photo by Tony Alter
Baby boomers lucked out when they raised the millennial generation.
Notwithstanding the grumbles one hears (often from people who have not yet raised kids themselves) about how entitled and self-obsessed the generation born between 1981 and 2000 seems to be, we have recently enjoyed a noteworthy period of intergenerational peace.
In their youth, the boomers rebelled sharply against what many perceived as the excessive materialism, outdated mores and blatant racism and sexism of their parents’ generation. They refused to even listen to the same music. The millennials, in contrast, emulated and built upon their parents’ model. Boomers argued about whether gays should serve in the military; their children could not understand why anybody even questioned it. It seemed self-evident to most millennials that gays were just like everyone else and were entitled to live their lives accordingly, including marriage if they wanted it. Many boomer parents have more recently come around to the same view.
But the boomers and their children grew up in very different times. Boomers saw the upside of social activism in the movements for civil rights and women’s rights. Though more boomers went to college than any prior generation, the majority of them did not end up with a degree. Instead, they got jobs in factories, often joined unions and were subject to the draft. Many in the older boomer cohort went to Vietnam. College debt, for those who went to college at all, was a minor concern; the bigger problems were the shifts in the economy that all but wiped out union jobs in the private sector. Those shifts pushed boomers who had sufficient talent and opportunity into growing fields like finance, medicine and technology. Many others went into government, education and other not-for-profit work. This latter group has become a vocal constituency for higher taxes, for higher government spending and against “income inequality,” complaints mostly aimed at their peers who went into those booming private sector areas.
What about their kids? Will the millennials stage a late-blooming reaction against their parents’ values and priorities?
Some Republican-aligned groups think they might. A recent Bloomberg article examined a marketing campaign focused on trying to engage young adult voters about fiscal issues, and placed the effort in the context of polling that suggests the millennials are not as attached to organized politics as other age groups. Some go so far as to suggest millennials are politically up for grabs. Republicans are hoping to use fiscal policy to swing young adults their way.
Having grown up in an era of exploding college costs and diminished job opportunities, the theory goes, millennials are inherently receptive to the message that their parents are burdening them with a high-cost, high-debt world - one in which they will have to sacrifice their own living standards to support exorbitant Social Security and Medicare benefits, not to mention public sector pensions, for those same parents.
John Della Volpe, the polling direct for Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said he was surprised at how much millennials indicated they cared about the national deficit. “The issue is there for the taking,” he said.
Well, maybe. I see the merit in the Republican plan for wooing young voters, but there are still a couple of problems with it. First, like most young people of any generation, millennials tend to see little problem in raising taxes until they have to start paying them. But more importantly, the Republicans who are trying to talk to millennials about debt are indistinguishable, as far as the young generation is concerned, from the Republicans who have mostly opposed civil rights for gays, among other groups. Republicans’ social message is so out of step with millennial values that it jams the intellectual airwaves over which the GOP seeks to reach them.
A turn away from social issues and toward concerns that are more practical and relevant to millennials can certainly improve the Republicans’ prospects. It still won’t be an easy sell, not with demagogues like Elizabeth Warren running around the country telling young adults that their staggering student debt is the fault, and responsibility, of those who lent the money (which nowadays is mostly our government itself) rather than of the colleges that have priced their services beyond what a typical family earns in a year.
Millennials are overall a pretty bright bunch. Given time, they can digest facts and logic offered by people they trust. But first, that trust has to be earned.