The drastic reversal of public opinion regarding marriage equality over the past decade, as highlighted by last week’s Supreme Court review of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8, is part of a major cultural shift in America that is largely going unnoticed. Millennials (Generation Y) are changing societal norms not with a confrontational challenge to the establishment as the Baby Boomers did during the Sixties Counterrevolution, but with a more passive expression of their collective beliefs. And those beliefs, centered on the Golden Rule of peaceful coexistence, are as profound as anything the Boomers fought so hard for.
Much has been made of the demographic changes that shaped the 2012 presidential election. It is true that the growing Hispanic population is becoming more politically relevant while the White share of the electorate is shrinking. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story. The political divide by race and ethnicity is far less evident in Millennials than it is for older people. Regardless of their personal backgrounds and political affiliations, Millennials generally have more in common with each other than preceding generations do. As a group, they are more tolerant of diversity, more accepting of individuality, and more communally oriented. For example, young conservatives typically do not oppose gay marriage. These traits are more receptive to left-leaning politics, and as a consequence, Millennials have voted for Democratic candidates over Republican candidates by the widest margin of any generation. The 2012 election results actually reflect both demographic and cultural changes.
The commonality between Millennials and Boomers is quite evident on political issues, although there are stark contrasts in their respective behavioral norms. Both generations support the liberal advancement of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties, social justice, and egalitarianism. Both are progressive on healthcare, social security, taxation, and business regulation. Both are anti-war, strong on environmentalism, and weak on religion. Both are fearful of an Orwellian police state, and both are opposed to plutocratic power (i.e. Wall Street, multinational corporations, etc.). And curiously, both have been lukewarm to the plight of organized labor – the traditional core of the Democratic Party.
There are even more similarities. Boomers infamously “dropped out” of conventional society during the late 60’s and 70’s in a counterculture movement (which they rejoined a decade or so later). They didn’t vote and experimented with alternative lifestyles. Millennials, as they became adults in the 2000’s, quietly “diverged” from conventional society by creating a unique cultural identity through technological innovation (social media, underground commerce). They also didn’t vote much and eagerly embraced the idea of alternative lifestyles. The differences between Boomers and Millennials are more related to style than substance, and are best exemplified by how each generation engaged in public protest. Baby Boomer demonstrations against the Vietnam War were spontaneously eruptive and directly confrontational. The Millennial’s Occupy Wall Street demonstrations were more thoughtfully organized and sought to avoid conflict with authorities. As a consequence, police crackdowns on the former were much more severe than on the latter.
But in spite of all this philosophical convergence, the dissimilarities in style between Millennials and their Baby Boomer parentage are in no way miniscule. Simply ask each how they feel about the other and you’ll likely elicit some emotionally-charged and stereotyped responses. Generational divides are complex, resulting from domestic relations more than any other factor.
No, Millennials are not the second coming of Baby Boomers. Although, their cultural impact will be far more similar to that generation than it will be to the intervening one – Generation X. Millennials are constructively paving the way forward to a new 21st century era of social mores. It will not be bigoted or racist. It will not be radical, sectarian, or warlike. It will be better connected and expansive. It will be more secular. And, it will expect much more from the institutions which have failed us. America’s old guard will fervently resist it… to no avail.