Millennials Are a Lot Less Progressive Than You Think | Opinion

Millennials have long been cast as the great progressive hope, or "New Progressive America: The Millennial Generation," as one study would have it. 25- to 40-year-old Americans, already the largest portion of the current adult population, have been cast by progressives as "a hero generation" that will escape the material trappings of their Boomer parents' suburban lives and pull American politics far to the Left.

To be sure, millennials are the most Democratic-leaning of generations, as the Pew Research Center found; they have close to a 60 percent fealty to Democrats, and their votes clearly helped get rid of Donald Trump. So it's fitting that their avatar is the congressional "Squad" led by the ubiquitous 30-year-old Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of their own.

It's also undeniable that the ideological cast of millennials, who will be the largest voting block by 2024, will shape our political future. But a closer look at millennial attitudes suggests that the difference between their lives and the lives of their parents is not always by design, and that given the choice, many millennials would prefer to be parents and enjoy family life in the suburbs (and the attendant centrist politics) than be the "heroes" of a left-wing movement.

You can see this in the fact that millennials have been increasingly leaving big cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago for more conventional locales, as an analysis of the past decade found. Millennials have spent the past 10 years moving en masse to less expensive, redder metros in the Sunbelt and to the suburbs and exurbs of select Midwestern cities like Columbus, Des Moines and Indianapolis.

Millennials just aren't the overwhelmingly enthusiastic urbanites that people say they are; big skies and small towns are in high demand for a significant number of younger Americans. Some 26 percent told researchers they would like to end up in small-town or rural America, while another 39 percent are headed for the suburbs. This even applies to better educated workers, nearly 70 percent of whom prefer suburban or small-town living. This pattern is strongest among whites and Latinos, but even among African Americans, roughly half opt for suburban living.

And this desire to leave cities is correlated strongly with marital status. Almost a third of married millennials want to move out to the country—compared to 21 percent of singles. It reflects a political divide between primarily childless, left-leaning urbanites and more conservative or centrist families on the periphery.

Reflecting their geographic diversity, millennials are also proving less uniformly Left than imagined, as Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist, found; as they age and start families, millennials tend to focus more on economic improvement than abstract notions of cultural or social justice.

A poll of over 1,400 people sponsored by the Los Angeles Times and Reality Check Insights after the November 2020 elections revealed that a plurality of millennials consider themselves centrists. 50 percent are politically independent or lean only a bit in one direction, while another 16 percent are conservative. Just a third identify as liberal.

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And newer data collected well into the Biden administration reveals no real ideological shift: About a third (27 percent) identify as liberal, 16 percent as conservative, and the majority are independents and those who only lean slightly one way or another (58 percent).

And again, despite what you may have heard, most are a far cry from the stereotypical "woke" social justice warrior. Research from the American Enterprise Institute found that most millennials do not fit easily into the liberal "monoculture" and they do not approve of the politically correct culture pervading so many facets of society. Only about a third of millennials and Gen Zers feel the nation is not politically correct enough, a level practically identical to the third of those who are 65 years old or older.

One stereotype about millennials that is true is that they are financially screwed. Millennials face enormous obstacles in gaining assets; according to projections by the Deloitte Center for Financial Services, they will own barely 15 percent of the nation's assets by 2030, when most will be well in their late thirties or forties. They are also far less likely to own homes than previous generations by the time they turn 30.

And millennials know they are screwed. Many younger people are putting off college while others are demanding refunds or choosing less expensive options.

And the pandemic has made things much worse. Seniors may have suffered a much higher risk from the virus, but from an economic point of view, millennials suffered the most.

In a new report, Data for Progress found that a staggering 52 percent of people under the age of 45 lost a job, were put on leave, or had their hours reduced due to the pandemic, compared with 26 percent of people over the age of 45. It led one conservative writer to predict that millennials will curdle into a "resentful generation" that could threaten the establishments of both parties.

Particularly vulnerable are the two-thirds between 25 and 32 who lack a four-year college degree, who would have been employed in factories a generation ago, or owned small businesses—another facet of American life the pandemic decimated. And this huge divide between college-educated millennials and the rest is reflected everywhere, including in Silicon Valley. The top 10 percent of millennials who grew up in relatively wealthy families and went to selective colleges are "doing just fine" according to one analysis. Not so everyone else; according to a 2018 UC-Santa Cruz study, nine out of 10 jobs in Silicon Valley now pay less than twenty years ago, adjusted for inflation.

With good reason many young people feel abandoned by the system and are increasingly alienated. And yet, it would be a mistake to predict that this economic precariousness will lead millennials to embrace the far Left. While some may adopt the Left's agenda as a pablum, others will join the lunatic far right, particularly less educated white millennials who backed Trump in 2016 and have made up a vocal part of his base.

The big question then may not be where millennials want to live—the trend is clear—but whether they will be able to attain their aspirations like their parents. This could drive our politics further toward the extremes on both sides, unless Boomers and others in older generations come up with economic answers that restore the American dream for their successors.

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own.