4. Let’s Do the Numbers


Now armed with two well though-out yet conflicting positions regarding millennials and their relationship to what both Beinart and Perlstein seem to agree to be oppressive American neoliberalism, this thesis must ask for itself: What is the real situation? And who are millennials?

If we are to take as plausible the diagnosis that millennials are so steeped in neoliberal social politics and so confused by their own discontent that they are unable to coherently generate any positive alternative narrative, then we must come to the conclusion that, in order for the beginnings of any new way to form, millennials must first agree on with what they are discontented. Not only is it impossible for any bottom-up movement to materialize without any collective dissent, but it also eliminates the possibility of any top-down catering to the general political will, even if coming from a completely willing, genuine, and benevolent power. Thus, although even Beinart affirms that millennial opinion is far from coherent when looking at questions of positive, active policy, one would hope that, for the sake of a new way forming out of negation, millennials would be able to demonstrate common opinion regarding disapproval.

The fact of the matter is, however, that millennial opinion is not even coherent when it comes to collective dissatisfaction. Distrust in the government and distrust in the free market economy should be of the few things that millennials are able to rally around, according to Beinart’s assertions, but when looking at the numbers, especially when millennials are compared to the rest of the adult population, it is unclear whether or not they are even dissatisfied with the status quo.*

Confidence in Banks and Financial Institutions (Figure 1)

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For one, as of 2012, millennials were significantly less likely than the rest of the population to express a lack of confidence in banks and other financial institutions. This is probably the most shocking of the millennial confidence statistics, as the irresponsible and greedy actions of financial institutions are the root causes of millennials’ bleak economic situation, both present and predicted. Even though big finance is commonly pegged with the blame of the 2008 financial crisis, the stifling of economic growth, and the massive expansion of the wealth gap, all of which contribute to economists’ predictions of future financial hardship for millennials, millennials responded to banks and financial institutions with a great deal of confidence nine percentage points more often, and hardly any confidence nine percentage points less often than the rest of the population (Figure 1, Appendix A). This points to the conclusion that millennials are unable to separate themselves from the neoliberal love affair with big money and financialization, despite the fact that, sociologically speaking, millennials’ plastic years should have predisposed the generation to a mistrust of financial institutions that outpaces the rest of the population.

Confidence in the Executive Branch of Government (Figure 2)

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Moving to the public sector, as of 2012, millennials were less likely than the rest of the population to express deliberate mistrust in the government; and that applies to each federal branch: “the executive branch,” “the Supreme Court,” and “Congress.” When evaluating that statistic based on Beinart’s assertions regarding millennial experience, no conclusions make congruent sense. If the millennial plastic years really did align the generation toward a collective mistrust in the government, then it should necessarily show in confidence polling. Nonetheless, polling shows that millennials consistently demonstrate more confidence in the government than the rest of the population.

It is not even the case that the entire population lacks confidence in the government and millennials just lack confidence to a slightly lesser degree. Millennials are, for the most part, fairly ambivalent toward the government, in some cases even showing favor to it. In the case of the executive branch, almost 74 percent of millennials admitted to either a great deal or some confidence, and only 26 percent expressed hardly any confidence, whereas all older generations combined expressed hardly any confidence at a rate of 41 percent (Figure 2, Appendix B). It could be the case, however, that polling for millennial confidence in the executive branch is misleading, since millennials are the most racially diverse population America has ever seen, and Obama throughout his presidency has been disproportionately popular with racial minorities. The general social survey numbers do support this, as they show that 42 percent of white responders expressed having hardly any trust in the executive branch while only 25 percent and of black responders and 27 percent of responders of other races answered in the same way (Appendix C). Nevertheless, this still pokes holes in Beinart’s coherency argument, for the facts that the millennial generation is extremely diverse and that the different millennial racial demographics express significantly different sentiments regarding political trust points to a confused and non-collective age group even in terms of dissent.

Confidence in the Congress (Figure 3)

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Millennials are also less likely to express discontent with the legislative branch of the federal government, as only about a third of millennial responders expressed hardly any confidence in Congress, whereas a whopping 54 percent of other responders answered that way (Figure 3, Appendix D). With consistent partisan congressional gridlock throughout much of the first fifteen years of the twenty-first century, millennials should be bred by now to completely mistrust Congress, at least more than the rest of the population that has lived long enough to experience congressional successes, but that is not the case. This statistical phenomenon could be explained by claiming that, since gridlocked Congress is all that millennials have known, millennials are less likely to answer the question of confidence in the legislative branch with suspicion than the older generations that “know better.” Yet, no matter whether one is considering this explanation or not, the facts still point to a millennial generation that is not aware enough of its own discontent to be rally around it.

Should the Government do More or Less? (Figure 4)

figure 4

Finally, when asked about the government as a whole and, in the vaguest terms possible, whether the United States government should do more or less, millennials typically responded as to be more open to the government doing more, but not by much (three percentage points) (Figure 4, Appendix E). The most interesting part of this data, then, is the option for respondents to “agree with both,” as in agree that the government should do both more and less. Curiously, close to half of millennials polled chose this as their answer. Although it seems like an illogical or cop-out response to a vague and difficult question, if we frame it in the context of what Peter Beinart sees as being the future demands of a new new left, it makes perfect sense. A new new left per Beinart’s predictions involves scaling back the role of government in terms of defining the extent of civil liberties, military intervention abroad, domestic surveillance, etc., but it also involves more government services and aid to the poor.** Therefore it makes sense that millennials want the government to do both more and less; they must subconsciously realize that such a vague question requires a confusing (but truthful) answer. Thus, if millennials are able to show neither collective support nor collective dissent, they are at least able to demonstrate collective confusion, and that is more than nothing.

* The statistics for this section come from data extracted from the 2012 General Social Survey provided by the IBM SPSS Statistics 22 program.

** The general social survey numbers on government services and aid to the poor further reflect a millennial confusion. When asked about assistance to the poor, 65 percent of millennials responded that there is too little in the United States (Appendix F). However, when asked about welfare—almost the same thing in practice but a word that has been blacklisted by neoliberal hoopla—only 17 percent of millennial respondents agreed that there is too little, and 45 percent of millennial respondents asserted that there is too much (Appendix G). (The numbers for the rest of the population showed similar trends, albeit less dramatic in contrast between the two questions.) This goes to show that millennials, even if they have similar political desires, are unable to break away from neoliberal political morality.

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