The kids are not all right: The bleak future of the millennial generation
I am no longer as worried about whether the Republican Party will ever get on the right side of the millennial generation.
Kristen Soltis Anderson has penned a bright and optimistic book called The Selfie Vote urging Republican leadership to understand millennial voters, of which she is one. A pollster with Echelon Insights, Anderson shows that millennial voters may be socially liberal when it comes to same-sex marriage, but that they are not uniformly progressive, and that their interests occasionally collide with legacy institutions built by the left in the 20th century.
The author points out that millennials skew more Democratic than their parents in a way that is unusual. "Even as recently as 15 years ago, young voters behaved generally like their grandparents at the polls. Today that is unfathomable," Soltis-Anderson writes. More worrying for the GOP, they are less likely than previous generations to grow into conservatism, through changes to their lifestyle. "Across a whole host of cultural factors, today we are seeing a decline in the sorts of behaviors that might have lent Republicans a more natural advantage with millennials as they age," she warns.
The Selfie Vote puts a tremendous amount of emphasis on the opportunities that exist for Republicans among millennials. But reading the book, I became less concerned with the electoral prospects for the GOP and more concerned with the fate of a generation, and the nation that will be entrusted to it. Beneath the polling is a sad story of a generation that is more indebted at a younger age, and is less invested in any of its nation's civil, religious, and state institutions.
Millennials are just not participating as much in the institutions of public life. They are more likely to remain chronically unemployed, less likely to invest money, and less likely to marry, now or ever. Despite a culture that has come to romanticize the entrepreneurial spirit of young Silicon Valley kids, millennials as a whole are less likely to start businesses. Many of these trends are related: It is harder to start a business if family bonds and family support are weaker. It is harder to invest if you lack even a day job.
A study by UBS, cited by Anderson, shows that the millennial is the exact opposite of a normal youthful investor. It makes intuitive sense that young people ought to be entrepreneurial, since they are unchastened by failure, and unburdened by immediate and growing families. The young investor should have confidence in the future, particularly the long term. Instead millennials are the most risk-averse investors, many of them having witnessed their parents go through agonies of 401(k) meltdowns and foreclosures at the same time. Their model of investment isn't managing an aggressive account from their phone — it's closer to burying cash in a refrigerator, then burying the refrigerator in their parent's backyard. Indeed they are as worried about their parents' portfolios as they are of their own.
The marriage gap is as important or more important than any gender gap in American politics. Anderson notes: "Married voters broke for Mitt Romney by a 14-point margin. Yet, among the four out of 10 voters who were not married, Romney only garnered 35 percent of the vote."
Millennials marry much later. Just 26 percent of younger millennials (18-29) are married. At that same age, 36 percent of Gen Xers, 48 percent of Baby Boomers, and 65 percent of the Silent Generation had married. And that's if millennials get married at all. Pew's research suggests that about 25 percent of those between the ages of 25 and 34 will remain unmarried. That's higher than previous generations.
Some demographic reports predict that once the economy has fully turned around, millennials will reach a tipping point and actually prove to be a more stable generation, with a higher percentage of their own children growing up in two-parent homes than they themselves did. But their marriage rates seem unlikely to ever catch up. As summarized by Time magazine, the Pew Report shows that millennial men aren't even attaining to what have traditionally been the prerequisites of marriage: a stable job.
"In 1960, 93 percent of men ages 25 to 34 were in the labor force; by 2012 that share had fallen to 82 percent." Those young men who are employed are not bringing home as much bacon as they once did. In fact, if you adjust for inflation, the median hourly wages of men aged 25 to 34 are a fifth less than they were in 1980. [Time]
Furthermore, the predicted drop in the illegitimacy rate is not just a measure of more stable marriages at the top of the income spectrum, but a measure of a lack of child-bearing among poorer, less-educated women who are unmarried. It's a measure of nearly one in five young men who are unemployed or unemployable.
Anderson catalogs other trends among millennial voters. They pray more than their Gen X counterparts, but have fewer commitments to religious institutions or organized religion generally. As you can probably guess, a more indebted, less-married generation is also one that is less likely to buy and maintain a home. And even if they find jobs and spouses, if their careers are going to be unstable and require several moves, why make a 30-year commitment to a bank note? It's not as if companies routinely make 30-year investments in their employees anymore.
Anderson has lots of great policy recommendations for Republicans, showing that they can win the future by fighting the outdated structures built by progressive victories in the last century. But millennials aren't just one or two policy tweaks away from becoming Schwab-account-having, tassled-loafer-wearing Bush voters. This is a generation whose social capital has been drained away before it could even be invested. Chronically high youth unemployment, declining religious participation, lowering marriage rates, lowering birth rates, massive debt, a sense that the existing systems are corrupt — in European countries, these have been the signs of extinction for traditional center-right and center-left parties, not mere decline.
America is not yet undergoing these trends at European levels, but after reading The Selfie Vote, I am less worried about whether millennials will turn Republican. I'm worried whether they will, like their counterparts in Europe, be tempted to turn against the American order that has so badly served them.