In all of the reasons offered for Donald Trump’s shocking election to the Presidency, one has been lost: The votes of Millennials, the generation born in the 1980s and early 1990s.
It’s true that if only Americans ages 18 to 29 had voted, Hillary Clinton would have been elected President. But this misses the larger picture of just how many young people voted for Trump. Among young White voters, Trump actually won, 48% to Clinton’s 43%. Overall, a surprising 37% of 18- to 29-year-olds voted for Trump – many more than expected for a generation that prides itself on inclusion and tolerance. These votes helped swing the election: In 2016, 18- to 29-year-old voters comprised more of the electorate than those 65 and older.
How did this happen? Based on my research and others’ on generational differences, I see five primary reasons.
1. Millennials are not the uniformly liberal and Democratic group many assumed. Two months before the election, my colleagues and I published a paper showing that more Millennials identified as conservative than Boomers did when they were young. In an analysis of survey data of American adults between 1972 and 2014, Millennials, as a generation, were no more liberal or Democratic than Boomers when age and time period were taken into account. Why is this so different from the scene at college campuses? These are nationally representative samples, not just the small percentage in the liberal bubble of four-year universities.
Millennials stand out in another way: They are the most likely of any generation to identify as politically independent. An incredible 59% of 18- to 29-year-olds declared themselves independents in the 2014 General Social Survey. That’s one reason they were drawn to Bernie Sanders, a declared independent, and why more than expected were drawn to Trump, a political outsider with only fractured ties to the Republican establishment.
2. Millennials prize authenticity because they grew up in a culture that focuses more on the self and less on social rules (which is why my book on the Millennials is titled Generation Me). Individualism disdains behavior that is too programmed or too malleable to the situation. Instead, individualism encourages being your “true self” and expressing your uniqueness. More than any other generation, Millennials grew up hearing “just be yourself” and “you are special.” Donald Trump was just being himself, and he clearly thinks of himself as special. It also probably doesn’t hurt that Millennials came of age in the reality TV era, the medium ultimately responsible for Trump’s ascendance.
3. Many young Millennial men are not working. Once the most reliably employed group, more than 1 out of 5 men ages 21 to 30 didn’t work at all in the last year as of 2015. (This number is much higher than the current 5% unemployment because the unemployment rate only tracks those actively looking for work. Most of these young men have given up entirely.) The narrative of Trump supporters as older white working-class men may be true, but many Trump voters were young men as well – young men who are not participating in the economy and feel forgotten.
4. Compared to Boomers and GenX’ers when they were young, Millennials are less trusting of government and less confident in large institutions. They are less likely to be politically involved and less likely to gather news from a variety of sources. Low-information voters were drawn to Trump, and distrust in institutions and political parties resulted in nearly 10% voting for third-party candidates – not to mention increasing the interest in Trump, who has never held political office. If you don't trust government, an outsider with no political experience seems like a good choice.
5. The final barrier to Millennial support for Trump was his, shall we say, outdated ideas about race and gender, including statements many saw as racist and misogynistic. It’s true that Millennials are more accepting of racial and gender equality than Boomers and GenX’ers were at the same age in the 1970s and the 1990s. However, so are older people – support for racial and gender equality seems to be a time period effect, with older and younger people changing with the times. The big exception is LGBT issues, where Millennials as a generation are more supportive than GenX’ers and Boomers even today. Sure enough, LGBT issues were the one area of tolerance Trump hardly mentioned (and he noted on Sunday's 60 Minutes that he saw same-sex marriage as "settled law.") His presidency may end up being very unfriendly for LGBT rights, but it was not a major focus in his campaign in the way issues of race and gender were.
So what will the future hold? The youngest voters, those 18 to 21, are not even Millennials – they are iGen (born 1995 to 2012). They are the children of the recession who barely remember a world without smartphones. iGen has continued some Millennial trends but upended others: the ebullient Millennial optimism is gone, replaced by fears of not finding good jobs. A growing number suffer from depression. Above all, iGen wants to be safe, not just physically but emotionally and economically. They will be drawn to candidates who can make them feel protected and reassure them that they will be able to thrive. In 2020, the candidate that can more effectively reach iGen and the Millennials will likely win the election.