Blame Their Parents, Not Us

We appreciate Pete Peterson’s attention to our work, but in responding to his complaint that we are denigrating Generation X and underrating its civic participation, we should begin at the beginning, define our terms, and give credit where credit is due. In writing our book, Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics, we borrowed heavily from the thinking of and acknowledged our intellectual debt to Neil Howe and the late William Strauss, the founders of generational theory. In their seminal books, Generations (1992) and The Fourth Turning (1997), Strauss and Howe described the four generational archetypes – Idealist, Reactive, Civic, and Adaptive – that have cycled throughout Anglo-American history. Stemming from the way each generation was reared by its parents, each generational type develops a characteristic set of attitudes and behaviors that is broadly similar regardless of where in American history it appears.

It is the attitudes and behaviors of these archetypes, not our biases or disdain for Generation X, that underpin our comments. Those same archetypical attitudes and behaviors also shape the statistics that Peterson cites both selectively and somewhat out of context in his New Geography posting.

One of Peterson’s contentions is that members of Generation X currently participate in voluntary or non-profit activities to at least the same extent as Millennials do. He cites a survey conducted by the National Conference on Citizenship (NCOC) to prove his point. It is clear, however, that the NCOC itself places great hope in the Millennial Generation, entitling a section in its reports, “The Emerging Generation: Opportunities with the Millennials” and stating that “In the 2009 Civic Health Index, Millennials emerge as the ‘top’ group for volunteers.”

While the NCOC statistics do indicate that Millennials lead the way in civic engagement, to be fair the overall differences between the X and Millennial Generations are not large. What most distinguishes Millennials from other generations is the type of community activities in which they are involved. Not surprisingly, given the lower incomes normally associated with entry level jobs and the fact that the Great Recession has hit them to a far greater extent than other generations, Millennials are more likely than older generations to volunteer rather than make financial donations. While a plurality of those in all generations say they both volunteer and donate financially, Millennials are substantially more likely to engage solely as volunteers. Among those who only volunteer, Millennials do so at 3.25 times the rate of Baby Boomers, 2.6 times that of seniors, and 1.3 times more than members of Generation X. In effect, at least in the current economy, Millennials have more time than money.

As Peterson points out, when respondents were asked whether they had increased their civic participation in the past year, Gen-Xers led the way with 39% answering “yes” surpassing Millennials (29%), Boomers (26%), and seniors (25%). He dismisses the possibility that this might reflect improvements in previously low engagement levels among Gen-Xers, but actually it does. According to the U.S. Department of Education in 1984, when all of them were Gen-Xers, only a quarter (27%) of high school students participated in community service. Twenty years later, when all high school students were Millennials about three times as many (80%) did so. It could be argued that this increase occurred simply because by 2004 students were required to be active in their communities while they weren’t previously. But, for whatever reason, Millennials better seemed to internalize the lessons about community service to which they were exposed in high school. In 1989, 13% of those participating in the National Service organizations like the Peace Corps and Teachers Corps were from Generation X, about the percentage contribution of the generation to the U.S. population at that time. In 2006, 26% of National Service participants were Millennials, twice their percentage in the population.

Peterson also maintains the voting turnout of Generation X equals that of Millennials when the two generations were of similar age. To demonstrate this he compares youth turnout in the 1992 and 2008 presidential elections. According to CIRCLE, a non-partisan organization that studies and attempts to increase the political participation of young people, 18-29 years did indeed vote at similar rates in 1992 when those of that age were Gen-Xers (50%) and in 2008 when that age group consisted primarily of Millennials (52% overall and 59% in the competitive battleground states in which the Obama and McCain campaigns concentrated their efforts).

What Peterson did not do is to report on what occurred in all of the elections between 1992 and 2008. This provides more nuanced data that is generally more favorable to Millennials. For example, in 1996, when again all young voters were members of Generation X, youth electoral participation fell to 37%, the lowest of any year for which CIRCLE reports data. Youth voting began to steadily increase starting in 2000 as the first Millennials attained voting age until, in 2008, it reached the highest level since 1972.

But, Peterson’s biggest unhappiness with those of us who “gush” about the Millennials really seems to be his belief that we extol them for partisan reasons. It is true that Millennials lean heavily to the Democratic Party. They supported Barack Obama against John McCain by a greater than 2:1 margin (66% vs. 32%) and, according to Pew, last October identified as Democrats over Republicans by 52% vs. 34%. They are also the first generation in at least four to contain more self-perceived liberals than conservatives.

We certainly don’t hide the fact that we are life-long Democrats, something we clearly pointed out in the introduction to our book even as we made every effort to be evenhanded in our examination of American politics. That evenhanded examination suggests that as a civic generation, at this point in American history, it is hard to imagine most Millennials being anything other than Democrats. Civic generations, like the Millennials, favor societal and governmental solutions to the problems facing America. At least since the New Deal, the Democratic Party has had more affinity for such approaches than the GOP. It is for this reason that the GI Generation (Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation) became lifelong Democrats in the 1930s and why we believe most Millennials now see themselves as Democrats and vote that way. For Peterson to wish that were different won’t make it so.

But, in the end, all generational archetypes play key roles in the mosaic of American life. In truth, no generation is somehow “better” or “worse” than another. When the civic GI Generation served America so nobly and effectively in World War II, members of the idealist Missionary Generation like Franklin D. Roosevelt inspired it and it was commanded in battle by great generals from the reactive Lost Generation such as Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton. America now faces a new set of grave issues. It will take the concerted efforts of all generations to confront and resolve them.

This essay is cross-posted at New Geography.