mobility and an insistence on perks. In a recent CBS interview, 20-something employment consultant John Dorsey summarized the generation’s employment outlook: “I remember my dad getting laid off… and that’s ‘cause [he] sacrificed for the company… I sure don’t want to do that. I’m going to be in it for me and I’m going to make it work.” As employees demand more and more while offering less and less, some large firms have hired people like Dorsey to tell them how to keep recent college graduates motivated and faithful. Not only are demands high, but fidelity is diminishing – 70% of youth under 23 are very or somewhat likely to leave their employer within the next year, whereas this figure was only 52% in 1977.

For all the insults heaped upon my generation, the least I can say is that we’re not lazy. In fact, there is no significant difference in the number of hours worked compared to similar age counterparts in 1977. However, there is also no sign that we’re more earnest or diligent with our work. Instead, my generation is very particular about the type of work we would enjoy doing – jobs with few responsibilities. Today, only 60% of youth under 23 desire a job with more responsibility, a figure that was 80% just ten years prior.

While our demands for the perfect job accumulate, the degree that was supposed to be our ticket there is rapidly diminishing in value. Over the past decade, the price of a degree approximately doubled, while the earnings of those with bachelor’s degrees have either become depressed or remained stagnant. Where once a college degree meant guaranteed employment, it is now seen as a basic requirement. With a college degree now necessary but nowhere near sufficient, it is no wonder that youth consider the improvement of the educational system as their top priority.

David Frum argues that a defining feature of the 1970s was the collective abandonment of the taciturn American, replaced by a ‘let’s talk about me’ society. This, of course, lingers on today in the form of endless Facebook status updates and Twitter ‘tweets’. Intuitively, one would think that an individualistic ethos would align nicely with conservative values of self-reliance and less government intervention. However, conservatism means more than promoting one’s self-interest – after all, a corollary to individual freedom is a responsibility to give to private charity. And as we can surmise from my generation’s approach to employment, responsibility is not high on our list of priorities.

On political attitudes, we’re a generation bred by Bono’s cries for government-led social justice. Gen-Xers clamber for international aid over charity, government transfers over voluntarism, and welfare over community. Youth are more than willing to engage in the cacophonous shouting and the whiny griping, but are far less interested in the ‘doing’. Only 38% of 18-25 year olds believe that good citizenship entails special responsibility, while on the other hand, about 70% prefer a “bigger government providing more services” over “a smaller government providing fewer services”. We believe that we should work for ourselves, but also think that government should take from us to work for others. Me first, but please, U2.

Lest this article become pessimistic, there are some slightly more encouraging indicators for Republicans looking to woo millennials. While it’s true that youth are deserting our party in numbers not seen since before Reagan, it is good to know that they’re not becoming Democrats (at least not yet), but rather identifying as independents. In other words – the current situation is salvageable.

Moreover, free market ideas have the potential to return Republicans to prominence amongst youth, especially since youth have the greatest propensity of any age group to think that ‘business strikes a fair balance between profit and the public interest’. Interestingly, while many see young Americans as ardent anti-war pacifists, 18-29 year olds were the most belligerent age group in the lead-up to the war in Iraq. Much like in the late 60s, when youth in their twenties were the most likely to suggest that the U.S. government did not make a mistake by intervening in Vietnam, a March 2002 Pew poll showed that a substantial majority of youth (69%) were in favor of military action in Iraq.

While ‘developing a meaningful philosophy of life’ was the dominant objective for college freshmen throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s (in 1967, nearly 90% of people considered this essential or very important), the number of college freshmen who feel this way have dropped by about half. In a nod to family values, raising a family has become the most important objective of college freshmen over the last five years, ranking above ‘being very well off financially’.

Despite this, however, many of the of tenets of social conservatism are less applicable to a generation experiencing lower levels of teenage pregnancy, flat or decreasing levels of substance abuse and lower rates of crime. There is not much appetite for the criticism of permissive social elites or any calls for a crackdown on crime, since it’s less relevant to our current environment. Instead, any Republican appeals to youth will have to address the issues viewed as most pertinent to them: an improved and affordable education and, upon graduation, an economy that will allow for flexible jobs and social mobility.

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6 Comments so far ↓

  • sinz54

    One way to reach the Internet generation, is to put the Internet in historical perspective, to elucidate conservative views of the economy: It was the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency that did the basic research on computer networks that would ultimately lead to the Internet. The Government was also involved in the creation of basic infrastructure–it built the first successful national network, the ARPANET, in the 1970s. Having proven the research concepts through working infrastructure, the Government then got out of the way and allowed the private sector to run with the Internet. The Internet is now a testament to capitalism–anyone can set up a website cheaply, and offer products and ideas. And anyone can access that website. It, along with the Interstate Highway System (which was launched by Republican President Eisenhower), are a good example of how a progressive GOP can help America by doing basic research and applied research, and by giving the private sector the basic tools it needs.

  • sw

    very interesting. As the mom of a 20-yr-old, I agree that social conservative issues carry almost no weight with this demographic… but common sense does. While growing up, my son saw divorce, substance abuse, bad parenting, and generalized self-indulgence destroy many families we know; he doesn’t need a lecture, he’s seen it with his own eyes. Right now he can’t get a private-sector student loan, because immature, self-indulgent adults couldn’t control their own sense of entitlement, had to have houses they couldn’t afford, etc. I hate that our kids have to come of age in such a grim world; but, to quote the other Buffett, “it’s our own damn fault.”

  • ireign

    I think the failure to find WMD’s in Iraq and the insurgency in Iraq turned this from a fairly conservative generation to a pretty liberal one. As a older member of this generation, I find it troublesome the way that past generations have characterized it.

    Accomplishments: (1) Fighting two major wars, (2) More dedicated to higher level education than previous generations despite the massive tuition hikes that are constantly being implemented by the baby-boomers. (3) Much less job security than our parent’s generation with considerably more competition for jobs from places such as India and China in what Tom Friedman termed a “flat world.” (4) More hours demanded in white-collar fields such as law, investment banking, consulting, medical, etc.

    As for what Republicans can do to appeal to the 18-29 demographic, here are just a few ideas added on to your list:

    (1) Create a more realistic drug policy. Jails overcrowded with many petty pot dealers. (2) Lower the drinking age to 18 to deal with reality. Most college freshmen drink illegally. (3) Do something to bring down the cost of education for everyone rather than having tuition increases combined with increased financial aid that leaves upper-middle class teens struggling. (4) Some level of fiscal discipline. It is difficult to really regulate executive comp. but there have to be at least some possible solutions to do something. No one wants to see a world in which there are thousands of layoffs of high-skilled workers while the CEO is getting a $20 million dollar bonus.

  • Kaz

    This generation is lost, but I know how to win the next generation over. Socialize grades. From each, to each.

    Even grade school kids will see the immediate unfairness of punishing work and responsibility in order to support the lazy and irresponsible.

  • nealjking

    “18-29 year olds were the most belligerent age group in the lead-up to the war in Iraq. Much like in the late 60s, when youth in their twenties were the most likely to suggest that the U.S. government did not make a mistake by intervening in Vietnam, a March 2002 Pew poll showed that a substantial majority of youth (69%) were in favor of military action in Iraq.”

    Maybe this just proves that the 18-29 demographic were easy to fool. And, how do those same folks think about the Iraq war NOW?

  • sinz54

    ireign: I like a lot of your ideas. I always believed that the Government should be awarding scholarships, not loans, to poor but bright students entering college. Giving students loans just encourages them to think that they can live on debt after they graduate too. And in a poor economy like 1974-75 or 2009, students will graduate with a mountain of debt but poor job prospects, forcing them to live off their parents, usually. I also agree with you that the Government needs to have a more realistic attitude about 18 year olds smoking a joint or having an alcoholic drink. But the GOP also has to have a more realistic attitude about premarital sex. It’s not the job of a modern political party to scold young people about sex–especially not young people you’re trying to appeal to. It’s really the job of the family to set moral standards for their children. And when Kathryn Jean Lopez of the National Review asserts that birth control is an insufficient method to prevent pregnancy, because what conservatives “really” want is for young people to just have less sex, she is driving away all young people who just want to feel their oats.