Millennials have become the most populous living generation in the United States, overtaking Baby Boomers and Gen Xers in becoming the largest voting body. This group—born between 1981 and 1997 and currently aged 20 to 37— have been blamed for overpriced hipster coffee shops, the soaring cost of avocado, and apparently ruining Thanksgiving! Millennials stand out in other ways as well. Compared to previous generations of Americans, they are also more likely to have a bachelor’s degree, use public libraries, and have more open attitudes then their elders on questions of national identity. And as a result of growing up in the Internet age, many are at the helm of technological innovation.
So what do Millennials want, and what are some of their noticeable generational differences? A recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs event featuring Congresswoman Robin Kelly (D-IL2), former Congressman Bob Dold (R-IL10), POLITICO’s Natasha Korecki, and Council pollster Craig Kafura, discussed Millennial attitudes and the Millennial political agenda.
The Millennial Agenda
As the 2017 Chicago Council survey data shows, Millennials and other Americans differ on a number of items.
On trade, Millennials are more likely than older Americans to say that NAFTA is mostly good for the US economy (62%, vs. 55% of Gen Xers and 46% of Boomers). They are also more likely to point to automation as the cause for the decline in US manufacturing unemployment (48%, vs. 39% of Gen Xers and 38% of Boomers).
Millennials are also more liberal on immigration issues. A majority of Millennials (51%) say the US should accept refugees from Syria (compared to 39% of Gen Xers and 38% of Boomers), and they are less likely to see large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the US as a critical threat (29%, vs. 40% of Gen X and 41% of Boomers).
And on foreign policy, Millennials are far less likely to say that maintaining superior military power worldwide is a very important goal for the US (44%, vs. 55% of Gen Xers and 65% of Boomers). Millennials are also more likely than older Americans to support cutting back US defense spending (36%, vs. 24% of Gen Xers and 19% of Boomers).
How are parties targeting Millennials?
Pew Research data indicates that 61 percent of Millennials say they get some news about politics and government from Facebook, compared to 51 percent of Generation X and 39 percent of Baby Boomers. Data from the 2017 Chicago Council survey shows that one in four Millennials (24%) name social media as their primary news source, compared to nine percent of Gen Xers and four percent of Boomers. But that doesn’t mean campaigns are wholly pivoting to social media. Rep. Kelly said she does, “a little bit of everything… Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, but I still do radio…You still have to do everything to get out your message.”
In part, that’s because Millennials are a giant voting block--but a sleeping giant. As former Rep. Bold Dold observed, “Baby Boomers vote more regularly than Millennials do.” In 2018, he predicted there would “be a big push to make sure Millennials are informed and to get them to the polls.”
Is the Two-Party System in Trouble?
According to the Harvard Public Opinion Project two-thirds of youth are fearful about America’s future, and based on a 2017 University of Chicago survey 71 percent of Millennials say the Republican and Democratic parties do not adequately represent the American people and a third party is needed. Data from the 2017 Chicago Council Survey found that four in ten Millennials say they are political independents, part of the steady rise in the proportion of Americans identifying as independents.
But most independents lean towards one party or the other, and these leaners are as politically interested and engaged as those who say they are “strong” partisans of either party. The remaining ‘non-leaning’ independents, rather than representing the fuel for a future third party, are simply far less politically engaged than their party-leaning counterparts. Council data shows they are less likely to follow the news, less likely to report they are registered to vote, and less likely to report having voted in elections.
The Millennial generation is more than just a large, youthful generation. They are not just political spectators, but as Rep. Kelly said, “young people really help run Washington. I have fifteen and a half staff members and only four aren’t millennials.” They are also much more diverse (over 40 percent are non-white), they are more secular than older generations, and are multi-lingual, with one in four saying they speak a language other than English at home. Analysis of Pew’s American Values data reveals that Millennials are also less confident in the future of the United States than older groups, and research from the Brookings Institution shows they are more likely to live in poverty than earlier generations of young adults.
Both Republicans and Democrats must take Millennial concerns into account in the run-up to the upcoming mid-term elections. As the most sizeable demographic in the electoral system, Millennials’ opinions and values in shaping future party policies and political institutions are more apparent than ever. But their impact will remain limited until they show up at the ballot box in higher numbers.
For more on the Millennial Agenda:
- Watch the full discussion: Red and Blue: America and the Millennial Agenda, with Rep. Bob Dold, Rep. Robin Kelly, POLITICO’s Natasha Korecki, and the Council’s Craig Kafura.
- Sign up for the Council’s monthly Public Opinion Insights newsletter for upcoming research on Millennials.