With good reason, American millennials have trust issues

The Washington PostMay 5, 2014 

We already knew that millennials don’t trust people in general. Now we also know how little they trust people (and institutions) in particular. Perhaps with good reason.

In March, a Pew survey made headlines because it found that just 1 in 5 millennials believes that “generally speaking, most people can be trusted,” a much lower share than other generations surveyed. A new survey from Harvard’s Institute of Politics now finds that whatever faith young people may have had in specific U.S. institutions and authority figures is also rapidly crumbling.

Just a third of Americans age 18 to 29 said they trust the president to “do the right thing” most or all of the time. Forty-seven percent said the same of the U.S. military, the first time faith in the military dipped below a majority since Harvard started asking this question several years ago. And it goes way downhill from there.

About a third or less of Generation Selfie said they expect the following institutions to do the right thing at least most of the time (in order of most trusted to least): the Supreme Court, the United Nations, local government, state government, the National Security Agency, federal government, Congress, Wall Street and, dead last, the media.

Basically it’s disaffection and distrust all around. Apparently, we millennials don’t even trust Jay-Z anymore.

Why are young people so cynical about our leadership, institutions and compatriots? Maybe today’s youth, with our backward hats, loud music and wanton hookup culture, are sick of being the punching bag of pundits and politicians everywhere.

Depending on the week and the op-ed page, we whippersnapping Gen-Yers are allegedly either aggressive, overachieving, overscheduled Organization Kids who want to muscle out our elders from the best jobs or we are uniformly lazy, unmotivated Peter Pans who won’t leave our parents’ basements. (Sorry haters, you can’t have it both ways.) We are also, just for good measure, overly individualistic, spoiled, immoral, disrespectful ne’er-do-wells.

The freely flowing slander aside, consider the economic circumstances unleashed upon our generation. The job market we graduated into, frankly, stinks. You’d be stuck in your parents’ basement, too, if the unemployment rate facing you were 12.2 percent (as it was for 20- to 24-year-olds in March).

It rarely feels like current public policy is looking out for our interests, by stoking job creation or otherwise. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, we didn’t leave U.S. institutions; U.S. institutions left us.


Student loan rates are expected to rise again, and student loans still can’t be discharged in bankruptcy. While the Affordable Care Act has made it easier for some young people to stay on their parents’ health insurance plans, “young invincibles” who join the individual market must pay rates much higher than are actuarially fair to subsidize older, sicker, more expensive Americans.

Those of us who have jobs are, of course, already subsidizing our elders by paying the taxes that fund their entitlements. Yes, there have been intergenerational transfers from the young to the old since well before we millennials were twinkles in our parents’ eyes. And, indeed, many of us are happy to have our tax dollars used to keep the elderly out of poverty and in decent health. But please don’t ask us to fund the ever-growing legions of retirees and call us lazy parasites in the same breath, especially since most of us don’t believe we’ll ever be on the beneficiary end of the intergenerational transfer system: Fifty-one percent of millennials say they don’t believe there will be any money for them in the Social Security system by the time they retire, while just 6 percent expect to receive Social Security benefits at levels enjoyed by current retirees.

Distressingly, millennials’ rising mistrustfulness of U.S. institutions and political leadership is discouraging us from trying to make the system better. The Harvard poll also finds that, over the past four years, young people have become more likely to agree that “elected officials don’t seem to have the same priorities I have” and “political involvement rarely has any tangible results.” Perhaps as a result, the share of respondents who say they’ll “definitely be voting” in the 2014 midterm elections slipped to 23 percent, down from 34 percent when the question was asked last fall.

Disengagement from democracy and its institutions is never the best way to respond to personal insults and economic injuries. Part of the reason politicians ignore the challenges millennials face is that so many of us can’t be bothered to vote as it is; further withdrawal seems unlikely to orient the system toward our interests and priorities.

The Washington Post

Catherine Rampell comments on economics,

policy and culture.

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