I haven’t read it yet, but Pew Research’s V.P. Paul Taylor recently released his book called The Next America: Boomers, Millennials and the Looming Generational Showdown. Or, should we rather say: The Next America: [missing value], Boomers, [missing value], Millennials, [missing value], and the Looming Generational Showdown? I guess I could have named this post “Why don’t Gen X and Homelanders count in America’s future?” Or “How to frame income inequality as a generational issue”, but I think Taylor comes from a sincere place, so I’m not going to insinuate any such intentions.
Nonetheless, based on interviews, articles about it and Taylor’s appearance on Daily Show last night (link to follow), the first that comes to my mind is that most of the observations he refers to are not new, not even to Pew. We’ve seen the Millennials shaping up to be less inclined toward organized religion and traditional institutions like marriage for some time. Of course, what is new is that they remain secular in these areas after entering a new lifecycle.
Millennials are coming of age with institutions they feel have either outlived their relevance or are somehow ossified or corrupted. The parents of Millennials, the highly individualized Gen X and Boomers, have planted a seed of distrust in policy units, from the FDA and EPA to Social Security. But unlike their parents, Millennials are more likely to embrace the idea of having these institutions in the first place. Unlike their parents they don’t distrust government institutions per se, just the way they have corrupted. This is why Obamacare is such an unsettled issue with Millennials. They believe in the idea of it, but maybe not the implementation of it.
Millennials in many parts of the world also are undergoing globalizing forces that are moving younger cohorts toward a common cultural median. Surveys show that Millennials in emerging economies are moving away from traditional values that emphasize family and conventions and towards more materialism and individualistic life choices. Contrary, after the recession younger cohorts in America are moving away from individualism and toward more collectivist, but post-marriage formations (for heterosexual couples). This is particularly true for younger Millennials and Gen Z. One way of looking at this could be that U.S. Millennials are catching up with Europe (which is more secular, cohabiting, single-parenting) while some youth in some European countries seem to show more social fragmentation like the their American peers and compared to their elders, more trusting in privatized welfare goods. Distrust in institutions, yet a yearning to reform them, seems to be a common theme for American youth and youth elsewhere. The Cassandra Report recently proclaimed that “the Snowden effect” is strongest among younger cohorts, explaining some of the suspicion to traditional institutions and is possibly a reason for why Millennials are drifting away from the Democratic party towards political independence.
Speaking of marriage, I often think economic inequality is to generations what marital satisfaction is to Tolstoy. If you’re happy or well off, you have that in common with others who are happy or well off in every other generation, so generational differences are more superficial and of little consequence. But if you are struggling, your pain will be felt deeply different depending on which generation you belong to. Taylor likes to stress that Millennials today have less than the two previous generations had before them at the same age. What he does not mention is that every generation after the Silents is worse off than the previous cohorts were at the same age. That is not generationally unique. Millennials are underemployed and indebted. Boomers are too broke to retire. Gen X is feeling both of these to pressures, and the Gen Z or Homelander kids struggle more than any with the child poverty rate getting close to ¼ of the population. And in countries that ban child labor, child poverty is usually a reflection of poverty in the generation that nurtures them. In many ways Gen Xers and Homelanders/Gen Zers are the ones that have fared the worst after the recession, a detail Taylor choses to overlook. Millennials might be the highest educated of all of these cohorts, but the very youngest might turn out to become the least so because of the cost of education. Kids surveyed today are less enthusiastic about college than kids surveyed 15 years ago. And it’s not because they are less interested in developing their potential! Of course, this is a deeply troubling trend that goes way beyond generational boundaries and I get a little saddened when income inequalities so often get “generationalized”. It goes without saying that economic inequality does not follow generational distributions primarily, so we shouldn’t even try to pretend that these two statistical measures are on the same scale. At worst, an economically driven generational warfare would only convenience the demagogues who use divide and conquer, which would allow the real problem of inequality to hide in the shadow.
With growing income inequality and shrinking middle class, opportunities for social mobility disappear as well. This is due to a shrinking upper middle class that plays educational arms race with their own kids while public schools and the new “used-to-have” class fall ever farther behind. As parents worry their children will fall behind, those who can afford it put even more money and energy into maximizing the opportunities for their children. This often translates into expensive schools, tutoring services and other exclusive venues. The result is a more balkanized education system with the upper crust taking their kids out of public schools so there are fewer arenas for them to interact. We can take some comfort in seeing that the recession has turned the pendulum on narcism and individualism, and fostered greater pro-social attitudes rather than believing poverty is a choice. I truly hope the Millennials will succeed in reshaping the institutions that have given opportunities to generations before and inject some new energy into them. I admire their relentless optimism, and think it will be a monumental task. But if they do embark on this opportunity I feel sure that they can trust the generation after them to finish the mission.