Young People Are Now Pessimistic Like the Rest of Us

For the last few years, the Harvard Institute of Politics has been running detailed surveys of 18 to 29 year olds—the so-called “Millennial” generation—designed to uncover and describe their political beliefs. The latest survey, released this morning, shows a striking result—a growing number of young people are pessimistic about the quality and competence of our institutions, and skeptical that politics can solve problems.

According to Harvard, 81 percent of 18 to 29 year olds rarely or never trust Congress to do the right thing. Fifty-eight percent say the same of the Supreme Court, 60 percent of the presidency, and 77 percent of the federal government overall. The only institution that comes in for positive marks is the military—54 percent say they trust it to do the right thing most of the time.

As for political participation, only 35 percent say that running for office is an “honorable thing to do,” 47 percent say that politics are no longer to meet the challenges “our country is facing,” and 56 percent say elected officials don’t seem to share their priorities.

If these results are surprising, it’s not because they’re uncommon—this is how most adults feel—but because previous surveys from a variety of groups have shown Millennials as a group with high trust in government and a steadfast belief in political participation.

Then again, does any of this really come as a surprise? Two things are true if you’re in your mid-twenties. First, you graduated into the worst economic climate since the Great Depression, with far fewer opportunities than you expected as a college graduate, to say nothing of the mountain of debt you (likely) accumulated. And second, the most you’ve seen of American politics is bitter partisanship and terrible gridlock, with few efforts to improve your life and standard of living.

Insofar that Millennials have lost faith in the ability of government to do good, it’s a reasonable response to actual conditions.

This is why liberals should be skeptical of anyone who predicts a lasting majority for their side—young people just aren’t confident that government can solve problems.

As for conservatives, they shouldn’t celebrate. Millennials aren’t thrilled with government or the Democratic Party, but they have nothing but disdain for the GOP. Only 25 percent call themselves Republicans, and 71 percent disapprove of their performance in Congress.