The Progressive Generation

How Young Adults Think About the Economy

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    Young adults today—often known as the Millennial Generation—have decidedly progressive views on economic issues, possibly more so than any previous generation. According to the results of our first-of-a-kind analysis of Millennials’ views on the economy, a majority of 18- to 29-year-olds (our definition of this generation) believe that the government can be a force for good in the economy, and that increased investments in healthcare, education, and other areas are necessary to ensure strong and sustainable economic growth.

    Our analysis also shows that Millennials mostly reject the conservative viewpoint that government is the problem, and that free markets always produce the best results for society. Indeed, Millennials’ views are more progressive than those of other age groups today, and are more progressive than previous generations when they were younger. This is especially true when compared to the conservative views of Generation X—men and women who are now in their 30s and early 40s.

    Previous research on Millennials largely focused on their views about social issues, giving short shrift to their economic views. This study provides an extensive examination of the economic views of young adults today, finding that on a wide range of economic issues, from taxes to government spending, and from healthcare to support for labor unions, young people today have decidedly progressive views. Cases in point:

    • Millennials are more likely to support universal health coverage than any age group in the 30 previous years the question has been asked, with 57 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds saying that health insurance should come from a government insurance plan.
    • Eighty-seven percent of Millennials think the government should spend more money on health care even if a tax increase is required to pay for it, the highest level of support in the question’s 20-year history.
    • An overwhelming 95 percent of Millennials think education spending should be increased even if a tax increase is required to pay for it, the highest level ever recorded on this question in the 20 years it has been asked.
    • Sixty-one percent of Millennials think the government should provide more services, the most support of any age group in any of the previous 20 years the question was asked.
    • Millennials are very supportive of labor unions, giving them an average ranking of 60 on a 0-to-100 scale (with 0 indicating a more negative view of labor unions and 100 being a more positive view), the second-highest level of support of any age group in the over 40-year history of the question.

    These findings on economic issues hold great significance for politics today and into the future.

    Millennials are already the largest generation in size, weighing in today at between 80 and 95 million people, depending on exactly how the generations are defined. This exceeds the number of baby boomers, and with time, Millennials will comprise an even larger percentage of the population as older generations pass away.

    What’s more, Millennials are a large, politically active generation that cares deeply about economic issues. Studies have found that they are, for example, more likely to express interest in politics and elections, care a good deal who wins, try to influence others’ votes, and attend political meetings. According to a report by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, Millennials “are not bashful about expressing their voice and are quite active in the civic realms of group membership and volunteering.”

    And Millennials are voting at increasingly high rates. Though young people are less likely to vote than older people, Millennials are starting to close the gap. “In the primary elections held thus far in 2008,” noted a Pew Research Center paper, “voter turnout has been up sharply, especially among young people.” And the increases in voting for Millennials this year come on top of other recent increases. In 2004, “turnout among young voters increased 12 percent compared to 2000, the biggest increase in any single age group.” As the director of Rock the Vote argues: “2008 is set to become the third major election in a row with an increase in turnout among young voters.”

    The economy is the most important issue for Millennials in this year’s election, and has been a bigger concern for Millennials than older generations. For example, in the 2006 election, 23 percent of voters under 30 years old cited the economy as the most important issue, compared to only 14 percent of the rest of the electorate. A 2003 survey of 15-to 25-year-olds found that “jobs and the economy” was the most important problem facing the country, nearly double the number that said the war in Iraq.

    Research suggests that the political opinions and voting patterns of young adults are likely to carry forward throughout their lives. Political attachments attitudes formed in early adulthood often continue to be held later in life. As a result, the shared experiences of Millennials— like those who lived through the Great Depression and World War II—can form a lasting worldview that shapes their political views throughout their lifetimes. And evidence indicates that Millennials already have a distinct generational identity, with 69 percent of them thinking their age group is unique, compared to only 42 percent of Generation X and 50 percent of baby boomers, who are now between 43 and 62 years of age.

    This study did not attempt to pinpoint the source of progressive opinions of Millennials, but our research points to a number of possible reasons why in time they may well become known in the future as the Progressive Generation. Young adults today face more significant economic challenges than have other recent generations, among them lower rates of healthcare coverage, worsening job prospects, and higher levels of student loan debt—all legacies of the conservative policies that have dominated in recent years. In addition, Millennials are more likely than other age groups to disapprove of George W. Bush’s handling of his presidency, which could be fueling a rejection of the larger conservative agenda and driving support for progressive policies.

    The upshot: This Progressive Generation could well be poised to transform the American political landscape in 2008 and beyond due to their embrace of decidedly progressive positions on economic issues and the role of government in economy. The results of our analysis detailed in the pages that follow, and the methodology behind it, clearly indicate the strong progressive leanings of Millennials today, and the likelihood these trends will endure over the coming decades.