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Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders.

Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders.

doug saunders

Millennials may seem a different breed of voter, but look again Add to ...

If you are between 17 and 36, you’re probably tired of hearing how your generation is disrupting the political system. Millennials, the story goes, are a different breed.

More self-centred and impatient than earlier cohorts, they are disillusioned with the political system and distrustful of established authority. They’re singularly fixated on concerns such as climate change, racial and gender identities, so they’re less likely to vote at all, and if they do, they’ll shift politics leftward and away from the mainstream in a way we’ve never seen before.

Except that we have seen it before. Flip the clock back 25 years, and you learn that the new voters of Generation X are a different breed. The Toronto Star wrote in 1991 that these twentysomethings are a group who “lack heroes, crave attention, fear commitment … [are] slow to tie themselves to a job, and quick to quit … They need constant feedback, attention and coaching.”

The Globe and Mail reported in 1990 that the good jobs and university positions had been taken by older generations, who drove up the price of housing to unaffordable levels, so Gen X would be living with their parents for years. And so they are voting differently: Gen-X expert David Cannon reported in 1990 that the new generation “can get excited about cleaning up the environment and reducing sexism and poverty.” And they are rejecting established parties.

Turn the clock back another 20 years, to the early 1970s, and you’re told that the new voters of the baby-boom generation are a different breed. In the words of that era’s bestselling boomer analysts, such as Charles Reich, they are an impatient, self-centred, fame-seeking generation who reject established authority, are furious about the Vietnam War and violence and racial and sexual discrimination around them, don’t trust established political parties and are going to shift politics leftward.

Those observations were all more or less accurate, at least as long as those generations were in their 20s and 30s. And then the Vietnam-protesting Trudeaumania generation went on to vote Mulroney, Thatcher and Reagan into office. The system-questioning Gen-Xers grew up to help put George W. Bush and Stephen Harper into office, then gave us Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau.

If we really want to know if millennials are a different breed, we would be comparing them not with present-day older people, but with the older generation’s political beliefs when they were 17 to 36 themselves.

A group of scholars has finally conducted just such a comparison, at least in one country. In a recent paper, four U.S. researchers looked at similar major political-values surveys given to 10 million Americans between 1970 and 2015. It found that millennials are indeed abandoning mainstream parties (or at least the current U.S. candidates), with a record-breaking 60 per cent describing themselves as independents.

But the largest shift is in ideology, and not where the trend stories would put it: The study found that a record 23 per cent of university-age millennials describe themselves as “far right,” compared with 22 per cent of Gen Xers in the 1990s and 17 per cent of boomers in the 1970s – a far larger growth than anything on the left. This year’s followers of social-democrat Bernie Sanders were not typical of American millennials – just of the tiny slice active in the Democratic Party.

Scholars who have examined the study suggest that it doesn’t really show a rightward shift among U.S. youth – just a reaction against existing politics. The overwhelming pattern it shows, they say, is that the voting habits of young people have remained fairly consistent for the past five decades. Politics has become more polarized, but not because one exceptional generation came along; it has been a steady shift away from the centre and established parties.

What we don’t know is the future. Will the angry old men who vote for Trumps and Farages some day be replaced by angry old millennials? Or will Americans some day have Canada’s experience of 2015, when millennials took up voting in huge numbers for a candidate who suited their ideals and matched their age?

The difference may be because Canadian millennials are employed and well-paid, unlike their U.S. counterparts. Either way, this doesn’t look like a special generation turning away from politics, but practical-minded people trying to avoid past mistakes.

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Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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