Jonah Goldberg

In case you hadn't heard, young people these days -- aka "the millennials" -- are the most cynical and distrusting generation ever recorded. Only 19 percent think most people can be trusted. According to a big study from the Pew Research Center, they are less attached to marriage, religion and political institutions than Gen Xers, baby boomers and the other demographic flavors journalists love to use. They like their friends, their digital "social networks" and their toys, and that's about it. Not even a majority will call themselves "patriotic." Probably more dismaying for liberals: Of any living generation, they are the least likely to call themselves environmentalists.

Now, I should say that I often find generational stereotyping pretty annoying. For instance, there was no "greatest generation." Sure, there were a bunch of great Americans who stormed the beaches of Normandy. But is some guy who was in jail in 1943 for petty larceny deserving of special respect because he was born around the same time as a guy who won the Medal of Honor during WWII?

Honor, glory and respect are earned individually, not collectively.

Politicians pander to young people, and lots of young people fall for it. And that speaks well of neither. Politicians pander to "youth" because it's a time-saving way to trawl for votes and volunteer door-knockers wholesale. It's the difference between using a gill net and a fishing pole. "You're great because you were born more recently than other people" is the lamest form of flattery I can think of.

When politicians invoke generational stereotypes, what they are really doing is saying, "Act your age." What's pathetic is when young people unwittingly follow that advice.

For example, Barack Obama won the youth vote by huge margins in 2008 (66 percent among under-30s) and 2012 (60 percent). He did this in no small part by pandering to the vanity of young people. Sure, he addressed "youth issues" like student loans. Yes, he also mirrored their views on some social issues (though not gay marriage in '08). Obama's ambivalence toward seemingly clichéd patriotic gestures (remember the endless controversy about whether he would wear a flag pin?) sent an important signal to young voters raised on the snark of "The Daily Show" and weary of talk of "freedom fries."

But the overall gestalt was more about fostering a sense of inclusion in a "movement" of some kind; "We are the ones we've been waiting for" and all of that nonsense. Obama promised that government could be the vehicle that would carry us to the sunny uplands of history. He took the aesthetic of a Pepsi marketing rollout and pasted it onto a presidential campaign.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
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