Will millennials stay quiet in 2024?
The start of campaign season will bring potentially heated and awkward political conversations between average Americans and their coworkers, family and acquaintances. While voters and pundits alike will use their anecdotal experience in these interactions to claim to know which way the country is headed, new polling data suggests that might not be the best evidence.
According to a recent poll from State Policy Network (where I am a fellow), three out of five voters keep their opinions quiet to avoid conflict. One in five voters go as far as to misrepresent their true feelings to avoid problems. Millennials, born from 1981 to 1996, are more likely to stay quiet than other cohorts and 60% more likely to lie about their opinions (36% compared to 22% among all voters). While research shows that most Americans aren’t entirely truthful in surveys, in this case absolute differences between generations tells a story. Millennials feel more pressure to conform to a group’s opinion or may be more aware that they feel the need to keep a part of themselves hidden. Either way, it’s safe to say that during a heated political conversation, Americans aged 27 to 43 are the most likely to keep their thoughts to themselves.
Even if they aren’t saying it, millennials are the most satisfied generation with how the country is doing. They think the country is headed in the right direction (45%) more than others and are one of the few non-political demographic groups in which President Biden’s approval rating is above water (+11).
In the polling, half of millennials self-identified as Democrats, compared to just 30% who are Republicans, which might account for the rosier-than-average views of the president and the nation. But millennials see positive traits in both political parties. On being solutions-oriented, having a common-sense approach, and being willing to compromise for the good of the American people, millennials rate both parties higher than the average voter and give marks over 50% for Republicans and Democrats on all three. This differs from their younger counterparts in Gen Z, who are also liberal but not nearly as positive about the current state of the nation.
In addition to giving both political parties the benefit of the doubt during a time when few Americans like either, millennials are the generation most trusting of government and other institutions like school systems and labor unions. But as they increasingly view the world as breadwinners, parents, potential homeowners, and caretakers for elderly parents — no longer idealistic twenty-somethings — some of the shine of their civic-minded youth must be wearing off.
Many entered the workforce, either without a college degree or record levels of student debt, during the height of the Great Recession. They watched as political progress came to a screeching halt after Obama’s Affordable Care Act — which ultimately didn’t provide affordable healthcare — because of a breakdown in traditional cross-party relationships aggravated further by the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Millennials were the generation most likely to stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic, accepting the social, emotional and financial tolls that came with it.
The interplay of these factors may be why millennials are more likely to admit holding back or misrepresenting their opinions in daily conversations. Reconciling the challenges they face today with their deep institutional trust and belief in the power of collective action could cause a great deal of internal strife. Couple that with their long-standing support of Democrats and the perceived lack of legislative progress from the left, these conflicts may make millennials unsure what to say, or even think, keeping them quiet and — in a best-case scenario for Republicans in the short term — keeping them at home on Election Day. But it would take a radical departure from the current GOP platform to win over most millennials who believe, at their core, institutions are a social good.
Since they first started to come of age, millennials have been more trusting of institutions, and that’s not likely to change. However, in a 2007 Harvard Business Review article, generational theory experts Neil Howe and William Strauss wrote of millennials: “They will reject what they perceive as the negativism, moralism, and selfishness of the national politics they witnessed as children. When they encounter leaders who cling to those old ways, they will work to defeat them. Their stand on the issues is likely to cut across conventional labels.”
In the current environment, President Biden, who for most of his career could be described as the type of moderate institutionalist millennials admire, finds himself in a constant battle between his personal predisposition toward established institutions and his political base, which is desperate for a progressive tearing down of the establishment that most millennials won’t embrace. If, in this struggle, millennial voters decide Biden has shed his loyalty to institutions and picked up negative and dogmatic politics, they could easily withdraw their support. If that happens, we are unlikely to hear about it from them before they take action. And 2024 is right around the corner.
Erin Norman is the Lee Family Fellow and Senior Messaging Strategist at State Policy Network.
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