Millennials Didn’t Abandon Our Institutions — Our Institutions Failed Them

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Cameron Karnes sorts CDs at Independent Records & Video March 14, 2006, in Denver. As a group, Millennials, the generation born between 1981 and 1999, are characterized as confident, hardworking and technologically fluent. (AP Photo/The Denver Post, Kathryn Osler)

Cameron Karnes sorts CDs at Independent Records & Video in Denver. As a group, Millennials, the generation born between 1981 and 1999, are characterized as confident, hardworking and technologically fluent. (AP Photo/The Denver Post, Kathryn Osler)

The Pew Research Center recently released a study finding that the Millennial generation – those born between the early 1980s and 2000 – is increasingly alienated from the major institutions of American society. Many are turned off by religion and see little difference between the two major political parties. They’re less trusting of strangers than previous generations. Fewer are tying the knot. Less than half consider themselves patriotic.

The report led to a lot of media chin-scratching – and no small amount of hand-wringing – much of it from flummoxed members of the preceding generations, Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat lamented the loss of community, warning that hyper-individualism may leave young adults susceptible to dangerous demagoguery. Unsurprisingly, National Review editor Jonah Goldberg blamed Obama. And Dana Milbank wrote in The Washington Post that he believed their lack of loyalty to the administration, rather than a sense of invincibility, may factor into the Millennials not signing up for Obamacare in sufficient numbers. Ignoring a Kaiser Family Foundation study which concluded that young people’s participation “is not as important as conventional wisdom suggests” and “a premium ‘death spiral’ is highly unlikely,” Milbank claimed that if their enthusiasm “doesn’t improve significantly, the result likely will be fatal for the Affordable Care Act.”

But rather than blame those crazy kids, we can look at some social trends that make their detachment seem perfectly rational. One of Ronald Reagan’s favorite lines about his switch in partisan allegiance was, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.” The reality is that America’s institutions have become a lot less worthy of the Millennials’ trust.

Pew found that whether it’s faith in religion, trust in politics or sense of patriotism, every subsequent generation since World War II’s “silent” one has less of it than the one that preceded it.

Heather McGhee on the Millennial Generation

The silent generation had every reason to be patriotic. Their political leaders had put their parents to work during the Depression, defeated fascism and built a middle class with the GI Bill. They’d seen rural America get electricity and an interstate highway system constructed from coast to coast.

But the baby boomers’ faith was tested, and in many cases shattered, by Vietnam, political assassinations and civil strife. Yet they also saw their government try to tackle poverty and were eyewitnesses to a major expansion of civil rights.

Gen-Xers came of age being told, as per Ronald Reagan, that the government itself was the problem. Then, the oldest of the Millennial generation grew politically aware as President Clinton’s sex life was the pretext for impeachment and they cast their first votes in a disputed election decided by the Supreme Court. The youngest are growing up in an era when dark money spent by a faceless few dominates political contests. For them, partisan politics have always been toxic.

American religious life has undergone dramatic changes as well. In 1960, Kevin Phillips, who had been the chief political analyst for the 1968 Nixon campaign, wrote The Coming Republican Majority. Thirty years later, he would recall predicting that “the new GOP coalition seemed certain to enjoy a major infusion of conservative northern Catholics and southern Protestants,” only to discover that “the move unleashed an evangelical, fundamentalist and Pentecostal counterreformation, with strong theocratic pressures becoming visible in the Republican national coalition and its leadership.”

The mainline churches still exist, but the rise of the religious right in the 1970s and 1980s made them the loudest and most politicized voices in the room. As Alana Massey wrote for Religion Dispatches, this appears to have had a marked effect on young people, whom Pew found to be much more accepting of homosexuality than their parents and grandparents:

A new study from the Public Religion Research Institute confirmed what Millennials with a vested interest in the church have known for some time: homophobia, and the ill-treatment of human beings that it engenders, has a toxic influence on religion. Of course, you need not be a Millennial to know that a stance of intolerance from a religion founded on principles of radical inclusion is a losing strategy but it’s in this generation that the shift is most remarkable: one-third of Millennials who left the religious institutions of their upbringings cite “negative teachings” and “negative treatment” of LGBT communities as primary reasons for their departure.

Changing social mores no doubt play a significant role in Millennials increasingly eschewing marriage – it’s no longer scandalous to live with a significant other. But that’s not the only dynamic driving this change. According to Pew, Millennials are “the first [generation] in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations… had at the same stage of their life cycles.”

A study that followed 3,700 low-income working couples between 1998 and 2000 found that for every dollar a man’s hourly wages increased, the odds that he’d get hitched by the end of a year rose by 5 percent, and those earning more than $25,000 during the year had twice the marriage rates of those making less. The Pew researchers also concluded that “the economic hardships of young adults may be one reason that so many have been slow to marry.”

It’s unfortunate that Pew didn’t ask about young people’s faith in corporate America. When Gallup asked Americans of all ages to rank 16 institutions by their level of trustworthiness, big business came in 13th. How different generations viewed it would be telling – since responding to a call to arms known as the “Powell Memo” in 1972, major corporations, like many churches, have become highly politicized and in many ways abandoned what had been a tacit social contract.

It’s worth noting, too, that Millennials aren’t alone in becoming alienated from our major institutions. According to Gallup, over the last 40 years, all Americans have lost faith in them. The only one that hasn’t seen a dramatic decline is the military, and the pollster started asking the question a few months before the US halted combat operations in Vietnam, when trust in the armed forces was at a nadir.

With a mountain of student debt, an unemployment rate hovering around 15 percent and an array of major institutions that don’t appear to be in tune with the problems that they face, the fact that younger Americans aren’t running out to salute the flag should come as little surprise. It’s a perfectly rational reaction to the world in which they’re coming of age.

Joshua Holland was a senior digital producer for and now writes for The Nation. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @JoshuaHol.
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