Elated as they stood in the cold on a November evening in 2008, packs of millennials celebrated the election of their new president. Barack Obama was the great hope of a great new generation, the largest in the world at 78 million strong.
The millennials held their “HOPE” signs high. Fifty-one percent of them voted in the 2008 election, and 66 percent of those who voted selected Obama. He was their choice.
Publications across the world trumpeted the new millennial referendum. Here was the generation set to push the world forward with progressivism, independence and optimism.
Just like their chosen leader, it didn’t take millennials long to disappoint.
In America, just 23 percent of millennials voted in the 2010 midterm election. After nearly 50 percent turned out in 2012, the numbers dipped once again for the 2014 midterms, to 21.3 percent.
Millennial apathy is everywhere
In the United Kingdom, 55 percent of 25- to-34-year-olds, and 44 percent of those ages 18 to 24, voted in the 2010 general election, which included choosing a prime minister. Five years later, the percentages dropped: 54 percent of those ages 25-34 voted, and 43 percent of those 18-24 took to the polls. Those age groups had the lowest turnout in Great Britain.
In Germany, about 16 percent of those who voted in the 2013 Bundestag Election were age 30 and younger. That’s fewer than any age cohort recorded in 2013.
What is happening with millennials, these supposed agents of global change? This generation, apparently concerned with the state of the world, isn’t doing much to change the state of the world. That’s a seriously troubling trend for 2016 and beyond.
It wasn’t long ago that millennials were the most optimistic political supporters. Look in America. In 2009, nearly 60 percent of them approved of Democratic congressional leadership, according to the Pew Research Center. Another 42 percent approved of Republican leadership. Those numbers plummeted in 2014 to 32 and 20 percent, respectively, below the trust of even Generation X, stereotypically an independent-leaning group.
Consequently, Pew shows that millennials are now more politically independent than ever: 50 percent in a 2014 survey.
Think about that: Half of people ages 15-33 are likely unaffiliated, untethered from one direct political viewpoint.
That could be great, since there’s nearly a majority of young people potentially seeking leadership and direction to change the world. But that’s not exactly the story.
Patriotism eludes millennials
Fewer millennials are patriotic. Fewer are religious. Fewer even care about the environment. And only 19 percent of millennials, in a 2014 Pew survey, generally trust people at all.
These young people rarely affiliate with anything resembling a trusted or established brand. Denied work after college, and saddled with higher-education loans that can soar over $100,000, millennials have learned to work and live for themselves. They’d rather give like-minded people their paltry earnings than put it back into retailers like Sears and grocers like Whole Foods. Because of this, established names of the baby-boom generation are falling apart.
Millennials visit local coffee shops and farmers’ markets, bodegas and breweries. The brands they trust? Their own. Every millennial is brand, a person who creates his or her own personal marketing strategy, constantly using Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and Twitter to promote him or herself as independent, smart, funny and carefree. Everything is about “me.”
Because of this combination of mistrust and misdirected vanity, millennials are increasingly choosing independence when confronting political decisions. Those who do align with established political parties and candidates have already surrendered to a notion that the establishment is too enormous to overcome. It’s best just to choose the lesser of two evils.
But those millennials aren’t even acting. They show up for presidential elections and pull one lever, then they may espouse their views over Facebook or Twitter. But that’s the extent of their political action.
In short, millennials want to look like they can change the world. They’re not doing it, though.
Me Me Me Me
Early Millennials (born 1982-1989) were entering the workforce when world economies collapsed in 2008, fueling a period of layoffs and job-market challenges for the world’s largest generational group. Census data showed 63 percent of millennials were working in 2012, down from 70 percent of the 18-to-31 age group in 1990. Economic woes, and the joblessness that followed, drove many millennials to navigate their own careers without secure full-time employment, contributing and leading to a mistrust of established corporate and institutional structures.
As noted, many of these millennials have simply focused on themselves via Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and Twitter, opting not to engage in social activism.
But a small global population of these Early Millennials have only recently become main actors in protests against establishments and institutions. The 2014 economic collapse in Greece, and the civil wars in Libya (2011) and the Ukraine (2014) are three of the most current examples. In America, the Occupy movement spurred millennials — many college students in 2011 and 2012 — to protest against global economic inequality.
But Occupy met a wall of militarized police officers outfitted in riot gear. Hundreds of arrests and forcible removals of protesters and journalists from Zuccotti Park in New York City helped thin the number of activists.
Then Occupy was revealed to be watched by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security.
No wonder millennials don’t trust institutions; the institutions don’t trust them.
Occupy didn’t lead to reform against income inequality; it only disillusioned millennials who thought they could spur change.
Three years after Occupy, the Black Lives Matter movement organized to protest police brutality against black Americans and a greater history of institutionalized racism. However, this movement, largely led by Late Millennials (born 1990 and 2000), has taken shape over social media with sparse live protests.
The rise of Black Lives Matter, and a recent spate of protests against perceived institutional inequality at American universities, have given birth to a new threat to Late Millennials seeking to act: They’re routinely being derided for protesting.
Sophia A. McClennen, a professor of international affairs at Penn State University, recently wrote in the Washington Post that “much of the response to these protests has focused less on the issues raised by students and more on the character flaws of the students themselves. The story has bee
n that there must be something wrong with these kids.”
So what could happen when the few protesting Late Millennials — who increasingly have escaped institutional influence — are told by the institution (professors, working adults, politicians, authorities) that they’re flawed, whiny, incompetent and unnecessary?
They, like the Early Millennials of Occupy, could stop. And they could become armchair protesters, following whichever candidate speaks most to their perceived beliefs. They could check out from action and become apathetic.
No unified fronts
If younger millennials continue the trend of apathy that already has spread through the oldest populations of the generation, they will allow institutions to run over their closely guarded beliefs of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
As of winter 2015-2016, there are no large-scale anti-war protests across the world. Refugees are fleeing Syria and other Middle Eastern nations, met with anti-immigration backlash across the Western world. Yet millennials — who have the power to overtake any generational group — sit on the sidelines, declining to protest the all-out war that causes people to flee the Arab world.
Instead, Early Millennials are beginning to settle into domestic life, populating their personal brands with baby pictures and home-ownership updates.
Instagram says its average user spends 21 minutes each day using the app. Approximately 70 million photos are posted onto Instagram each day. And now parents are using the app to post photos of their toddlers wearing haute fashion and celebrating their two-and-a-half-year birthday.
Early Millennials are also beginning to buy houses. A late-2014 Bank of America and USA Today survey found 32 percent of millennials were saving for a house. The economy has improved enough for most millennials to get steady pay. Down-payment requirements are low. Babies are now being born. Early Millennials are moving in and settling into communities.
This means Early Millennials might get involved in their local communities, joining school boards and voting for small-town officials. For sure, look for this group to especially embrace “local” even more in 2016. The key, however, is Late Millennials. They seem more inclined to act, but the question is if they’ll be beaten down by the establishment.
The trend lines suggest that millennials are merely continuing a pattern: For example, they’re less patriotic, but Generation Xers are less patriotic than Baby Boomers, who are less patriotic than those in the Silent Generation.
And while millennials are 50 percent independent, according to Pew Research, Generation Xers are 39 percent independent, Baby Boomers are 37 percent independent, and Silent Generation members are 32 percent patriotic.
It’s nearly a mirror image in the United Kingdom. Forty-nine percent of Brits 60 and older considered themselves “very patriotic,” according to a 2015 YouGov survey. Then, it declined: 32 percent of those age 40-59 felt the same way; 20 percent of those age 25-39 felt that way; and only 15 percent of those age 18-24 felt “very patriotic.”
Patriotism is low in Germany, too: Only 9 percent of all Germans surveyed by YouGov say they’re “very patriotic.”
The data suggest that, over the next 50 years, the definition of these Western nations — as patriotic and political systems — is bound to burst completely.
You may have millennials to thank for that, after all. But the threat of lifelong apathy looms large. TJ