NPR logo Generation Disappointed: Millennials Want More From Politics

Generation Disappointed: Millennials Want More From Politics

Benjamin Purdy, 20, wants the next president to focus on prison reform. He says jailing non-violent drug offenders is "sucking so much money out of our budget." i

Benjamin Purdy, 20, wants the next president to focus on prison reform. He says jailing non-violent drug offenders is "sucking so much money out of our budget." Asma Khalid/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Asma Khalid/NPR
Benjamin Purdy, 20, wants the next president to focus on prison reform. He says jailing non-violent drug offenders is "sucking so much money out of our budget."

Benjamin Purdy, 20, wants the next president to focus on prison reform. He says jailing non-violent drug offenders is "sucking so much money out of our budget."

Asma Khalid/NPR

Millennials do not like to be categorized.

The Pew Research Center finds they don't even like the label "millennial." But for our journalistic purposes, we'll use it like the Census Bureau — to refer to people born between 1982 and 2000. (And full disclosure: your author fits into this so-called millennial generation.)

This summer, millennials officially became the largest population in the country, according to data from the Census Bureau.

The sheer size and diversity of this group make it unlike any other.

Sure, they don't always vote in huge numbers, but, when they do, they make a difference.

Worried about equality

At a Bernie Sanders rally in Manassas, Va. recently, 20-year-old Benjamin Purdy was waving selfie stick in the air while carrying a friend on his shoulders.

And, as he waited for the Vermont independent running for the Democratic nomination for president to take the stage, he explained that he's deeply concerned about economic issues.

"One of the main issues for me is prison reform," said Purdy, a junior at the University of Mary Washington, "and, it's just sucking so much money out of our budget to put people, especially non-violent, drug-offending criminals in jail for such long periods of time. We could be spending that money maybe lowering tuition costs for college students like me, so it's a little bit more affordable for us to go to college."

Cassie Harrison, 25, says she's worried about economic justice and racial justice. She says her generation feels more liberal than older generations. i

Cassie Harrison, 25, says she's worried about economic justice and racial justice. She says her generation feels more liberal than older generations. Asma Khalid/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Asma Khalid/NPR
Cassie Harrison, 25, says she's worried about economic justice and racial justice. She says her generation feels more liberal than older generations.

Cassie Harrison, 25, says she's worried about economic justice and racial justice. She says her generation feels more liberal than older generations.

Asma Khalid/NPR

The economy was a common theme among this college-educated crowd that's come of age in the Great Recession.

They're also worried about equality in general — whether that's economic or racial.

"Civil rights isn't where it should be for everybody," said Kelly Beale, a 29-year-old financial analyst. "It's better, but with the whole Black Lives Matter movement, it's obvious, that it's not there yet. And, I feel like we're not addressing it properly."

Racial justice is also a top priority for 25-year-old Cassie Harrison, who was sitting across the lawn. But, she thinks racial attitudes are changing. She said her generation is more flexible about social norms.

"I think we like to question things a little bit more," Harrison said, "and, so I do think we are a little bit more liberal."

A 'rather non-judgmental' generation

A Pew study backs that up. It found that millennials of all political stripes are far more liberal than the country as a whole.

"I'm a registered Republican, but I'm definitely more of a progressive Republican," said Alex Drechsel at a Donald Trump rally in New Hampshire. "I consider [myself] a millennial Republican."

Dreschel, a business student from a military family, wasn't supporting Trump; he's more a fan of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, but he came to see the show with his dad out of curiosity.

Alex Dreschel, a business student from a military family, came to this Derry, N.H. Trump rally with his dad out of curiosity. "The Republican party needs to evolve a little bit, so I'm more relaxed on some social issues that other Republicans wouldn't be," he said. i

Alex Dreschel, a business student from a military family, came to this Derry, N.H. Trump rally with his dad out of curiosity. "The Republican party needs to evolve a little bit, so I'm more relaxed on some social issues that other Republicans wouldn't be," he said. Mary Schwalm/AP hide caption

toggle caption Mary Schwalm/AP
Alex Dreschel, a business student from a military family, came to this Derry, N.H. Trump rally with his dad out of curiosity. "The Republican party needs to evolve a little bit, so I'm more relaxed on some social issues that other Republicans wouldn't be," he said.

Alex Dreschel, a business student from a military family, came to this Derry, N.H. Trump rally with his dad out of curiosity. "The Republican party needs to evolve a little bit, so I'm more relaxed on some social issues that other Republicans wouldn't be," he said.

Mary Schwalm/AP

"My opinion — the Republican Party needs to evolve a little bit," Dreschel said, "so I'm more relaxed on some social issues than other Republicans wouldn't be."

Pew's research suggests that millennials, like Drechsel, who identify with the GOP are actually far more liberal than Republicans of other generations, especially when it comes to immigration and sexual preference.

"This is a rather non-judgmental generation," said Kristen Soltis Anderson, a GOP pollster and author of The Selfie Vote: Where Millennials Are Leading America (And How Republicans Can Keep Up). "They're not interested in judging others or imposing values on others, and I think, as a result, they sometimes view the Republican Party as espousing a more old-fashioned attitude toward culture."

For example, she says her generation does not see immigration as a cultural threat.

"For a lot of older voters, they don't understand why they have to press "1" for English," Soltis-Anderson said. "They're remembering a time before that they wish we could go back to."

She added that where older voters might be angry about immigration, most millennials grew up having a closer association with immigrants.

"You'll see young voters of all stripes saying the system is broken, and it needs to be fixed, but I think it doesn't come from the same kind of cultural anxiety place, but rather more from a the system seems so broken, why can't we enforce laws point of view," Soltis-Anderson said.

Despite a campaign season that so far has been dominated by some of that anger, that's not the dominant feeling among millennials. They're more disappointed.

"Young people tend to be the most optimistic, the least angry and openly hostile toward the political system or either of the political parties," said Michelle Diggles, an analyst with the center-left think thank Third Way. "I think mainly they're just shaking their head being turned off by some of the antics."

Analysts said it's unclear exactly how that disappointment will play in the long run. But given how key young people have been to Democratic success — and how motivated the GOP base is — Democrats will need to figure out ways of keeping them engaged in the post-Obama era.

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