One of the a priori assumptions of contemporary political commentary is that ‘millennials’ have a distinct social and political collective consciousness. In addition to being born from 1980 onwards, they are characterised as having broadly similar political views (a strong preference for left-of-centre parties), social attitudes (more narcissistic than previous generations), and experience similar economic conditions (such as a lack of access to property ownership).
There is an element of truth underlying some of those claims. Age, after all, was a strong predictor of support for the Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the 2017 British election and rates of home ownership for the 24-35 age group in Australia has reduced over the last few decades. However, these facts are often extrapolated into much broader claims such as that they have a collective perspective on capitalism or that they are embroiled in an inter-generational war with baby boomers. In short, the claims to the validity of millennial as a category often depend on an assumption that there are greater differences between generations than could be found within generations.
Notwithstanding the strong statistical correlation between, for example, being a millennial and voting for a candidate like Corbyn, it is instructive to examine whether trends such as political views can be better explained through reference to other factors, such as education levels, ethnicity and economic class. Perhaps anyone, regardless of age, would vote or think the same way provided they had a similar level of education or a similar household income as millennials? If so, could it indicate that millennials have less in common with each other than they do with other people with similar levels of, say, education, regardless of whether they are Baby Boomers or Generation X?
An analysis recently published in the Washington Post has examined this possibility specifically in relation to ethnicity. The analysis found there there was a twenty to thirty per cent point spread in political views depending on the millennial’s ethnic background. A majority of millennials of colour (from Latino to African American) thought that the Democrats should resist the Trump Administration, compared to only about a third of white millennials. As the analysis also notes, millennials are more ethnically diverse than older generations. Therefore, the antipathy towards Donald Trump among millennials could potentially be more accurately understood as simply reflecting the fact there are fewer white people in the millennial age group than in other age groups. It reflects how hidden variables within a generation can determine political attitudes more than the assumed collective consciousness of the age group itself.
Another commonly cited factor for a collective millennial experience relates to the notion of young people being “locked out” of the housing market by the older generations. A recent article has noted that the rate of home ownership for 24-35 year olds in Australia has dropped form 61 per cent to 47 per cent since 1981. Yet, while the downward trend in home ownership is worrying, it is difficult to use it to assert a generation-wide experience. After all, the change has been from just over 6 in 10 to just under 5 in 10 young people with property. Furthermore, as the economist John Quiggin has pointed out, the factors driving this trend don’t benefit one generation at the expense of another as much as they “benefit those paying the top marginal tax rate at the benefit of everyone else.”
This tendency to view millennials as a distinct category reflects a growing tendency for political analysis to be situated in the framework of identity politics. While identity politics can be a useful tool for highlighting the unique concerns of those marginalised groups who suffer persistent inequities within society – whether defined by ethnicity or by gender – its application on a generational level is highly fraught.
Could one really agree that millennials have a collective identity similar to a minority group that transcends their socio-economic differences or that politicians born after 1980 have a unique capacity to speak on their behalf? What would it really mean to be a ‘voice for young people’? If, for example, it would involve tackling barriers to home ownership, wouldn’t those policies also benefit older people who are struggling to get into the housing market?
As a millennial, I can understand the desire to assert a collective identity with other young people. After all, I do not know anyone my age who has managed to purchase property without some implicit assistance from their parents – either in the form of direct financial assistance or through other means, such as living in the family home for free or for much less than the market rate of rent while a house deposit is earned. Despite the social stigma often attached to admitting this reality, it is surely the only reasonable possibility that most young people have of purchasing property in an economic environment where house prices are increasing far more quickly than wages.
Yet there are huge numbers of millennials whose parents cannot provide the necessary financial support to facilitate this path to home ownership. The actual economic gap between these two groups of economically disadvantaged young people brings to mind the social gap dividing the protagonist from the girl who came from Greece and studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College in the Pulp song ‘Common People‘. This student is ostensibly poor but, thanks to her family connections who do have access to economic capital, we can appreciate how she is not poor in the same way as the protagonist (or indeed as a huge segment of today’s millennials demographic).
And as this sculpture student progresses into middle age, will she really continue to feel a sense of solidarity with those young people whose parents could not provide such support?* The financial interests of the millennials whose parents are (relatively) loaded may instead compel them to support policies and political parties more devoted to increasing the value of capital so they can provide a similar path to property ownership for their children, while other millennials seek more radical policies to redress the fact they can’t provide the same path for theirs.
In this way, the dominant zeitgeist that sees millennials as having a shared political and social identity seems likely to dissipate in contrast to other factors such as ethnicity and parental wealth. It is a narrative ultimately more subservient to the more historically resilient dichotomy of conflict between the haves and the have-nots.
*Fun trivia fact: the sculpture student who inspired the song is most probably the wife of the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. So admittedly she personally passes the solidarity test with flying colours.