Millennial Generation the Next Big Thing

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

March 24, 2011

History will mark 2011 as the year the baby boomer generation, which has so dominated American politics and society, first became eligible for retirement. But little is known about the new guard of American leaders, the Millennial generation, born between 1980 and 2005. There are more of them than baby boomers and, at numbers three times the size, demographically dwarf Generation X.

They have already made their power felt in everything from the Facebook phenomenon to the unlikely rise of Barack Obama to the presidency. And they are only now entering the scene. But what comes next?

To answer this question, the Brookings Institution organized a project in which we surveyed more than 1,000 young Americans—student leaders, kids attending young leader conferences, policy internships. These are kids seen by their peers as leaders and who want to become presidents, legislators, generals, journalists and diplomats.

Our questions ranged from how often they text and tweet to which nation they think will be the most powerful in the world when they are running America. Although we can’t guarantee we captured the views of a future Colin Powell, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, the report captures the views of a representative set of young American leaders as their generation stands poised to take over.

Some of the findings were to be expected—they text and tweet like crazy, an average of about 79 times a day; they admire Apple and Google; they don’t think terrorism will end in their lifetime. But many other outcomes ran directly counter to common preconceptions and media reports about today’s young people:

  • They don’t get their news from blogs or comedy shows. Blogs and comedy talk shows were ranked last as their primary source of news. Newspapers and the evening TV news are definitely losing out, but their first choice is a news organization website. That is followed by cable news shows.
  • Mom and dad, not Puffy or Pat Robertson, matter most to their politics. Some 60% cite parents as the influence on their own politics. This is strikingly different from baby boomers, who tended to think the opposite of whatever their parents wanted. For all their proclaimed self-importance and coverage in the media, celebrities and religious leaders actually had the least influence (2% and 1%) among young people when it came to political views.
  • Isolationism, not globalism, is winning out. Fifty-eight percent of the young leaders think that America is “too involved” in global affairs and should instead focus more on issues at home. This level of isolationism, forged by growing up in the time of 9/11, Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, doubled the number recently seen in adult survey results. Indeed, contrary to the idea of young, globally minded Obamacrats vs. inward-looking Tea Partiers, young Democrats are actually more likely to hold isolationist attitudes than young Republicans.
  • China scares them. When asked to name any countries that they think will present the biggest problems for the U.S. over the next 10 to 20 years, China was listed the second most frequently, behind only Iran and ahead of nations such as North Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan and Russia. An almost even number — 42% to 39% — believe that China will be the most powerful country in the world in 2025, when these young people will probably start moving into power. Indeed, a majority of young Democrats and independents think China will be more powerful than the United States.
  • They don’t admire what the TV channel TLC, which runs Sarah Palin’s reality show,wants you to think. When asked to name a figure who personifies the type of leadership needed for the 21st century, only 9 out the 1,057 young leaders, of whom about a third were young Republicans, identified Palin.

Other figures with an outsized media portfolio who were similarly ranked by a surprisingly few number were Gen. David Petraeus (1 vote, actually 2 less than Adm. Mike Mullen), Jon Stewart (2 votes) and Glenn Beck (2 votes). Celebrities and religious figures did equally poorly, with just 3.4% choosing someone like Bono. By contrast, Obama, (chosen by 8.7% of young Republicans), John McCain, Colin Powell, Hilary Clinton, Nelson Mandela and Ron Paul (the isolationist appeal again) were leaders far more frequently cited.

These attitudes are certainly not set in stone, as generations and circumstances certainly evolve. But they shed light on the beliefs and values of an emerging generation of leaders, at one of the most important times in American and global history. Like their attitudes or not, young people who think this way now will likely dominate our politics for some time to come.