Are Millennials Becoming More Conservative?
The oldest millennials are now 41. Are they voting like it?
Since the millennial generation first started casting ballots in the early 2000s, Democratic presidential candidates have never lost the youth vote. (Fun fact: the largest age gap in presidential voting over the last 50 years was in the 2008 election, the first year when all voters under 30 were part of the millennial generation.) Millennials were also instrumental in pushing for same-sex marriage, and were the first generation to express significant concern about climate change. This large, and liberal-leaning generation seemed poised to transform American politics.
But none of us stay young forever. The oldest millennials are now in their early 40s, with many of them married and starting families. But what does this mean for their politics?
The notion that people become more conservative as they get older has become a widely accepted part of our political discourse. It explains the generally more liberal tilt of young people’s politics; their openness to new ideas and experiences, and their skepticism toward traditional social arrangements as well as the institutions that enforce them. And there is some truth to it, even if the age effect is sometimes overblown.
That age has any bearing on politics at all is not simply due to physiological or cognitive changes that come with aging, but rather that getting older is associated with changing life stages. We take on new identities and roles, such as “boss,” “homeowner,” “spouse,” “parent,” or “caregiver,” many of which bring added responsibilities. Those lucky enough to own a home are facing mortgage payments. Some are experiencing health challenges, and many are balancing work commitments, family, and friends.
Not everyone encounters these challenges, or hits these personal milestones at the same time, or even at all. The trajectory of the millennial generation is different than previous generations –many are getting married later, having fewer children, or sidestepping parenthood altogether. But despite these differences, most people share at least some of these experiences – and they can have a considerable impact on our personal priorities and interests.
So, how are these new roles, responsibilities, and life experiences affecting millennial politics? Perhaps not in the way we might expect. Let me explain.
Gallup trend data shows that millennials’ ideological commitments have remained fairly stable over the past 20 years. Roughly equal numbers of millennials identify as liberal and as conservative, while every previous generation has leaned significantly more conservative.
On certain issues, millennials may have even moved in a more liberal direction. A Pew report shows that millennials are more likely to say that immigrants strengthen the country, that diplomacy is a better option than military force in conducting foreign policy, and reject the idea that a belief in God is necessary for one to have good values. In general, they continue to favor a more expansive role for government in society, although following the Great Recession there was a notable drop in support for helping needy Americans.
So, what accounts for the political stability among millennials?
Formative Political Experiences
Perhaps the most obvious explanation is that few of us experience a radical transformation in our political orientations as we age. And early political experiences count for a lot. Research on generations argues that early experiences in our lives have a lasting impact on who we are as adults. A study by political scientists Yair Ghitza and Andrew Gelman suggests that events that occur during our late teens and early 20s have an indelible impact on our political behavior. “The political events of a voter’s teenage and early adult years, centered around the age of 18, are enormously important in the formation of these long-term partisan preferences,” the authors state. For millennials, the unpopularity of George W. Bush and the comparative popularity of Obama shaped their future voting behavior.
The distinct demographic profile of the millennial generation may be a factor in defying the conservative trend. Millennials are far more diverse than previous generations when it comes to race, ethnicity, religion, and sexual identity. And as a result, they may be more willing to embrace pluralism and diversity as unqualified social goods. A recent Pew poll found that a majority of millennials believe that increasing racial and ethnic diversity is good for American society. What’s more, compared to older generations, millennials have more years of formal education and are less attached to religion, both of which are associated with having a more liberal worldview.
Enduring Economic Challenges
In the Generation Gap: Why the Baby Boomers Still Dominate American Politics and Culture, Kevin Munger shows that millennials are financially worse off than Boomers when they were roughly the same age. The disappearance of pensions, rising costs of housing, childcare, and tuition, are partly responsible. So is the Great Recession. But Munger argues that a key part of the problem is Boomers’ prioritizing their own economic self-interest frequently at the expense of younger Americans. If millennials perceive that the current economic arrangements are not working for them, they are likely to push to change the status quo. Perhaps because they’re getting older and not financially where they thought they would or should be, millennials might be more open to greater government involvement in the economy and more generous social welfare policies.
Even if the best evidence suggests that older millennials are roughly as liberal now as they were when they were young, American society as a whole is moving in a liberal direction. This means that millennial politics will become more conservative relative to the public at large as time goes on. If everyone around you starts adopting more liberal views on policy X, but you don’t, then your views may appear more conservative relative to everyone else, even if they haven’t actually changed! And that’s exactly what’s happening. In a recent paper, sociologist Michael Hout finds that “the public opinion climate continues to get more liberal, as each successive cohort continues to be more liberal, on balance, than the ones that came before them.”
But if these changes are being driven by generational differences as Hout suggests, and American society continues its leftward shift, then it’s possible that millennials will eventually become the country’s most conservative generation. We’re already seeing some evidence of this. Recent polling reveals growing fissures between Gen Z and millennials on transgender issues, sexuality, and abortion, with Gen Z staking out positions significantly to the left.
The final point to make is that even though millennials represent a distinctive political age cohort, there are critical differences among this group. On racial issues, white millennial attitudes are closer to other white Americans than they are to other millennials. What’s more, the racial gap among millennials appears to be growing.
There is little evidence to suggest that millennials will begin a wholesale shift rightward in coming years. What is more likely to happen is that newer generations will come to view millennial politics as staid, conventional, and more conservative. And if American society continues to move in a more liberal direction, there will be some truth in this.