Analysis: Millennials Aren't Really That Confused About Politics

Millennials Jam Workshop: Youth and ICTs beyond 2015, June 12, 2013 |

Millennials are really confused about politics, some pundits have recently claimed. These claims, however, derive from a misunderstanding of the survey data.

"This poll proves that millennials have totally incoherent political views," Dylan Matthews wrote for Vox. At The Atlantic, Derek Thompson followed with, "Millennials' Political Views Don't Make Any Sense." Then came, "Millennials Don't Know What 'Socialism' Means," by Emily Ekins.

The inspiration for these articles was a recent Reason-Rupe survey of 2,000 Americans between ages 18 to 29.

The poll shows, these authors claim, that Millennials are confused because:

  • They want to cut government spending and cuts taxes, except when they do not want to cut government spending and cut taxes.
  • They want government programs for the homeless, jobless and uneducated, but they think government programs are inefficient and wasteful.
  • They think hard work leads to success, but do not think poor people lack a work ethic.
  • They like socialism but do not want a government-managed economy.

Based upon this data, Matthews reports that Millennials lack a "coherent political framework" and, "like most people, have much, much better things to do with their time than form highly nuanced and non-contradictory political opinions."

Quoting Matthews, Thompson concludes that, "Millennials' political views are, at best, in a stage of constant metamorphosis and, at worst, 'totally incoherent.'"

When asked whether socialism or capitalism is better, the poll found that 42 percent of Millennials believe that socialism is better. But when asked whether it is better to have a free market economy or a government managed economy, only 32 percent answered that a government managed economy is better.

Since a socialist economy (where government owns the businesses) has more government intervention than a government managed economy, Ekins reasons, Millennials "don't know what socialism is."

Ekins, Matthews and Thompson are, however, mistakenly characterizing all Millennials based upon the discrepancies of a few.

An ideologically consistent respondent who prefers socialism over capitalism should also prefer a government managed economy to a free market economy. But, only 10 percent of the sample, or somewhere between 6.6 and 13.4 percent when accounting for the margin of error, likely caused the discrepancy. (Assuming all those who preferred a government managed economy also preferred socialism. The crosstabs were not provided.)

If 10 percent of Millennials are inconsistent, this does not warrant the sweeping claims that Millennials in general are "totally incoherent," "don't make any sense," and "don't know what socialism is." All the other seemingly incoherent answers reported by the authors can be explained by less, often much less, than a majority of the Millennial respondents.

Other supposed inconsistencies may not be as inconsistent as they appear on the surface. For instance, 55 percent of Millennials would like to start their own business and 48 percent of Millennials say that businesses mostly get rich at someone else's expense. Matthews sees this as evidence of Millennial incoherency.

Without the crosstabs, there is no way to know what portion of the sample holds the supposedly incoherent position (wants to start a business and believes businesses get rich at others' expense) — it could be as low as three percent or as high as 48 percent.

Is it even, though, an incoherent position? Believing that businesses "mostly" get rich at others' expense does not mean that your business will do so. Some of these Millennials may want to start a business that operates differently from how they believe most businesses operate. Alternatively, maybe they actually want to get rich at others' expense. (Being a Scrooge does not make one incoherent.)

These authors appear to be trying to characterize what a "typical" Millennial is like. The difficulty is there is no such thing. Like Dr. Frankenstein, they are creating the typical Millennial by piecing together parts from each average for a set of survey questions. In the end, though, the monster they have created resembles no Millennial.

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