A new report suggests that millennials care less about party loyalty than previous generations and increasingly feel that the terms “liberal” and “conservative” fail to capture the diversity of contemporary political affiliations.
The 2016 Millennial Impact Report, released Saturday, focuses on how millennials, broadly defined as those born between 1980 and 2000, engaged in the political process during the election year that led to Donald Trump’s presidency.
For the last six years, the research and marketing agency Achieve, which has offices in Indianapolis and West Palm Beach, Fla., has researched how and why millennials engage in political causes. 2016 gave researchers a chance to see how this generation behaved during a contentious and often unpredictable election year.
“We wanted to understand how the election influenced millennials’ attitudes toward cause engagement, and so this presented a prime opportunity. Never could we have imagined what the political season would’ve looked like this past year,” Amy Thayer, director of research for Achieve, said during a webinar.
The researchers began their study with two hypotheses: that millennials would take up different social causes corresponding to the ideologies of the parties’ final nominees, and that their engagement with causes would increase on social media and offline during the political season. Both of these notions proved unfounded.
From March through November 2016, millennial interest in social causes did not change significantly (education remained the top issue throughout) and cause-related engagement did not increase. Thayer said that millennials as a cohort cannot be easily characterized as liberal or conservative, and that the vast majority of respondents ended up somewhere in the middle.
“Millennials are quietly, yet powerfully, redefining terms such as ‘cause engagement,’ ‘liberal,’ ‘conservative,’ ‘activist,’” Thayer said. “What the data reveal were that ‘cause engagement,’ ‘liberal,’ ‘conservative’ — these are all definitions that traditionally people have an idea of what they mean. But what we found when we spoke to millennials … is that these definitions don’t apply to them.”
Millennials, she continued, want to change, redefine or eradicate such political labels. They want the U.S. government, she said, to become less divisive and to embrace what they consider to be the increasing open-mindedness of Americans on social issues that were controversial in previous generations.
Many held both fiscally conservative and socially liberal views and would identify themselves based on which they valued more strongly.
“Millennials aren’t loyal to political parties. But instead, they were more loyal to the issues and the causes they were passionate about, that they cared about,” Thayer said. “And then the candidates that they believed best spoke to those issues or causes, those are the people that they tended to align themselves with.”
Their top issues include education, employment, health care and the economy.
Slightly over half of respondents (52.5 percent) identified themselves as activists, but even those people did not relate strongly with the label. This raised the question of why only half the members of a generation often disparaged as “do-gooders” see themselves as activists.
“I see an activist along the lines of a protester, so I can’t say that I consider myself one of those,” one millennial respondent said. “In a small way, I have no problem voicing my opinion to my congressman or signing a petition, but I really wouldn’t consider myself an activist.”
For Thayer, this attitude was typical of people the researchers encountered throughout their study. Millennials tend to believe in their own ability to create social change and better their community, country and world. They generally believe that the power rests in their hands, and doubt the government’s ability to promote change, so they quietly live what the researchers call “a change-making lifestyle every day.”
In aggregate, more than 70 percent of millennials said they believed they could have an impact on issues they care about — without relying on traditional institutions. Roughly 75 percent of respondents had a very low level of trust in government and few trusted government to “do what’s right and to work on their behalf,” Thayer said.
So, according to the researchers, what causes millennials to engage in politics?
“It’s an intrinsic desire to help a cause that they’re interested in. It’s not loyalty to an organization, it’s not belief in individual candidates or supporting a political party,” Thayer said. “It really is their intensive desire, their own personal desire, to support an organization or a cause of their choice.”
Amy Lynch, a conference speaker and “generations expert,” told Yahoo News that she agrees that both major parties have lost touch with millennials and that she believes this generation is not drawn to the political system.
“They have never seen it work well. At no time in their memory has government worked efficiently. They remember a lot of times when government couldn’t even pass a budget, but they don’t remember really effective government, so they don’t believe in it very much,” she said.
According to Lynch, millennials turn to businesses, not to government, to make the world a better place. As examples, she cited the shoe brand Toms and the prescription eyeglasses brand Warby Parker, whose business model is “Buy a pair, give a pair.”
She said that millennials turned out in great numbers to support Barack Obama during his first presidential campaign, but that they were disappointed and “burned” because they had wanted to see a lot of change and because they felt he was unable to achieve as much as they wanted.
“The other burn was Bernie Sanders. Millennials were behind him,” Lynch said. “They did not vote in big numbers for Hillary [Clinton], because what they want is a real visionary leader who will make government work.”
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