Magazine | November 17, 2014, Issue

Generation Vexed

(Luba Myts)
The downwardly mobile Millennials may be waking up at last

Blame it on the emojis. In October, the White House announced that it was rolling out an economic-messaging campaign directed at young voters, and the document it produced was laden with emojis, the pictograms originating in Japan that have become a sort of crude lingua franca in the age of instant post-literate communication. The White House’s “15 Economic Facts about Millennials” listicle, clearly based on the BuzzFeed model, failed to impress, among others, the readers of BuzzFeed, who mocked it ruthlessly: “Propaganda has never looked so cute and hip.” Assistant professor Natalia Mehlman-Petrzela of the New School, a young scholar of political culture, argued that “a Millennial could find this tremendously infantilizing.” Raffi Williams, the RNC’s 25-year-old deputy press secretary, added: “The emoji fail is emblematic of a larger issue for Democrats. They have long used celebrities, glamour, and gimmicks as ways to avoid tackling the issues that matter to our generation, namely the economy.” It probably did not help that the first emoji in the report was the self-congratulatory “applause” pictogram. The Obama administration quietly scrubbed the emojis from the final product.

Barack Obama is still in love with the Millennials, as well he should be: They played an important part in putting him where he is, twice, and without them he’d be a nobody also-ran race-hustling backbencher from an imploding state the other 49 would generally prefer to forget about. So he provides the young ones with plenty of stroking, doing Millennial town halls, praising their “start-up culture,” insisting that they constitute “a rising generation of talented, striving, innovative young people,” etc.

But Barack Obama looks his best only when standing next to a Republican who can be caricatured in an endlessly retweeted John Oliver “takedown!” or mocked by the lightly informed Bill Maher. As soon as Mitt Romney was off the scene, Millennials started giving President Obama the hairy eyeball. In a 2013 Harvard survey, 56 percent of them disapproved of the Affordable Care Act, while only 17 percent of them expected their health-care coverage to be improved by it; President Obama’s job-approval rating came in at 41 percent; a majority of those aged 18 to 24 said they’d support recalling the president, who performed even worse than Congress did on that metric. Just weeks before the 2014 midterm election, a Public Religion Research Institute survey found that race, not age, was Obama’s most reliable indicator: A small majority of Millennials still viewed him favorably, but only 37 percent of white Millennials did. Still underemployed, overschooled but undereducated, and earning relative peanuts, Millennials are stumbling toward that boundary identified by William F. Buckley Jr.: “Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive.”

They may communicate with smiley faces and 140-character bursts of text, but Millennials still have sufficient command of the English language to comprehend the fact that they are getting, in the words of an earlier and happier and more fortunate generation, hosed.

After World War II, babies boomed. Toward the turn of the century, they echoed. Like the Baby Boomers, the Millennial generation came up during a time of unprecedented national prosperity. The leading edge of the post-war generation grew up in a world in which the United States was responsible for as much as 60 percent of the world’s manufacturing output — and 61 percent of the total economic output of the developed world. The oldest Millennials were born in the early 1980s, at the beginning of the long boom, with the S&P 500 returning 400 percent in inflation-adjusted terms between the time Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president and the 20th birthdays of the children born that year.

In those decades, Microsoft went from being a scrappy little IBM contractor to a company that made its founder the world’s richest man, and Apple enjoyed the biggest IPO since Ford, while Southwest Airlines saw annual returns averaging more than 25 percent for the 30 years leading to the turn of the century. Like the Boomers, the Millennials enjoyed prosperity; unlike the Boomers, they also enjoyed peace: The post-war generation saw more than 80,000 Americans die in combat in Korea and Vietnam, while only 548 American troops died during the Millennial generation’s first 20 years, almost half of those in the 1983 bombing of the Marines’ barracks in Beirut. In 1990, Tipper Gore was terrified that the Geto Boys’ self-titled album was going to inspire a wave of violent crime; in the real world, homicide rates fell by nearly half in the next decade, overall violent crime by a third, and property crimes by 29 percent.

The economy thrived, peace prevailed at home and abroad, the biggest political controversy of the day involved poorly considered fellatio, and their Generation X big brothers were founding billion-dollar companies in their college dorm rooms: If the Millennials feel like they were dupes, set up for one of the cruelest socioeconomic switcheroos in modern history, it is difficult to blame them. And if their political enthusiasms are subsequently confused, incoherent, ignorant, half-baked, backward, and occasionally self-pitying, that is not entirely surprising — nor is it the whole story. Profoundly abnormal times incubate profoundly abnormal expectations.

#page#The difference is that the Baby Boomers’ expectations were in the main satisfied. They became the richest generation in the history of the human race. In terms of the ratio of taxes paid to government benefits received, no generation will have done as well. The Boomers are enjoying the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in history, fueled in no small part by entitlement programs that skew heavily in their favor: At the end of World War II, there were 42 workers for each Social Security beneficiary, but when the Millennials are in their prime earning years, the ratio of workers to beneficiaries will be only two to one. One of three things is going to happen: (1) Millennials are going to end up paying radically higher taxes to support the major federal entitlements; (2) Millennials will see radical benefit cuts; or (3) some nasty combination of No. 1 and No. 2.

The Millennials are not the only ones having a rough go of it. Generation X lost half its scant savings in the 2009 recession. But for Generation X, it’s always 1991, the year whose popular culture provided that generation with its role model — Slacker — and its unspoken motto: Nevermind. Generation X was the last cohort of young Americans allowed to ride bicycles without helmets and to spend their unsupervised divorce-culture childhood summer days setting stuff on fire. They never developed the wounded-kitten style of political discourse that their younger siblings have embraced. Generation X may never have figured out what to do with all the opportunity it inherited, and its members missed a great many opportunities, but they probably will simply keep working and talking about how great Hüsker Dü was until they’re in their 80s because they never left the ’80s behind.

The political distinctiveness of the Millennials is greatly exaggerated. In their incoherence, they are very much like the general run of American voters, who want more spending, lower taxes, and balanced budgets, who oppose endless war in the Middle East except when they don’t, who think that the government should do more to help the poor except for all those bums on welfare, etc. Millennials may be much more enthusiastic about gay marriage than their elders, but on other key issues, such as the legality of abortion, they are largely indistinguishable from them. Like most other Americans, they tend to cite jobs and economic concerns as the issues most important to them, and, like most other Americans, they generally lack even the rudimentary grasp of economics sufficient for understanding the main arguments about those issues. The main difference between them and preceding generations is that the Millennials are young, they are many, and, ironically enough, they lack any sense of genuine introspection even as they remain utterly fascinated by the contents of their own navels.

Even the racial cleavages in their politics represent a reversion to the trend. About half of white Millennials (99 and 44/100 percent of whom have never seen Jesse Helms’s “Hands” advertisement) believe that discrimination against whites is as significant a national problem as discrimination against blacks, while two-thirds of non-white Millennials reject that view. White Millennials are on track to become politically similar to their parents — who, if they had prevailed, would have sent Bill Clinton back to Arkansas in 1992 or cheered the arrival of President Bob Dole in 1996. But there will be relatively fewer white Millennials than there were white Baby Boomers or white Generation Xers, which might conceivably lead to the emergence of a very robust and lamentable form of white identity politics, especially if the economy continues to give Millennials the back of its hand.

But if oldsters find it difficult to figure out what exactly it is Millennials believe and why, Millennials themselves do not seem to be doing much better on that front. Millennial psephology is terrifying, and kind of hilarious. Nearly half of them say that they prefer socialism to capitalism as an economic system, but barely one in six of them could accurately match the word “socialism” to its definition in the same poll. Most of them want more redistribution of income — until their incomes cross the $40,000-a-year mark, at which point they become remarkably hostile to the idea. A solid majority of them tell Reason Foundation pollsters that they want larger government with more services; a solid majority of them tell the very same pollsters that they want smaller government with fewer services — as The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson points out, the results flip according to whether the word “taxes” appears in the question. Hugh Hewitt had fun swatting around Zach Carter, the Millennial employed as the Huffington Post’s “senior political-economy reporter,” who had very strong views about the Iraq War but was surprised to learn that the Clinton administration had waged war there as well, who did not understand the Bush administration’s rationale for the war, who had apparently never read a single book on the Middle East, and who had no idea who Alger Hiss was, among other things. One wonders who is serving as the junior political-economy reporter over there.

#page#If there is anything distinctive about the Millennials, it is that their trust in government per se is relatively low and declining — a trend that is simultaneously encouraging and discouraging. According to the Harvard survey, Millennials’ trust in President Obama dropped from 44 percent to 32 percent between February 2010 and April 2014. Their trust in Congress went from 25 percent to 14 percent; in the Supreme Court, from 45 to 36 percent; in the federal government as a whole, from 29 to 20 percent; in the media, from 17 to 11 percent. All that during a period in which their faith in Wall Street, of all things, ticked upward slightly. At the same time, their faith in their state and local governments remained low, but steady. Their faith in the military was on a downward trajectory, too, but it still rated higher than any other of the institutions inquired about — a little higher than the president and Congress combined, in fact.

A conservative policy platform based on federalism, localism, devolution of powers, reining in the imperial presidency, and national defense as the first and most important duty of the federal government should, in theory, appeal to many of these young voters; and, indeed, Republican self-identification has climbed slightly among the younger Millennials. In general, though, the GOP and the conservative movement have struggled to make their case to these voters — a problem that cannot be explained away by gay marriage or any other single issue.

Part of that is a matter of style, surely: The youngsters may roll their eyes at Democrats’ emoji-festooned economic infomercials, but a great many Republican offerings read like they should have come off a fax machine — remember fax machines? — from right around the time Goonies was opening in the theaters and Small Wonder was lighting up faux-wood-paneled cathode-ray televisions across the country. The GOP has changed a great deal since the Millennials came into this vale of tears, but in many corners it still has an enduring whiff of the televangelist about it. But there are substance problems, too: Professor James A. Stimson has been tracking the “policy mood” of Americans over the decades, and he identified three high-water marks for conservatism: The first immediately preceded the election of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952; the second announced the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980; the third coincided with the ascendance of Barack Obama to the national executive. One of these things is not like the others, and the remarkable fact is that the Republican party is struggling — not only with Millennials but with the electorate as a whole — at a moment when the country is most open to conservative arguments. It is probably not merely coincidental that this is happening while the GOP endures an ongoing mutiny on the right: The worst legacy of the Bush-Hastert years is that many conservatives, and many open to conservative reforms, do not trust Republicans to do the things that Republicans historically have promised to do, such as seeing to national security with intelligence and competence, disciplining budgets if not balancing them, and occasionally kicking dysfunctional bureaucracies in the pants.

As with women and minority voters, conservatives probably are better off not attempting to court Millennials as Millennials but instead addressing them as members of families, taxpayers, citizens, business owners; as people failed by the higher-education system and saddled with student loans; as people who see jihadist beheading videos on the Internet and intuit that something forceful should be done about the tendency they represent.

Conservatism is a hard sell at the best of times, and the agenda of self-reliance, work, family, discipline, and tradition has seldom set young people’s minds ablaze. In a survey conducted by Pew and Elon University, scholars studying Millennials’ Internet-oriented communication habits “predicted this generation will exhibit a thirst for instant gratification and quick fixes, a loss of patience, and a lack of deep-thinking ability due to what one referred to as ‘fast-twitch wiring,’” according to Pew’s report. Millennial politics, like Millennial humor, largely consists of a hermetically sealed, self-referential universe, something like T. S. Eliot’s “penny world,” in which the rules of discourse and intellectual conformity are enforced with a self-righteous ruthlessness beyond anything to be found among the relatively liberal Victorians. What is a John Oliver clip or a Jon Stewart rant if not the moving-picture version of an emoji, a self-contained and angstrom-deep piece of communication aimed at the paleomammalian brain rather than at the neocortex? As a consequence of this, Millennial voters tend to find it difficult to critically evaluate received wisdom, and that’s a real problem for conservatives: Once it was established in the pop-culture mind, for example, that the financial crisis was a result of “unregulated capitalism” — originating in finance, the most heavily regulated industry short of pharmaceuticals and nuclear power — ten thousand essays on regulatory capture and the misdeeds of federal banking regulators could have little or no effect. Andrew Breitbart’s insistence that “culture is upstream from politics” is especially apt in the Millennials’ case.

Conservatives will never out-snark, out-mock, or out-tweet the popular culture that embraced Barack Obama as a semi-religious icon. But Millennials are right at the beginning of what promises to be an unpleasant, extended encounter with the facts of life, and it may be that they will soon figure out that there is more to understanding those facts than snark and emojis. Mocking them would be easy, while persuading them will prove difficult and frustrating, because conservatism, unromantic disposition that it is, is in the end an exercise in calculating a balance of human imperfections. The Millennials do not understand that — not quite yet.

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