THE PUBLIC EYE: What Do Millennials Want?

Bob Burnett
Friday October 24, 2014 - 10:24:00 AM

Attempting to predict the outcome of the November 4th midterm elections, political observers have scratched their heads at the behavior of the youngest US demographic segment, the Millennials. These are the 80 million voters born after 1981. They have the power to determine any political race but it’s unclear what they want or even if they will vote. 

Political demographers focus on four US population cohorts. The “Silent Generation” born from 1925 to 1942. The “Baby Boomers” born from 1943 to the early 1960s. “Generation X” born from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. And “The Millennials” born from the early 1980s until the early 2000s – sometimes called “Generation Y.” 

Some demographers have labeled the Millennials, “Generation Me,” citing their supposed narcissism. A recent Pew Research report characterized the Millennials as, “relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry— and optimistic about the future. They are also America’s most racially diverse generation.” They’re also the least likely to vote. 

The 2014 Pew Research Center political typology poll dissected the American political electorate into eight groups: three Democratic, three Republican, Independents, and non voters. The Pew political typology had two dimensions. One is the likelihood of voting. Pew segmented potential voters into three categories: “General Public,” “Registered Voter,” and “Politically Engaged.” Roughly 10 percent of the General Public is composed of non voters, “Political Bystanders.” 38 percent of the Political Bystanders are Millennials. 

Pew provided a detailed description of Millennials political affiliation. 29 percent are Republicans: “Steadfast Conservatives” (4 percent), “Business Conservatives” (6 percent), and “Young Outsiders” (19 percent). 9 percent are Independents – Pew calls them “Hard-Pressed Skeptics.” 45 percent are Democrats: “Next Generation Left” (19 percent), “Faith and Family Left” (10 percent), and “Solid Liberals” (16 percent). The remaining 17 percent are the Political Bystanders. 

An April Harvard University poll found that only 23 percent of Millennials planned to vote on November 4th. The Pew research explained this: 

It’s been clear for some time now that young people are growing more disillusioned and disconnected from Washington. There’s an erosion of trust in the individuals and institutions that make government work — and now we see the lowest level of interest in any election we’ve measured since 2000.
(An October Fusion poll found when Millennials do vote, they prefer Democrats: “47% of likely millennial voters say they’ll choose Democrats, 32% say they will vote for Republicans, and 21% are undecided.”) 

There are several theories about why Millennials don’t plan to vote. One is that they don’t trust government. Pew observed that Millennials are less trusting than the other demographic cohorts: “Just 19% of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31% of Gen Xers, 37% of Silents and 40% of Boomers.” Pew explained, “Their racial diversity may partly explain Millennials’ low levels of social trust.” 

However, research by the Tufts University Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning found that, in 2010, 33.5 percent of Millennials said they did not vote because of their work or busy schedule. (Another 17.2 percent of Millennials said they did not vote because they weren’t interested or “felt my vote wouldn’t count.”) 

Typically, Millennials complain they are having a hard time making ends meet. Pew Research noted, “Millennials are the first in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations had at the same age.” Digging deeper, a recent NPR report noted, “About two-thirds of Millennials between ages 25 and 32 lack a bachelor's degree.” Pew research observed, “Millennial college graduates ages 25 to 32, who are working full time, earn more annually—about $17,500 more—than employed young adults holding only a high school diploma.” 

Perhaps there’s a simple explanation for the Millennials lack of enthusiasm about the 2014-midterm elections. In 2008 and 2012, record numbers of Millennials voted for Barack Obama and Democrats, in general. (In 2012, Millennials gave Obama his largest margin over Romney, 60 percent versus 37 percent.) But according to the April Harvard University poll, “Young people are growing more disillusioned and disconnected from Washington.” Perhaps Millennials bought into Obama’s slogan, “Change we can believe in.” Unfortunately, this change hasn’t happened as fast as they expected. 

Nonetheless, there are obvious tactics Democrats can use to connect with Millennials. Promoting an increase in the minimum wage and reduction of student loan debt are only two of the issues that impact this cohort. Young women are interested in pay equity and reduction of violence against women. People-of-color seek equal protection under the law. 

When the dust of the midterm elections settles, it will be interesting to see how many Millennials voted and what issues brought them to the polls. In 2016, the Millennials vote will likely determine who is elected President. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at