Politics & Policy

The Rise of the Anti-Millennial Conservative Millennial

Attendees at YAF’s 2014 National Conservative Student Conference (Image via Flickr)
Young people today are less liberal than their parents were, and that’s good news for America.

The lamentations of older generations about the deficiencies of their children are a hallowed tradition. Everyone, everywhere seems at some point to reach the age where the sight of young people makes them want to mutter, “You kids get off my lawn.” And, let’s face it, Millennials make the anger easy. The stereotypes are clear. Here’s how the New York Times began a much-discussed recent story about the new Millennial workplace:

Joel Pavelski, 27, isn’t the first person who has lied to his boss to scam some time off work.

But inventing a friend’s funeral, when in fact he was building a treehouse — then blogging and tweeting about it to be sure everyone at the office noticed? That feels new.

The Times goes on to describe Millennial traits: “A sense of entitlement, a tendency to overshare on social media, and frankness verging on insubordination.” Oh, they’re also liberal. They’re very definitely liberal. And they’re less religious. Taken together, this means Millennials need praise, demand social justice, disdain institutional religion, and want to work on their own terms.

This much-shared humorous “training video” captures some of the stereotypes nicely:

And it turns out that the stereotypes have a strong basis in real data. Millennials are less religious than previous generations. Perhaps not coincidentally, they show a marked decrease in objective measures such as civic engagement that demonstrate “concern for others” and a marked increase in “self-esteem, assertiveness, self-importance, narcissism, and high expectations.”

For the last 15 years of my career, I’ve been blessed to travel the length and breadth of the country speaking to college students and law students at virtually every class and category of higher education institution, from community colleges to large state schools to the most “elite” Ivies. And I’ve seen the stereotype manifested in the flesh, even by Christian and conservative students.

In one memorable incident a few years ago, I caused a spasm of outrage to sweep a conservative Christian audience when I said they should stop complaining about the brutal hours that dominate early-career life at a law firm, and instead use that time as an opportunity to learn. How dare I upset the work-life balance! There was a palpable sense that even the youngest and most inexperienced attorneys were entitled to experience work on their own terms and no one else’s.

But roughly five years ago, I began to sense a change in the wind. I was encountering not one or two truly counter-cultural students but entire roomfuls of young conservatives who were openly disdainful of the dominant social trends in their peer group. Where their peers demanded participation trophies, these kids threw them in the trash. Where their peers dismissed traditional social conventions, these kids (particularly in the South) were reviving the use of “sir” and “ma’am” in conversations with elders. And most crucial of all, where many of their peers openly and intentionally rejected studying the intellectual and moral foundations of Western civilization, these kids knew more about the Federalist Papers than I did.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that this positive change goes beyond mere numbers.

Indeed, rather than feeling an urge to kick them off my lawn, I found myself amazed by the young people I was meeting at Young America’s Foundation events, at Federalist Society speeches, and at schools such as Colorado Christian University (where I just spoke on Monday). Compared to my 20-year-old or 25-year-old self, they were far more informed, more thoughtful, and more committed to the ideals and principles of the American experiment. I couldn’t tell whether I was sensing a trend or confusing a series of favorable anecdotes with real data. After all, I was hardly speaking to representative audiences with statistically sufficient samples.

It turns out, however, that something is in the air. Something is changing. Meet the anti-Millennial conservative Millennial.

Last week CNN highlighted the results of a paper by Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University. Examining data on 10 million adults from three different prominent social surveys, Twenge found that high schoolers are more likely to identify as politically conservative than they were ten years ago, and that political polarization is higher in the Millennial generation than in Generation X or the Baby Boomers at equivalent ages. In other words, though young people today still tend to be liberal, when you compare like to like — previous generations at the same age — Millennials are trending less liberal than their parents and grandparents.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that this positive change goes beyond mere numbers. It’s not just that there is a budding young conservative counter-revolution, but that it’s in many ways of a higher quality than the conservative movement of my generation. Part of this is the result of generations of work, which has created a better conservative infrastructure on campus. But an infrastructure is worthless without people.

#related#Compare a Federalist Society chapter today with a chapter from 25 years ago. The chapter today will almost always be larger, better-informed, and more effective. Even some of the most embattled campus ministries continue to grow, with campus ministers reporting that adversity has actually renewed their students’ devotion to the Gospel. Interest in the best Christian conservative legal ministries is increasing even as the American legal establishment doubles down on political correctness and social conformity.

To be sure, no social movement is entirely positive, and anti-Millennial conservative Millennials can sometimes be so disdainful of their entitled peers that they engage in gleeful disruption and cause offense merely for the sake of triggering the inevitable overreaction. But this new counter-revolution is ultimately built on devotion to God, enthusiasm for our nation’s founding principles, a healthy respect for tradition and our nation’s most valuable cultural institutions, and hard work.

This revolution won’t be televised, but it will be on Snapchat. In a bleak time — when so many members of the older “elite” have so plainly failed — there is for once true intellectual hope for a new generation of conservatives. They’ve already rebelled against their peers. Now they’re set to rebel against an entire culture.

— David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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