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Youth in Revolt: Why Millennials Are the Key to Future Social Transformation

Millennials see the ecological crisis as a moral issue.

Young Americans are not "rebels without a cause." Rather, they share radical countercultural values that challenge the very foundation of US political and economic structures. (Photo: Vadim_Key / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Lamentations against the young are as old as history, and attacks on millennials are no exception. This age group is criticized for being lazy, self-indulgent, indecisive and unwilling to sacrifice in the pursuit of long-term occupational and life success. But these criticisms come off as unsustainable at a time when Americans find themselves working longer hours than at any time in the last four decades, and when millennials suffer from dwindling jobs prospects, skyrocketing health care costs and huge student loan burdens. These are problems that the Baby Boomers and much of Generation X never had to deal with, and they are exacting a massive cost on young people in the US.

In a time of growing corporate power, assaults on the welfare state and rising inequality, progressives I speak with are wondering just what it will take to see a mass mobilization powerful enough to roll back the reactionary changes of the last four decades. Many social movements have emerged on the political landscape, including Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and the Fight for $15 living wage movement, not to mention the anti-Trump protests of the last year. But, as of yet, none of these movements have been powerful enough to initiate wholescale progressive structural change.

I don’t pretend to have the answers for how a leftist mass insurgency can or will emerge in the future. But based on available evidence, it does seem that US youth — including those involved in the movements mentioned above — are the best hope for such change. Young Americans are significantly different from previous generations in terms of their experiences, beliefs and values. If there is hope for a more democratic future, it lies with them.

In his book, The Good Citizen: How a Younger Generation is Reshaping American Politics, political scientist Russell Dalton presents evidence that younger Americans are significantly more likely to engage in unconventional forms of political participation, as compared to older Americans. Recent surveys confirm Dalton’s point. Young Americans today are very much like their youthful counterparts of the 1960s, who made the last era of mass political and cultural transformation possible.

While some intellectuals complain that younger Americans are less likely to vote, recent evidence suggests they are more likely to engage in other actions, aimed not at reinforcing the status quo politics of the Democratic and Republican parties, but in pursuit of system-wide transformation. More specifically, a national YouGov poll from early 2017 found 29 percent of Americans 18-29 felt that attending a “protest, political rally or demonstration” is the most effective political strategy, compared to 14 percent of those 30-44, 12 percent of those 45-64, and 8 percent of those 65 and over. These same young Americans were less likely to believe in electoral approaches to dealing with political problems. Just 30 percent of those 18-29 thought calling or writing a representative in Congress was an effective political strategy, compared to 35 percent of those 30-44, 43 percent of those 45-64, and 52 percent of those 65 and older.

Other statistical indicators also reveal significant political differences between younger and older people in the US. An analysis of the Pew Research Center’s July 2012 Civic Engagement Survey finds that younger Americans were more likely than older Americans to have signed an online petition for a social or political cause, to have attended an organized protest, and to have called in to a live radio program to share a political or social opinion. Keeping with their alienation from the political system, younger Americans were less likely to contact their political officials and less likely to vote. Age was a significant predictor of behavior across all these activities, even after statistically controlling for other factors, such as survey respondents’ sex, race, education, income, political party and ideology.

Young Americans are not “rebels without a cause.” Rather, they share radical countercultural values that challenge the very foundation of US political and economic structures. According to the Pew Research Center’s April 2010 poll, younger Americans were significantly more likely to reject capitalism as an economic system, and more likely to support socialism. Of those aged 18-29 who expressed an opinion one way or the other, 45 percent said they supported socialism, compared to 35 percent of those 30-44, 24 percent of those 45-64, and just 15 percent of those 65 and older. In contrast, 49 percent of those 18-29 supported capitalism, compared to 62 percent of those 30 to 44, 62 percent of those 45-64, and 67 percent of those 65 and older. Again, age was a significant predictor of opposition to capitalism and support for capitalism after controlling for respondents’ sex, race, education, income, political party and ideology.

One might look at youth support for “socialism” suspiciously, since pollsters don’t provide respondents a definition of the term when they survey Americans. Still, the rejection of capitalism is particularly noteworthy, as is the finding that younger Americans are significantly less likely than older Americans to value consumerism. As a 2016 Harris poll documents, Americans from 18-34 are increasingly interested in personal and community-based experiences with friends, rather than focusing on accumulation of consumer goods. As Harris finds: 78 percent of millennials would rather spend money on an experience than buy a product; 55 percent say they’re spending more now on events and experiences than consumer goods compared to in the past; and 82 percent report attending some sort of live experience — be it a concert, art performance, sporting event or festival — in the last year. Importantly, 69 percent of millennials report that participating in experiences and live events helps them feel more connected to other people and to their community, and this commitment is fueling a “fear of missing out” mentality, shared by nearly 70 percent of millennials.

In his important book What Really Happened to the 1960s, political historian Edward Morgan writes that the corporate media, aided by political, business, cultural elites and an older generation of Americans were responsible for a “backlash” against young Americans who protested in favor of civil rights, women’s rights and against the Vietnam War. American youth were chastised for their countercultural values, heightened sense of communal politics, and willingness to challenge official corruption, propaganda and lies. Those who participated in the mass social movements of the 1960s were often depicted as severely maladjusted, extremist, naïve and immoral, and condemned for fueling the rise of crime, drug use and single-parent families.

There was never much of an effort from conservatives leading the anti-60s backlash to document their claims with empirical evidence. As with the past, fears today about the extremist nature of youthful rebellion lack a credible empirical foundation. Recent data from the US Census, the Center for Disease Control and the Department of Justice find that younger Americans are significantly less likely to commit homicides and property felonies than youths of the past. Tracking crime rates among California youths, these governmental organizations find a rapid decline in murder rates and property felonies from the 1990s through the 2010s, in addition to a rapid rise in college enrollment. This parallels the national trends, with juvenile incarceration falling 41 percent in the last decade-and-a-half.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing about young Americans as lacking the conviction to work for political change via voting and formal participation in politics. This criticism would be more compelling if the Bernie Sanders revolt didn’t demonstrate that young Americans are enthusiastic about engaging in electoral politics when the conditions are right and when the system demonstrates an interest in representing the needs of the young. But in a political party system dominated by the wealthy and corporate power, there is less room in “mainstream” politics for accommodating the needs and wishes of the less fortunate, the working class or even the middle class. So long as the US political system marginalizes the vast majority of Americans, and so long as policy continues to enhance corporate power and increase inequality, there is little reason to think young Americans will embrace the bipartisan political system or the corporate economy that controls it.

Young Americans will continue to feel alienated from a political and economic system that does little to improve their life prospects. And youth will be even less likely to defend status quo politics as the ecological costs of unregulated capitalism intensify in an era of unchecked global warming. Why would young Americans protect a morally bankrupt political system that endangers human life and doesn’t even provide for their basic wants and needs?

Rather than bemoaning the decline of American youth, we should recognize that millennials represent the best of what this country has to offer. They express a serious moral concern with the mounting ecological crisis — far more so than older groups of Americans, who are pushing off the costs of environmental degradation on the young and future generations. And millennials are significantly more likely to support the kinds of government action necessary to limit the worst impacts of climate change that are just down the road. They are far more likely to recognize the importance of community over narrow concerns with personal gratification and consumerism. And millennials are far more likely to recognize the social injustices perpetrated against themselves and most Americans by a political-economic system that increasingly benefits the wealthy few, while minimizing democracy and marginalizing the masses. Indeed, millennials are the key to any humane and democratic future for this country.