Since March, no fewer than four major studies on millennials’ political attitudes have been published, prompting media confusion about young people’s seemingly contradictory attitudes about the role of government. Headlines like “Millennials’ Political Views Don’t Make Any Sense” and “This Poll Proves That Millennials Have Totally Incoherent Political Views” graced popular websites like The Atlantic and Vox.
Such headlines should be expected considering the Herculean task at hand. Aggregating the political beliefs of a group as numerous and multifarious as an entire generation is so difficult it can seem like a fool’s errand. It would be silly to describe a whole age group by one ideological label, yet political scientists and pollsters have historically been able to pick out general trends.
Though pundits may throw their arms up in frustration, they should get more creative in reading the tea leaves. Millennials’ strong dedication to social freedoms, combined with their commitment to economic mobility, points to a more libertarian future.
It’s easy to understand why pundits are so upset at first glance. All four polls point to a majority of millennials showing cognitive dissonance, if not holding completely inconsistent or contradictory views. A survey by the Center for American Progress (CAP), for example, found that 57 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds believe “government spending is always wasteful and inefficient,” yet 69 percent believe that “government must step in to protect the national economy when the market fails." Reason-Rupe’s survey similarly found that 65 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds believe it would help the economy to cut spending, but 62 percent believe boosting spending on job training would help the economy; 58 percent believe the same about infrastructure.
Given this apparent muddle, it’s no surprise that pollsters sometimes craft narratives out of the data to fit their ideological leanings. The executive summary of CAP’s survey, for example, claims that millennials have “deeply held progressive beliefs under their voting preferences,” while Reason-Rupe’s survey claims that “a majority of young Americans say they would support a socially liberal, fiscally conservative candidate.”
Unfortunately, any narrative that can be made could easily be contradicted. If millennials are so left-wing, why do more self-identify as “conservative” (21 percent) than “progressive” (16 percent) in CAP’s own data? If 53 percent of millennials are willing to vote for a "fiscally conservative, socially liberal" candidate, why do the same percentage say they’d vote for Hillary Clinton in Reason-Rupe’s poll?
These narratives fall apart because they are crude attempts to sketch a whole generation of people at a snapshot in time. Focusing on more specific elements, however, can reveal somewhat clearer pictures. Reason-Rupe’s survey does a good job by breaking 18- to 29-year-olds’ political attitudes down into numerous subclasses, including income and party affiliation. The former is particularly instructive: The more income they earn, the more millennials embrace economic liberty.
Only 39 percent of respondents earning less than $20,000 a year oppose income redistribution. However, 57 percent of millennials earning more than $100,000 oppose redistribution. The same resistance-to-income correlation can be observed in response to questions about expanding the social safety net and enacting a living wage; the more a millennial earns, the less likely he or she is willing to support government intervention in the economy.
This phenomenon is by no means surprising. A plethora of academic literature points to the fact that higher-earning individuals tend not to support higher taxes and spending. One recent Northwestern University study found that this gap between the political attitudes of the general public and the wealthy can be quite dramatic. While 78 percent of the general public supports increasing the minimum wage above the poverty line, for example, a mere 40 percent of wealthy respondents do.
While the surveys show that millennials remain deeply divided on economic policy, it’s important to remember that the results reflect only a moment in time. For the vast majority of millennials, their incomes will only rise throughout their lifetimes; perhaps an inclination toward limited government will follow. Such a trend seems to be common as people work to become more upwardly mobile. French Premier George Clemenceau once said, "Not to be a socialist at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head." Could millennials lend truth to the old cliché that people become more conservative with age?
The evidence on earnings suggests so, and Americans, not just millennials, are changing their attitudes on social issues. As the Pew Research Center documents in its youth survey, a strong majority of millennials supports legalizing marijuana (69 percent) as do a majority of Generation X (53 percent) and baby boomers (52 percent). The same cross-generational consensus can be seen on gay marriage and immigration.
If growing tolerance of social liberty is happening across the board and support for economic liberty increases with age, libertarianism could be becoming an increasingly popular position. The irony, however, is that such increasing inclination toward limited government may come without the libertarian label. As CAP’s study finds, only 4 percent of young people self-identify as libertarians, possibly out of ignorance, since 36 percent couldn’t offer any definition of the worldview.
In fact, millennials don't seem very interested in traditional labels at all. Across all four studies, the largest ideological class with which 18- to 29-year-olds identified was either “moderate” (34 percent in CAP’s poll) or “independent” (38 percent in Harvard’s, 39 percent in Pew’s, and 34 percent in Reason-Rupe’s).
In short, millennials could become more libertarian as they get older, but they may not know what to call themselves.