A generation ago, young people vowed never to trust anyone over 30. But as it turns out, those under 30 today are actually more trusting of the government of all age groups, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.
Respondents to a recent Pew survey were asked: Do you trust the federal government to do what is right?
Percentage answering yes, by age group:
"As of now, I trust the government," says Brittany Tucker, a poli-sci major at Northeastern University in Boston. "I feel like they are trying to do what's best for us and their constituents."
Tucker believes the government helps more than it hurts. The percentage of young people who agree with her is significantly higher than is the percentage of older people who agree, though it's worth noting that it's still only about a third of the younger set who say they trust the government all or most of the time — and it's often with caveats.
As another poli-sci major, Jennifer Kral, puts it, everything is relative.
"I definitely think that politicians are given a really bad rap. There are certainly plenty of CEOs and executives who are just as bad, and we certainly shouldn't be pointing fingers just because they're politicians. There are plenty of people in the public spotlight who are just as bad," Kral says.
Both Kral and Tucker made their first foray last week into what they still see as the noble pursuit of politics. They're running for office in their College Democrats' club. (Both won their bids — Tucker for president, Kral for vice president.)
'Obama-Love' Or 'Blissful Ignorance'?
Like so many of her peers, Tucker was inspired to get into politics by the campaign of President Obama.
"It gives you hope, and that hope turns into trust in the government, because you believe that things can change — or like good things can happen," Tucker says.
Analysts say that "Obama-love" may be what's propping up young people's trust. Most under-30s supported Obama in 2008 and still do today. But it doesn't explain everything. Even young Republicans who believe the best government is less government are also more trusting than their elders.
Jay Altschuler, a member of Northeastern's College Republicans, says it's basically "blissful ignorance."
"We haven't had a lot of experience with government for the most part," Altschuler says. "I think the most we had to deal with is the [Registry of Motor Vehicles] is what it comes down to."
Attitudes will change when government starts to mean more than just the registry of motor vehicles — or as one expert put it, when the young people grow up and get "mugged by reality."
Altschuler and fellow Northeastern student and College Republican Michael Sabo agree — "the second they get a paycheck and they see what comes out of it," Sabo says.
"I think we are all about to learn the hard way," Altschuler says.
The Opposite Of Alienated
If history is any guide, they may be right. Polls going back to 1958 show that trust always begins to head south sometime after age 30. But there are some clues that this generation may be different.
"The millennials are quite positive toward other big institutions — like corporations and the military and faith — so it does give you the feeling that it's a different generation," says Tufts University researcher Peter Levine.
According to Pew, a majority of young people have never heard of the Tea Party movement.
Percentage of respondents who were not aware of the Tea Party, by age group:
Levine says young people today are not angry or alienated like previous generations were.
"They don't define in terms of opposition or trying to smash everything. They don't have a generation gap, really. They really cite parents as role models or political guides. The current thing is you call your mom on your cell phone to ask what she thinks, which I really don't think was a '60s attitude," Levine says.
Indeed, it may be why young people today are largely not swayed by the Tea Party movement, according to the Pew Research Center poll. The Pew survey says more than half of young people didn't know what the Tea Party was. Back at Northeastern, the mere mention of the Tea Party leaves students perplexed.
"What do you mean about the Tea Party?" replies Northeastern senior Will DuComb to a question about the movement.
"The Boston Tea Party?" asks fellow senior Jen Trost.
Like DuComb and Trost, nearly half of young people say they don't follow politics.
"I figure I'll work on that as I get older. I really don't follow it at all. I've just been studying," says Trost.
"Yeah, I just care about my finals," says DuComb.
It's a pretty good bet that these young people will begin to care more as they start looking for work in coming years. And ultimately, it may be the economy more than anything else that determines whether or not they continue to trust the government. If the recession ends sooner, young people may give the government the credit — and their eternal trust.
But if the economic downturn persists, their positive attitude most likely will not.