One of the many stereotypes of millennials, the young people born — depending on whom you ask — between 1983 and 2001, is that they are disengaged and unpatriotic. A new survey of 2,000 people between the ages of 16 and 24, conducted by the research division of MTV, tries to push back at that trope by advancing a more nuanced definition of patriotism.


A fan of the United States holds an American flag during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group G match between the United States and Portugal at Arena Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil, on June 22. (Warren Little/Getty Images)

I am all for a thoughtful approach to what it means to love one’s country. But the findings of MTV’s survey suggest that just like previous generations, millennials will have to untangle the contradictions between a number of their stated values and between their ideals and the world they actually live in.

One target of MTV’s survey is the findings from the Pew Research Center, which defines patriotism as believing that America is “the greatest country in the world,” a rather ambitious standard to meet to prove that you have affection for your country of birth. Apparently, just 15 percent of people between ages 18 and 29 think that the U.S. “stands above all other countries” in a Pew poll conducted earlier this year.

This time last year, though, Pew reported that 55 percent of millennials “think the country’s best days are ahead,” outpacing some of their elders in optimism. Just 51 percent of respondents overall said they believe America is headed upward, rather than advancing toward an inexorable decline. It seems to me that a vote of confidence in the United States’ future is a pretty dandy indicator of faith in our country and its values and capabilities.

Rather than trying to boil patriotism down to whether millennials think we are number one, MTV took a look at what young people think constitute American values and how much faith they have that the country can live up to them.

The survey respondents believe that “equality and fairness” and the push for policies that enshrine those ideals is a particularly American ideal, but almost 70 percent do not particularly see it as a reality. They believe, the survey’s authors noted, that “the country only embraces college-educated, well-off people.”

What might make for a fairer country? Eighty-eight percent named affordable higher education, 87 percent called for affordable access to health care, 87 percent singled out public transportation and 86 percent want a right to “nationwide and free internet access.”

How that last item would interact with millennial ideals about “equality and fairness” and the right “to freely express yourself and your opinion” is an open question. An Associated Press survey conducted repeatedly over the past several years has found that young Internet users witness slurs and hateful language regularly online. It is only recently that a majority of the young people polled said that they were significantly offended by such speech.

These stated values, the prevalence of ugly language online, campus movements for trigger warnings in the classroom and high, social-media-fueled costs for foolish or intemperate speech suggest that millennials, like generations before them, will have their own reckoning to make with their ideas about speech.

MTV president Stephen Friedman said in a statement that millennials “are redefining patriotism as an active commitment, rather than an unquestioned obligation.”

The survey does not necessarily capture what that active commitment looks like. The recession, which resulted in slashed budgets and hiring freezes at all levels of government, has made it harder for young people who want public service careers to find jobs in government. Just 25.4 percent of Americans did volunteer work in fiscal year 2013, with people between ages 20 and 24 volunteering at the lowest rates. MTV asked survey respondents how they would donate a hypothetical $100, and reported that, according to their results, “Millennials donated more than twice as much to global causes on average as Boomers.”

Maybe that reflects a sense that American greatness is best restored by personal charity, rather than by government intervention. Maybe it is just that a generation whose parents came of age during the age of great international aid concerts, and whose inclinations in the same direction have been super-charged by social-media-savvy efforts like #Kony2012, are acclimated to the idea of giving internationally.

None of this means that millennials are any more confused or conflicted than their predecessors. Expressions of patriotic enthusiasm are as bright and thrilling as fireworks, but they dissipate as quickly. In the bright light of day, the complications and contradictions on the ground are sharply visible. Millennials, like Americans of all other ages, will have to try to reconcile these issues for themselves.

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.