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Millennials and Gen Z Searching Deeper than Mere Politics, Survey Suggests

A new survey of millennials and Gen Zers reveals profound disaffection from the ideals and ambitions of their parents, led by concern for the fate of the planet.EXPAND
A new survey of millennials and Gen Zers reveals profound disaffection from the ideals and ambitions of their parents, led by concern for the fate of the planet.
Wikimedia Commons Paul Holloway from Birmingham, United Kingdom
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First I was confused. Too many great Democrats running for president. But then I saw the Fox poll: Biden beats Trump by 11 points. I said that’s it. Biden’s my man. Then I watched Beto O’Rourke’s town hall the other night on CNN. Now I’m confused again.

I do have this plaguing sense that people my age don’t get Beto O’Rourke, and we should. I do maybe a little. My own employment allows me to sit through very enjoyable, very long meetings with young people during which I never fall even partially asleep. I can’t help knowing a little bit about them. Not a lot. Just a little.

I don’t know how old they are really. One does not ask, under the contemporary social custom. In terms of their intellectual acuity, I would take my younger colleagues to be well into their 30s, but on physical appearance alone I would judge most of them to be about 19. I should add that everybody under 40 looks 19 to me. I don’t like to state my own age. Call me Methuselah.

Most of the people I know in the Methuselah-esque age tier, especially those not in Texas, have been quick to write off O’Rourke as some kind of gangling Texas distraction. Like me, they were even quicker to embrace Biden when those polls came out. And I get all that. It’s how I would think, too, if it weren’t for these damned (very delightful) meetings.

International travel is way ahead of babies for millennials and Generation Z.
International travel is way ahead of babies for millennials and Generation Z.
Deloitte Global

Imagine my mixed delight and dismay the other day when I came across the new 2019 edition of the Deloitte Global Millennial Survey, chock full of data confirming all my most distressing impressions of how young people view the world. I guess I’m delighted to be distressed or something. At least I know it’s not just me.

What Deloitte’s comprehensive international survey shows is a profound disaffection among young adults all over the world from just about everything that old adults believe in, aspire to, take pride in, have done, are doing and intend to do. Here’s the money paragraph:

“Consistent with past surveys, millennials expressed low opinions of political and religious leaders. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) said that political leaders are failing to have a positive impact on the world, while two-thirds said the same of faith leaders. And about 45 percent of millennials said they have absolutely no trust in either set of leaders as sources of reliable and accurate information.”

And then there’s this:

“Perhaps even more concerning are respondents’ thoughts regarding traditional media. More than 4 in 10 (43 percent) said the mass media is having a negative impact on the world, and 27 percent have zero trust in the media as sources of reliable and accurate information (53 percent expressed some trust).”

Well, great. Fifty-three percent, I guess we media types still win the election. Now we need to figure out how to not think about that other 27% so we can close both eyes when we go to bed at night.

I just don’t think that people up here in the older age brackets understand how profound and fundamental is the skepticism and outright disdain of younger people for the world we are leaving them. What’s their problem, you ask? Well, it’s a bunch of items, but leading the list seems to be that thing about the planet burning to a cinder. That was where O’Rourke got his biggest live audience reaction during the CNN thing.

Climate change more threatening than terrorism.
Climate change more threatening than terrorism.
Deloitte Global

Of all the concerns Deloitte measured, the top one, above anything and everything else, was “climate change/protecting the environment/natural disasters.” I guess if they’re all worried and concerned about herds of tornadoes ripping the guts out of the Midwest, tsunamis drowning everybody in New York and the planet burning up, they’re not going to be too impressed by a promise of expanded Medicaid, right? Unless it’s some kind of magic Medicaid for the planet itself.

Deloitte has expanded its annual survey of young adults to include two generational waves, the millennials, whom Deloitte defines as born between January 1983 and December 1994, and Generation Z, born between January 1995 and Dec. 5, 2002. The 2019 survey is based on interviews with 13,416 millennials in 42 countries and 3,009 Gen Zers in 10 countries.

Here’s another finding I found intriguing. Deloitte mashed together several measurements according to some algorithm I couldn’t make head nor tail of and came up with a kind of international optimism index for young people that they call the MillZ Mood Monitor. The most optimistic young people — well, the least pessimistic — are in Nigeria, India, China and the Philippines.

The most pessimistic are in Turkey, Hong Kong, France and Finland. Finland! I thought Finland was the place that was doing everything right. They must want to have a planet, too.

We’re right at the average, between Chile and Argentina. So young people here are more optimistic than young people in France, less so than young people in China. Good to know.

Many of the measurements in the study have less to do with mood than what young people want to do with their lives. Hint: not have kids. Not buy houses. Not buy stuff. Is that a reflection of less income and lowered economic expectations? Sorta maybe, sorta not. They want to spend money, just on other things: “Millennials value experiences,” the study says. “They aspire to travel and help their communities more than starting families or their own businesses.”

OK, so capitalism needs to figure out some way to shrink-wrap experiences. But another deeper theme will get in the way. The study also finds a preoccupation with ethics. The young people surveyed cite ethical concerns as important to choices they make as consumers and also to the way they feel about companies, especially the ones they work for. (They don’t feel very good.)

Already in the presidential campaigns so far, I see a lot of dichotomous thinking on the older side of the spectrum, especially where capitalism is concerned. If you don’t like capitalism, then you must be a socialist. But that isn’t necessarily what the survey finds. For all the skepticism young people may have for unbridled consumerism, there are indications they may embrace other aspects of international capitalism:

“By roughly a 2-to-1 margin, respondents overall said they favor free-trade policies, allowing for the free flow of goods globally, over nationalistic policies that restrict the flow of goods into the country.”

Let’s think about that. The survey finds that younger people want to improve their communities. They are interested in international travel. They favor international trade. They don’t want the planet to burn up. Those points all conceivably could become engines of a new optimism. They sound less like a rejection of capitalism out of hand and more like an embrace of Earth, humankind and life itself.

Who said capitalism can only exist to serve gluttonous, destructive consumerism? Why does the highest goal of capitalism have to be covering the oceans with a smothering sludge of plastic trash? Capitalism can create cheap solar. It can supply clean water to the thirsty, healthy food for the hungry. I thought the whole thing with capitalism was that it can do whatever it wants.

Meanwhile, nothing in the skepticism found in this survey should lead us to believe that today’s young people are ever going to be happy with vast collective bureaucracies and ruling committees. They seem more like big fans of personal liberty, just not the liberty to kill.

Ethical behavior of companies is a more important factor than ad campaigns for millennials and Gen Z.
Ethical behavior of companies is a more important factor than ad campaigns for millennials and Gen Z.
Deloitte Global

So back to Beto. I think the older generational cohort is inclined to want to sort out Beto according to the wrong matrix. We’re all trying to figure out if he’s JFK, Huey Long or Howdy Doody, but we’re working out of the wrong comic books. (Please excuse generation-specific cultural reference. Howdy Doody was an amiable goofy-looking marionette character on a popular 1950s children's television show.) Whether the new savior is Beto or someone else, she or he is more likely to fall somewhere between Joan of Arc and John the Baptist. That’s why all the gestures and the tone and the invocations of loosely defined spirituality are so evocative. Whoever it is who comes along and lights up the millennials and the Gen Zs and the rest of them, she or he is not going to do it with expanded Medicaid. It’s going to be way more hoo-doo than that and therefore a good bit scarier.

The kind of change rumbling up from those Deloitte graphics is deeper than and prior to an economic system. My reading of the Deloitte survey tells me the millennials and the Zs are looking for a deep, expansive moral revolution, a whole different way of conceiving of existence and the role of humankind in the preservation of life itself. The choice between socialism and capitalism: that’s like, after we work out the huge moral changes, how will we manufacture our underwear?

Obviously economic systems are important, and like most people my age, I am 100 percent in favor of underwear. If I were to offer any kind of personal addendum or idea for all of this, it might be underwear for all. Extra for some. But that’s sort of tertiary at most. The options ahead are going to be way deeper, way bigger and way less rational.

The 2020 election, no matter which side wins it, probably will only dial back and delay the kind of issues O’Rourke talked about in his town hall the other night, the kind suggested by the Deloitte survey. But those issues aren’t going away. In fact, they will crash over us all at some point.

When that crash does come, some crazy-eyes, fur-bearing, scary-ass prophet will come out of the woods to bear the torch, and Beto may be long gone by then. If he is, some of us may wish we could get him back, especially we Methuselahs.

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