Millennial Paradoxes

There’s a great big new survey-based study out from Pew on the Millennial Generation that reinforces a lot of what we’ve long heard about the youngest adult age cohort, and also indicates that economic hard times, disappointment with aspects of the Obama administration’s performance, and disengagement with politics haven’t changed Millennials’ disproportionate liberalism on most issues.

The biggest dichotomy involves the political allegiances of Millennials: fully half self-identify as independents, but the cohort is significantly more likely than older generations to vote Democratic, identify itself as “liberal” (more Millennials self-identify as “liberal” than “conservative,” the first cohort to do so in a very long time), favor government activism, and agree with Democratic issue positions on both cultural and economic topics (there’s a slight divergence on abortion policy, where Millenials are marginally less likely than GenXers to support generally legalized abortion). Yet less than a third of Millenials agree there is a “great deal of difference” between the party they agree with and the party that tends to characterize Millennial views as secular-socialist.

There’s a particularly interesting finding on health care policy:

Millennials are as skeptical as older generations of the 2010 health care law. In December 2013—the most recent Pew Research Center survey on the Affordable Care Act—there were no significant differences across generations in views of the law. About four-in-ten in each cohort approved of the law.

Yet by 54% to 42%, Millennials think it is the federal government’s responsibility to make sure all Americans have health care coverage. There is less support among older age cohorts for the government insuring health coverage for all.

Aside from the fact that Millennials are for obvious reasons less inclined to worry about health coverage than older cohorts, this finding suggests that Millennials may be disproportionately represented in the ranks of those who object to Obamacare from the left.

In any event, the study can be read in two very different ways by progressive political folk. Nothing about their views indicates much of an openness to Republican political appeals, at least so long as the GOP is in its current hyper-reactionary and old-white-folks-dependent phase. That would argue for a Democratic strategy of largely taking them for granted and focusing appeals on older generations more likely to “swing.” But insofar as low voting levels (particularly in midterms) among Millennials are a serious problem for the Donkey Party, and in view of their relatively strong feeling that the two parties aren’t greatly different, a more left-bent message might boost turnout and bond Millenials more durably to the party that actually seems to share its values. One much-discussed dilemma in Democratic strategy actually may be an illusion: while Millennials have huge doubts about Social Security’s solvency, and as an abstract manner favor greater emphasis on program benefiting young folks as compared to old folks, a pretty large majority (61%) oppose cutting Social Security benefits as a solution to the program’s solvency issues.

All in all, the study is worth a close look, particularly by those who like to make breezy assertions about “the kids” without much empirical grounding.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.