Of course, “kids these days” is a perennial accusation. The young people of the “roaring twenties” were accused of being selfish and entitled. The baby boomers were once called the “me generation.” To understand where millennials fit in the history of generational voting patterns and political engagement, I turned to the data.
Let’s look at the data
In 2014, the General Social Survey, one of the most highly respected opinion surveys in the social sciences, repeated several questions from Sidney Verba et al.’s classic studies of American political participation in 1967 and 1987. As you can see in the figure below, over time, people have become much less likely to vote in local elections. But they’ve continued to be involved – sometimes more so — as civic volunteers, by contacting politicians, and in other ways.
Other major academic surveys confirm this. The American National Election Study found that around 30 percent of the public tried to influence others how to vote in elections from 1952 until 1996; since 2000 this has averaged over 40 percent. The World Values Survey shows that protest activity has increased since 1981. And more Americans are active in new forms of political action such as political consumerism (buying or not buying a product for political reasons), and online activity.
So how are different generations politically engaged?
To find out, I compared generations over time. Millennials in 2016 are significantly less likely to vote or try to influence others vote than were the ’80s generation in the 1987 survey, or the first wave of postwar baby boomers in 1967. But millennials display about the same level of political interest as the youngest generation did in 1987, and millennials contact local government and work with others in the community at essentially the same rates as did youth in the earlier surveys. And today’s youth are likely to get involved in protests or other political confrontations.
An overall index of the five activities included in all three surveys reveals this generational pattern, as you can see in the figure below. The three circles in the figure represent Americans’ average number of activities at each time point. Overall activity is essentially stable, or increases if we add protest.
At the same time, a widening age gap in participation occurs at both ends of the life cycle. Or to put it differently, there are bigger differences today between how the generations behave: young people and elderly people behave more differently politically in 2014 than they did in 1967 or 1987.
For instance, younger Americans in 1987 and again in 2014 are less politically engaged than young Americans were in 1967. Youth participation may have been exceptionally high in the 1960s, as many young people were protesting against the Vietnam War or with the civil rights movement. But the overall decline in youth activism in 1987 and 2014 comes primarily in voting turnout rather than other forms of activism.
Conversely, older Americans in the two later surveys are significantly more active than seniors were in 1967. Thus, the participation gap across the life cycle is increasing. On the one hand, better-educated, more affluent, and healthier seniors today remain socially and politically engaged into later life — more so than they were in 1967.
On the other hand, a growing percentage of the young have delayed their careers, marriage and children, which delays their political involvement. But as we see with the ’80s generation, as they entered middle age in the 2014 survey, they become as politically active as the average Americans in the 1967 survey. In other words, the 1980s generation that was once considered apathetic is now, in middle age, more politically active than earlier generations were at the same stage of life. The same is likely to occur for millennials.
In short, the widening participation gap between the less involved youth and the very involved elders in 2014 might not mean that millennials – or “kids these days” — don’t care. Rather, it could be that the long slope of differences by life stage is getting steeper, with less involvement in youth and more involvement in later life. And even this widening participation gap is largely based on millennials reluctance to vote, while remaining engaged in other ways.
So what’s the takeaway?
We can take two major lessons from these findings.
First, lower youth turnout is not a sign of a broad malaise. Millennials are about as interested in politics as youth in prior generations, and about as politically active outside elections. They’re involved in local communities, volunteering, and challenging political elites. UCLA’s 2015 survey of first-year college students in the U.S. found “interest in political and civic engagement has reached the highest levels since the study began 50 years ago.”
Second, if politicians want more young people voting, they can find ways to encourage it. Automatic voter registration systems as in Oregon and California make voting easier for young people who are likely to move often. Colorado’s 2013 reforms make it easier to register and vote on election day by pairing mail-in ballots with drive-through drop-off. This increases turnout and decreases the cost of vote administration. And as we’ve seen in the 2008 and 2016 campaigns, when candidates actually speak to the concerns and interests of the young, more are drawn into the electoral process.
Most important, however, if we look at the full range of political activity, millennials are good democratic citizens — at least as much as their elders were in their youth.
Russell Dalton is research professor at the Center for the Study of Democracy, University of California, Irvine.