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Beyond Generational Politics: Do Millennials Constitute a Political Category?

On March 1, 2018, the Pew Research Center issued two reports on generational demographics in the United States. The first report is a set of parameters: Pew announced new boundary years for each generation because it had “become clear to us that it’s time to determine a cutoff point between millennials and the next generation.” Millennials, by their new measure, were born between 1981 and 1996.[1] The second report put these categories to use to show that political divisions between generations “are now as wide as they have been in decades.” Millennials were more willing than older generations to acknowledge the continuing existence of racism, expressed more positive attitudes about immigrants, were less militaristic and nationalistic, and were more likely to support a “bigger government” that provided health care and welfare. They were more strongly associated with the Democratic Party and more disapproving of Donald Trump than any other generation (younger “post-millennials” were not included in the poll).[2]

. . . [P]olitical cleavages between millennials and other generations, most notably the boomers themselves, appear to be growing . . .

Do these disagreements portend a “looming generational showdown,” as the subtitle to a 2014 book, The Next America, co-authored by the Pew Research Center predicted?[3] The youthful  politics of baby  boomers (born between 1946 and 1964 by Pew’s measure) are still the main reference point for that sort of intergenerational conflict. They did not trust anyone over the age of thirty years, the story goes—an age the oldest of them did not reach until 1976, after the cresting of youth radicalism and unrest. But political cleavages between millennials and other generations, most notably the boomers themselves, appear to be growing, even as the oldest members of that birth cohort approach forty years. Millennials are not leading a student revolt; they are reacting to the grim conditions of adulthood in twenty-first-century America.

Both Democratic and Republican politicians have explained millennial disquiet as products of a culture of entitlement and complaint. Former Vice President Joe Biden said, to young people telling him “how tough things are,” “Give me a break . . . I have no empathy for it.”[4] Nebraska Senate Republican Ben Sasse wrote an entire book directed at the personality short-comings of millennials.[5] This tut-tutting, echoed in countless op-eds, understandably stokes resentment at Americans who came of age under more favorable circumstances. But the political realignment suggested by Pew’s polling and the flourishing of radical movements comprised in large part of people under the age of forty years do not point to an inevitable battle with the grays.

The forces that have forged millennials have contributed to growing opposition to the political and economic establishment—which, like all establishments, contains more older people than young. Yet, we should not confuse anti-establishment anger with a child’s impatience to become an adult, anymore than we should mistake the refusal of ruling  institutions to  make concessions to the needs of younger people with the stubborn habits of old age. Indeed, many older people also now recoil at society’s dominant institutions, although usually on very different political terms. “Millennial” attitudes provide one entry point for examining the unsettled politics of our time, but only insofar as we treat them as indicative of crises roiling American society that extend far beyond a single generation.

What Makes a Millennial?

The “baby boomer” name was popularized when that cohort first entered adulthood and demographers noted the rapid growth of college enrollments. “Generation X” became the favored designation for the group that followed, thanks to Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel of the same name, in which directionless young adults talked at length, and with great irony, about living in a culture where authenticity seemed out of reach.[6] Millennials owe their name to Neil Howe and William Strauss, a former consultant at D.C. policy shops and a staffer for Republican Senator Charles Percy, respectively, who wrote a series of books starting in the early 1990s that combined a bizarre, cyclical theory of history with tips for people who wanted advice on managing and marketing to young people. (In 1999, they founded their own consultancy, LifeCourse Associates, to better sell their ideas.)[7] Coupland, typically of his generation, later complained that his term had been co-opted by marketing firms. Millennials, by contrast, were born a market segment, not a political category.

Millennials . . . were born a market segment, not a political category.

Howe and Strauss defined millennials in terms that were oddly high minded, given the nakedly commercial way they marshaled their analysis. As they wrote in 2000, millennials were destined to become a “hero generation” who would overcome “social splintering, cultural exhaustion, and civic decay” by “set[ting] high standards, get[ting] organized, team[ing] up, and do[ing] civic deeds.”[8] The up-and-comers, they alleged, were more respectful and polite than Gen Xers and boomers, more traditional in their personal morality, less individualistic and more focused on teamwork and community, and brimming with confidence and optimism about their personal and collective futures.

Jean Twenge, the author of a number of survey-based studies of youth psychology, challenged many of these conclusions in her 2006 book Generation Me. Like Howe and Strauss, she found high degrees of confidence and assertiveness among the young people she studied, but they were also increasingly narcissistic— deepening a trend that had been underway since the boomers came of age. They were optimistic, but to the point of delusion about their individual life chances. Promised the world, they encountered harsher realities in an increasingly unequal economy and globally competitive labor market. They put off traditional markers of “growing up”—moving out from their parents’ homes, purchasing houses, marrying, having children, settling into a career—in part because of changing economic circumstances, but mostly, she suggested, because they took too seriously the lessons taught in home, schools, and the media about pursuing meaningful lives. Boomers had battled for their right to personal fulfillment. For millennials, this was a birthright, but one at odds with the closing of an era where “post-material” concerns had supposedly displaced economic necessity.[9]

Jean Twenge . . . found . . . the young people she studied . . . were optimistic, but to the point of delusion about their individual life chances.

Twenge’s portrait of millennial personality has become the standard for mainstream complaint about young people failing to mature in what once passed for typical fashion. But the dramatically worse economic conditions that prevailed during the Great Recession helped to make a mockery of generational personality analysis detached from political economy. In fact, two books published before the 2007-2008 financial crisis, in the same year as Generation Me, had already illuminated those shortcomings. Tamara Draut’s Strapped and Anya Kamenetz’s Generation Debt both took seriously the increasingly constrained circumstances of young adults’ financial lives. The media had described “eighteen-to-thirty-four- year-olds as slackers, overgrown children, and procrastinators, as though we’re intentionally dragging our heels to avoid reaching adulthood,” wrote Kamenetz, when the truth was that forces outside their control had put mid- twentieth-century American adulthood beyond the reach of many.[10] As Draut explained, the increasing prices of health care, housing, and higher education, alongside stagnating wages, the increasing casualization of the labor market, and the rollback of a government safety  net, had put the squeeze on younger Americans more than anyone else. Instead of accumulating household wealth, they were loading up on debt. Draut suggested a number of public policies that could help address these issues, but she lamented that so many young adults seemed to have little faith that the state could serve their interests.[11] The crisis that began the year after their books were published hit the entire American workforce, but with particularly harsh long-term effects for those entering the labor market for the first time.[12]

Timing Is Everything

Most generational theorists since the Weimar-era German sociologist Karl Mannheim have examined changing attitudes and values in relationship to major events and crises that occur during our formative years. That framework can begin to help us understand how, over the course of a relatively short period of time, many young adults came to embrace a quite radical critique of the powerful institutions that shaped their lives. Writing in The American Prospect in 1992, Jonathan Cohn argued that Gen Xers “came of age at a time when government neither undertook bold new initiatives nor gave definition to the nation’s long-term purpose…we have come to see politics as irrelevant to achieving the ideals that matter to us.”[13] Many millennials took a different lesson from the financial crisis: The government was in fact capable of boldness, but only in the interests of its true constituency, the rich. A widely circulated 2014 study in Perspectives on Politics by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, with the dry title “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,”[14] ratified the common sense put forward by Occupy Wall Street: The U.S. government was better characterized as an oligarchy than a democracy. The lesson was all the more devastating coming under the presidency of a figure carried to the White House in large part by a hopeful youth vote.

. . . [T]he truth was that forces outside their control had put mid-twentieth-century American adulthood beyond the reach of many.

Some generational theorists argued that this sort of analysis would lead straight to the cynicism that marked the stereotypical Gen X outlook. Twenge wrote in 2006 that young people “increasingly believed that their lives were con- trolled by outside forces.” The latest surveys she examined found more young adults than ever were “likely to agree with cynical statements such as ‘The people running the country don’t care what happens to people like me,’ ‘The rich get richer and the poor get poorer,’ and ‘What you think doesn’t count very much anymore.’”[15]

These beliefs—which Twenge considered without asking if they were based in reality— could only lead to depression and anxiety, especially since the “days when young Americans marched in the streets to change the world are, for the most part, gone.”[16]

Twenge was right about depression and, especially, anxiety. Most psychologists agree that their prevalence is on the rise, even if many blame social media (analyzed apart from the society that produced it) more than the labor market. But, there is a thin line separating cynicism and radical critique, and many millennials have crossed over to the latter.

No one has better expressed systemic critique in generational terms than Malcolm Harris. His 2017 book Kids These Days takes seriously the deteriorating mental health of millennials, but he integrates it into a comprehensive theory of the formation of the millennial personality under a regime in which the development of “human capital” superseded all other social considerations. From birth onward, millennials were prepared for a world of intensified competition, in which firms were increasingly desperate to find new sources of profit. This preparation has turned us into “a generation of finely honed tools, crafted from embryos to be lean, mean production machines.”[17] Millennials put “their whole self into their job” not only by necessity but also because they have “never learned to separate work and life enough to balance them, especially if they’re wired on uppers and get anxious when they’re too far away from their phone.”[18]

While more optimistic young leftists have highlighted the surprising millennial embrace of socialist ideas, Harris believes that, short of something drastic and unexpected, millennial America “probably won’t be pretty.”[19] Millennial attitudes toward America’s now marginal labor movement might be trending in a positive direction, but we are, Harris argues, “perfect scabs, properly prepared to seize any opportunity we can.”[20] The children of neoliberalism have been interpellated into “a cohort of super-effective workers who are too competitive, isolated, and scared to organize for something better.”[21]

As Gabriel Winant wrote in a perceptive review of Kids These Days in n+1, Harris tells “the story of the objectification of millennials, not the subjectivity that they make from that  objectification.” Harris’ analysis, Winant argued, risks turning society into a zero-sum competition for resources between the old and young.[22] Indeed, Harris argues that while it is “simplistic to say that an anomalously rich cohort of elderly people has been starving poor children of tax dollars,” it is “also not wrong.”[23]

War on the Old

Kids These Days contains no programmatic suggestions for generational revolt. The kind of revolutionary activity necessary to challenge the plight of millennials as Harris describes it would entail the remaking of society from top to bottom. Elsewhere, he has written about how older politicians like Bernie Sanders have connected with far younger people hungry for class analysis, which suggests that his own generational analysis is a vessel for something much broader.24 His book makes the case that trans- formations in the capitalist system in recent decades have drastically changed young people across all strata of American society in connected ways. But while he threads together the experiences of over-policed youth of color and overworked junior investment bankers, his sympathies clearly lie with radical, emancipatory social struggle.

. . . [In] A Generation of Sociopaths, Bruce Cannon Gibney’s 2017 anti- boomer manifesto [he claims] neo- liberalism’s main beneficiary . . . is not the capitalist class but rather people born before the early 1960s.

For a clearer articulation of the limits of a politics based strictly on generational lines, we need look no further than A Generation of Sociopaths, Bruce Cannon Gibney’s 2017 anti-boomer manifesto. Gibney, who worked at a hedge fund and then a venture capital firm both started by Silicon Valley arch-reactionary Peter Thiel, writes with the brio of a financier who believes his success is the direct result of far-reaching intelligence. A Generation of Sociopaths is a grand narrative of recent U.S. history with a simple goal: to shift the blame for rising inequality and social anomie from capitalism—and in particular neo-liberalism, a term that appears frequently in Gibney’s book—to the baby boomers. It recasts a class story in generational terms.[24]

That story goes something like the following: Boomers developed a sociopathic personality type because of permissive parenting, exposure to television, and baby formula (seriously). They took the prosperity of post-war America for granted. And when they became adults, their “profligate, indulgent, and irresponsible” habits “congealed into a debased neoliberalism, the sociopathic operating system that has dominated Boomer politics, Right and Left, for more than three decades.”[25]

Gibney’s indictment of boomers serves to displace anger at the wealthy, whom he repeatedly defends in A Generation of Sociopaths:

“As for soaking the rich,” he writes, “there aren’t that many of them, and they can be dunked on only so many times.”[26] (Gibney, it should be noted, is not a boomer, but is very rich.) The problem is selfish people voting for other selfish people pursuing generationally selfish policies, not a system of government that has done little but serve elite interests for forty years. He scolds “facile” “post-2008 jeremiads about the 1 percent” for

Ignoring…that even fairly large degrees of inequality have a certain inevitability. Inequality is a consequence of a capitalist system for which there is no replacement, as the utter failures of North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and the Soviet Union showed.

Neoliberalism’s main beneficiary, he claims, is not the capitalist class but rather people born before the early 1960s. This leads him to invoke Nazi-era jurist Carl Schmitt in his conclusion, to advocate that everyone from Gen X down recast boomers as the enemy within, an “other” who can serve rhetorically to unify a political response to their own recklessness.

The specific difficulties of contemporary American young adulthood have helped to motivate an effervescence of left-wing political activity not seen in decades . . .

To what ends would we demonize boomers? Gibney advances some sensible, social democratic sounding ideas, like increasing investment in public research and development, education, and infrastructure. These investments will require not only borrowing but also increases in taxation across the board. Some of these new taxes should specifically target boomers, with the caveat that “age-targeted taxes may be unconstitutional.”[27] But they should not get carried away with progressivity, which “defeats the social purpose it seeks to achieve, reducing society to oligarchy versus mob, with the oligarchy feeling entitled to govern at whim and emotionally justified in evading a burden others do not really share.”[28]

But nothing animates Gibney as much as the issue of the federal debt and the need for entitlement reform. Like many wealthy centrists before him, he casts public debt and Social Security “solvency” as crises of the first order. “The failure to do anything about the debt (other than add to it) amounts,” he argues, “to a declaration of generational bankruptcy, financial and moral, with costs transferred to subsequent generations.”[29]

This concern is a common one for generational theorists. A quarter century ago, Neil Howe and William Strauss were known for their passion for balancing the federal budget,[30] and the problems of a large generation aging out of the workforce have led a number of opinion writers to predict rising millennial resentment over paying into a social insurance system from which they will not benefit. Millennials do seem to be concerned about the fate of Social Security, but not much more than everyone else.[31] The biggest threat to the program is politicians who want to destroy it; many experts have challenged the mainstream media narrative of an entitlement “crisis”—a narrative that seems to recur whenever plans are floated for more generous social provision or government intervention in private markets—and suggested rather minor changes that would sustain Social Security.[32] Still, it makes for a neat story of ethical failure to meet the responsibilities for intergenerational stewardship, while avoiding issues for which austerity offers no cure.

Of Generations and Classes

Gibney’s biggest tell comes in a footnote toward the beginning of A Generation of Sociopaths, which contains the astonishing admission that he “treat[s] Boomers as generally white and always native-born. From time to time, minorities do make an appearance in the book but to do justice to the minority experience requires an entirely separate book.”[33] If you are making a case for a politics centered on birth cohort but then exclude all people of color and immigrants—and, as he explains elsewhere, anyone who falls below the “middle class”—then you are not really talking about a “generation” so much as a subset of it.

While these caveats make a joke of Gibney’s aspirations to generational diagnosis, they do point us toward the real political lessons of millennial experience. The period since the 2016 elections has spurred not only a wealth of writing on the political development of young Americans but also on the supposedly increasing salience of “identity politics”—two bodies of commentary that rarely overlap. In one of the most perceptive works in the latter category, Mistaken Identity, Asad Haider echoes the now- common radical critique of a focus on status divorced from class analysis, while also insisting that anti-racist politics be put at the center of an anti-capitalist struggle. The working class, he writes, “contains white people and people of color, people of all genders and sexualities, the employed and the unemployed—a multitude of people irreducible to any single description. A meaningful common interest between them does not somehow exist by default.” Finding common interests results not from aligning inherently similar characteristics but through “a process of political practice.”[34]

We should not overstate the extent of the millennial leftism; the youth- led movements that have risen in the last decade contain but a small fraction of their age cohort . . .

Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, movements for immigrant rights, an increasingly assertive feminist politics targeting the persistence of sexual harassment and violence, queer activists who are radicalizing our under- standing of gender identity and sexual expression, radical resistance to climate change, socialist political organizing in the aftermath of the 2016 elections—all have featured a strong component of youth outrage. But if many of their ruling class opponents are older people, they are opponents because they are in the ruling class, not because they are old.

The specific difficulties of contemporary American young adulthood have helped to motivate an effervescence of left-wing political activity not seen in decades, but these difficulties have oriented millennials to look beyond generational confines; their struggles give them more in common with elderly people struggling with skyrocketing housing and health care costs, or middle-aged workers whose inability to secure decent work is blamed on a “skills gap,” than with Mark Zuckerberg, his aspirations  to serve as a generational spokesman notwithstanding.[35]

Millennials have helped to kindle opposition to inequality, official corruption, and the exploitation of human need. These are not new problems, but the crucible of millennial childhood and young adulthood have generated political resistance that should shock the generational theorists who predicted a deepening of Gen X quietude. We should not overstate the extent of the millennial leftism; the youth-led movements that have risen in the last decade contain but a small fraction of their age cohort, and reactionary politics are not the sole province of older generations. But the millennials who embrace radicalism have turned their shared experiences into a politics that does more than reflect the year they were born. They are less interested in themselves as a discrete category than in their relationships to those who came before and those who will come after.

Photo Caption: Defend DACA march, Los Angeles, CA, September 5, 2017. Photo Credit: Molly Adams, Flickr

Author Bio:

Nick Serpe is a senior editor at Dissent. He has writ- ten recently on politics in Silicon Valley after Trump, the history of venture capital, and the documentary “Bisbee ’17.”


[1] Michael Dimock, “Defining Generations: Where Millennials End and Post-Millennials Begin,” Pew Research Center, March 1, 2018, available at http://www.pewresearch.org/fact- tank/2018/03/01/defining-generations-where- millennials-end-and-post-millennials-begin/
[2]  “The Generation Gap in American Politics: Wide and Growing Divides in Views of Racial Discrimination,” Pew Research Center, March 1, 2018, available at http://www.people-press.org/2018/03/01/the-generation-gap-in-american- politics/.
[3] Paul Taylor and the Pew Research Center, The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown (New York: Public Affairs, 2014).
[4] Eve Peyser, “Biden Trashes Millennials in His Quest to become Even Less Likable,” Vice, January 12, 2018, available at https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/mbpxx8/biden-trashes- millennials-in-his-quest-to-become-even-less-likable.
[5] Alex Nichols, “Ben Sasse Is a Millennial- Bashing Baby,” The Outline, June 14, 2017, available at https://theoutline.com/post/1729/ ben-sasse-is-a-millennial-bashing-baby.
[6] Douglas Coupland, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991).
[7] Eric Cooper, “The Millennial Muddle,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 11, 2009, available at https://www.chronicle.com/ article/The-Millennial-Muddle-How/48772.
[8] Neil Howe and William Strauss, Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 66.
[9] Jean M. Twenge, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable than ever before (New York: Free Press, 2006).
[10] Anya  Kamenetz,  Generation Debt: How Our Future Was Sold Out for Student Loans, Bad Jobs, No Benefits, and Tax Cuts for Rich Geezers—And How to Fight Back (New York: Riverhead, 2006).
[11] Tamara Draut, Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead (New York: Doubleday, 2006).
[12] Tami Luhby, “Millennials Born in 1980s May Never Recover from the Great Recession,” CNN, May 23, 2018, available at https://money.cnn.com/2018/05/22/news/economy/1980s-millennials-great-recession-study/index.html.
[13] Jonathan Cohn, “A Lost Political Generation?” The American Prospect, Spring 1992, available at https://prospect.org/article/lost-political- generation.
[14] Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,”  Perspectives on Politics 12, no. 3 (September 2014): 564-81, doi:10.1017/S1537592714001595.
[15] Twenge, Generation Me, 139-40. 16.
[16] Ibid., 137.
[17] Malcolm Harris, Kids These Days: The Making of Millennials (New York: Back Bay Books, 2017), 76.
[18] Ibid., 8. 19.
[19] Ibid., 201.
[20] Ibid., 90.
[21] Ibid., 199.
[22] Gabriel Winant, “Not Every Kid-Bond Matures,”n+1, Issue 30, 2018, available at https://nplusonemag.com/issue-30/reviews/ not-every-kid-bond-matures-2/.
[23] Harris, Kids These Days, 111.
[24] Malcolm Harris, “Hooray for Cultural Marxism,” Al Jazeera America, February 19, 2016, available at http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2016/2/ hooray-for-cultural-marxism.html.
[25] Bruce Cannon Gibney, A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America (New York: Hachette, 2017).
[26] Gibney, A Generation of Sociopaths, 70, xxviii. 27. Ibid., 340.
[27] Ibid., 336.
[28] Ibid., 341.
[29] Ibid., 175.
[30] Andrew Hart, “Against Generational Politics,” Jacobin, February 28, 2018, available at https:// jacobinmag.com/2018/02/generational-theory-millennials-boomers-age-history.
[31] “Wishful Thinking or within Reach? Three Generations Prepare for ‘Retirement,’” Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, December 2017, available at https://www.transamericacenter.org/docs/default-source/ retirement-survey-of-workers/tcrs2017_sr_ three-generations_prepare_for_retirement.pdf.
[32] Colin Gordon, “Social Security by the Numbers,” Dissent, November 6, 2013, available at https://www.dissentmagazine.org/blog/ social-security-by-the-numbers.
[33] Gibney, Generation of Sociopaths, xxvi.
[34] Asad Haider, Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump (New York: Verso, 2018), 50.
[35] “Mark Zuckerberg’s Commencement Address at Harvard,” The Harvard Gazette, May 25, 2017, available at https://news.harvard.edu/ gazette/story/2017/05/mark-zuckerbergs- speech-as-written-for-harvards-class-of-2017/.