On the surface, the millennial generation, having endured the financial crash and stagnant wages, looks ready to lead a big leftward push.
Last month, Fox News released a poll showing Hillary Clinton leading Bernie Sanders in Iowa by 14 points. But the amazing part of the poll was the generation gap. Among likely caucus-goers under 45, Sanders was crushing Clinton 56 to 34 percent. Among the older voters, Clinton was leading 59 to 24.
A Harvard Institute of Politics poll of Americans 18 to 29 found that 56 percent want a Democrat to win the White House while only 36 percent favor a Republican.
The leftward shift is striking even within the GOP. According to the Pew Research Center, young Republicans are much more moderate than older Republicans. Among millennials who lean Republican, only 31 percent have consistently conservative views. About 51 percent have a mixture of liberal and conservative views.
But if you look at how millennials actually live, you certainly don’t see a progressive counterculture.
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, millennials change jobs less frequently than people in other generations. And a study of 25,000 millennials in 22 countries by Jennifer J. Deal and Alec Levenson found that 44 percent said they would be happy to spend the rest of their career at their current organization.
Millennials have been forced to be self-reliant and to take a loosely networked individualism as the normal order of the universe. Millennials have extremely low social trust. According to Pew Research, just 19 percent say most people can be trusted, compared with 40 percent of boomers.
This leads to detachment from large entities. Just 32 percent of millennials say America is the greatest country on Earth, compared with 50 percent of boomers. Millennials are very suspicious of organized religion. Thirty-five percent say they are unaffiliated with any religious group, compared with 23 percent of Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980).
Just 26 percent of millennials are married, compared with 48 percent of boomers at that age. Only 42 percent plan to have kids. They are also having less sex. A study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior projected that millennials would have eight sexual partners by middle age while boomers had 10 or 11. According to a survey from the online dating service Match, 49 percent of people in their 20s have not had sex in the past year.
The general impression one gets is of a generation that wants systemic change but finds no compelling form of collective action available. Their only alternative, which is their genius, is to try to fix their lives themselves, through technology and new forms of social interaction, rather than mass movements.
Their attitudes toward Social Security perfectly reflect this stance. Most millennials expect to see no Social Security benefits by the time they retire. But they oppose reforms to take money away from older workers to distribute it downward. They just figure they’ll take care of retirement individually, often using algorithm-based investment vehicles like Wealthfront.
Politically, this means that millennials may lean Democratic, but unless Barack Obama (or Bernie Sanders) is on the ticket, they don’t strongly attach to the party. And it is not clear that they will vote. They didn’t in the 2014 midterm elections. It could be they are more interested in improving their lives by having richer experiences, and not through the sort of income transfers that come out of Washington.•
Brooks is a New York Times columnist. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.