In case you hadn’t heard, young people these days — aka “the millennials” — are the most cynical and distrusting generation ever recorded. Only 19 percent think most people can be trusted.
According to a big study from the Pew Research Center, they are less attached to marriage, religion and political institutions than Gen Xers, baby boomers and the other demographic flavors journalists love to use. They like their friends, their digital “social networks” and their toys, and that’s about it. Not even a majority will call themselves “patriotic.” Probably more dismaying for liberals: Of any living generation, they are the least likely to call themselves environmentalists.
Now, I should say that I often find generational stereotyping pretty annoying. For instance, there was no “greatest generation.” Sure, there were a bunch of great Americans who stormed the beaches of Normandy. But is some guy who was in jail in 1943 for petty larceny deserving of special respect because he was born around the same time as a guy who won the Medal of Honor during World War II?
Honor, glory and respect are earned individually, not collectively.
Politicians pander to young people, and lots of young people fall for it. And that speaks well of neither. Politicians pander to “youth” because it’s a time-saving way to trawl for votes and volunteer door-knockers wholesale. It’s the difference between using a gill net and a fishing pole. “You’re great because you were born more recently than other people” is the lamest form of flattery I can think of.
When politicians invoke generational stereotypes, what they are really doing is saying, “Act your age.” What’s pathetic is when young people unwittingly follow that advice.
For example, Barack Obama won the youth vote by huge margins in 2008 (66 percent among under-30s) and 2012 (60 percent). He did this in no small part by pandering to the vanity of young people. Sure, he addressed “youth issues” like student loans. Yes, he also mirrored their views on some social issues (though not gay marriage in ’08).
Obama’s ambivalence toward seemingly clichéd patriotic gestures (remember the endless controversy about whether he would wear a flag pin?) sent an important signal to young voters raised on the snark of “The Daily Show” and weary of talk of “freedom fries.”
But the overall gestalt was more about fostering a sense of inclusion in a “movement” of some kind; “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” and all of that nonsense. Obama promised that government could be the vehicle that would carry us to the sunny uplands of history. He took the aesthetic of a Pepsi marketing rollout and pasted it onto a presidential campaign.
But, as Mario Cuomo once said, politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. And the prose of the Obama years has been an incoherent and disillusioning run-on sentence. His signature achievement, Obamacare, was designed from the outset to screw young people, overcharging them for products they don’t need in order to subsidize older Americans. Young people loved it when Obama called George W. Bush’s deficits “unpatriotic” because they saddled millennials with debt. That was $7 trillion borrowed dollars ago.
“Idealistic” Democrats have spent the Obama years circling the wagons around parasitic teachers unions at the expense of poor minority kids (rich people have school choice already). The shovel-ready jobs were a fraudulent talking point used to justify pouring money into constituencies that already have jobs. Obama is hell-bent on raising the minimum wage, which will help people with jobs — particularly well-paying union jobs that tie compensation to multiples of the minimum wage. But it won’t help young people get their first jobs, which are harder to find these days than legal weed.
Senate Democrats just held an utterly bogus pseudo-filibuster on global warming against a legislative body they control. They proposed no legislation, preferring instead to put on a kabuki show for rich donors justifiably wondering what Obama’s “Year of Action” actually means.
It’s true, millennials remain more liberal and look more favorably toward big government than other age groups. But people grow up. They may well learn that their cynicism towards marriage and God — time-honored sources of happiness — was misplaced as the single life gets old and they find the one or the One they were waiting for.
Similarly, the hot embers of their ardor for big government may cool as they realize the poetry rarely gets translated into prose. And for that, Barack Obama will deserve a fair share of the credit. For nothing breeds disillusionment and cynicism more than the failure to deliver.
Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a columnist for Tribune Media.