Shortly before Christmas 2013, the Obama political operation got into the holiday spirit and gave unto us a child. He became known as Pajama Boy, his image splashed across the Internet in an advertisement that quickly went viral and ignited a low-grade firestorm on the right. In the ad, a hipsterish, bespectacled twentysomething wearing a red plaid flannel onesie clutches a mug next to the text: “Wear pajamas. Drink hot chocolate. Talk about getting health insurance.”
Disdain for millennials (defined by Pew Research as people born between 1981 and 1996) is a well-documented phenomenon. Older generations have been complaining about kids these days since time immemorial. For a brief moment, Pajama Boy, that “insufferable man-child,” as news outlets described him, became the modern avatar of all that was wrong with kids these days, recognizable by his silly ironic clothes, sense of entitlement, dependence on Mom and Dad or, worse, the state. The Affordable Care Act had changed health insurance law to allow children under the age of 26 to remain on their parents’ health insurance policies, a provision that was popular in public opinion polls but viewed by the right as emblematic of how the left coddles the young. The Pajama Boy ad efficiently encapsulated conservative anger about Obamacare and their anxieties about young people.
During the last decade, antipathy for millennials and their views has been something of a hallmark of the conservative movement. Poll after poll shows young people abandoning the right, and the feeling is evidently mutual. Despite losing young voters by a two-to-one margin in the 2008 election, Republicans largely shrugged their shoulders and decided the problem wasn’t the GOP, it was those darn kids.
Baby boomers look at the generation they raised, growing up in the world they created, and scratch their heads in confusion and horror. In focus groups I conduct, I often hear older voters on the right describe millennials as a hostile force trying to take their country away from them. Older Americans are more likely than younger Americans to say they agree with the statement, “These days, I feel like a stranger in my own country,” and doubtless part of the reason Donald Trump performed so well with older voters was his success tapping into this sentiment.
Sometimes I wonder if Pajama Boy isn’t a more terrifying prospect to the Republican base than perennial campaign-ad favorite Nancy Pelosi.
Conservatives aren’t wrong to be worried about what a millennial-run America would look like, given just how thoroughly today’s young adults disagree with them on matters of politics and policy. Only 2 percent of millennials consider themselves “consistently conservative,” for example, while a quarter consider themselves “consistently liberal.” As for political party affiliation, young people aren’t enamored of either party, but they have a stronger affiliation with the Democratic party. That gap has not narrowed as voters age; in fact, it has widened to give a whopping 33-point advantage to Democrats among millennials. Young people are not discovering conservatism on their own and they are largely repelled by what they see coming from the right in the Trump era.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Opportunities exist for common cause between the right and the millennial generation, as long as leaders on the right don’t simply throw up their hands and abandon efforts to connect to this generation. To do so risks the future of the conservative movement.
Political views are reasonably malleable for individuals who are newly engaged in politics, but those views solidify over time. It has been a decade since the alarms were first raised about the leftward drift of the millennial cohort, and time is running out for conservative leaders to effectively make their case for why their ideas should matter to a new generation in a new era.
Consider Pajama Boy. If he had been a typical 26-year-old in the 1980s, he would already be married and close to buying his own home. Today, however, the usual path to adulthood—graduating from high school, greater independence through employment or education and, soon thereafter, homeownership and family-formation—has been disrupted by economic and cultural change. The percentage of young adults living with their parents is significantly higher than it was three decades ago, for example, and shot up from 26 percent to 34 percent in the decade spanning 2005-2015. These factors don’t just change who marries whom or who lives in Mom and Dad’s basement; it alters how people view politics and policy.
In 2015, I wrote about these changes and their political implications in The Selfie Vote: Where Millennials Are Leading America (And How Republicans Can Keep Up). At the time, The Weekly Standard’s Michael Warren said that the “subtitle suggests that the GOP needs to ‘keep up’ with millennials as they lead America into the future. Would that the parties—and their leaders—tried leading millennials instead.”
Unfortunately, Warren’s suggestion has not come to pass. For the most part, the right has abdicated any leadership role when it comes to young people. This is partially driven by a lazy assumption that no leadership is needed. Conventional wisdom incorrectly suggests that young people always hold progressive views and older people hold more evolved conservative views that have been duly informed by experience in the “real world.” The kids, this reasoning goes, will eventually realize the error of their ways.
The data tell a different story. Ronald Reagan was able to win an enormous share of the youth vote for his reelection campaign in the 1980s, and as recently as the election between George W. Bush and John Kerry, young voters were still somewhat narrowly divided between the two political parties. It is only in the last decade that a new and dramatic right-left, old-young divide has emerged. Today, not only are young people increasingly identifying as liberals even as they age, and eschewing conservatism as a movement, but their views on many hot-button issues are now predictive of where older generations will stand on those issues in a decade. On some issues, such as guns and abortion, for example, Pew Research reports very little change over time in generations’ views. Where the generation gaps are largest, however, there has been substantial movement over time, and always in the direction of older generations “catching up” with the views of their younger counterparts rather than the other way around.
Consider issues where these gaps are the largest, such as LGBTQ rights, marijuana legalization, and immigration. For issues where trend data is available, it is difficult to find a single instance of millennials growing more conservative with age. By contrast, the percentage of baby boomers who favor “allowing gays and lesbians to marry” currently sits at 56 percent; this is roughly where the millennial generation stood 10 years ago (and it has since risen to 73 percent). A nearly identical pattern emerges with regard to marijuana legalization.
And contra the belief that the Trump era corresponds with a souring of views on immigrants, Pew finds that baby boomers have been feeling more positive about immigrants during the last decade, catching up to the views of the millennial generation. The percentage of boomers who say that “immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents” has risen to its highest level in decades, and roughly matches where millennials were a decade ago. Millennials, meanwhile, have also shifted, with roughly 8 in 10 believing immigrants have a net positive impact on society.
Older generations are not leading young Americans. They may be in the White House, but it is the young who appear to be squarely in the driver’s seat.
The good news for conservatives is that Pajama Boy isn’t real. Yes, the young Obama supporter who posed for the infamous ad is in fact a real person, and it’s entirely possible he enjoys wearing flannel onesie pajamas. But the idea he represented in the minds of those who poked fun at him—that a self-absorbed generation was happily mooching off its elders and unconcerned about the future—is woefully inaccurate.
Yes, young Americans hold more progressive views than older generations on a host of controversial topics. And at the moment, most young Americans are no fans of President Trump and want little to do with the label “conservative.” But there is a great deal that conservatism can do to connect with young people while holding true to core principles.
Young Americans are extremely interested in entrepreneurship, and without a healthy economy and a restrained regulatory state, they won’t be able to capitalize on their ambitions. Conservatives shouldn’t assume young people are lazy; instead, they ought to deliver a clear message to young Americans that ingenuity and hard work—not taxation and the regulatory state—are the engines that drive a better quality of life in our country.
As well, young Americans tend to be more personally financially responsible than older generations, creating an opportunity for the conservative message on both fiscal and temperamental grounds. A conservative movement that speaks to young Americans about a shared belief in prudence, planning, and making responsible choices, both as individuals and as a nation would resonate.
Government can appear old, clunky, inefficient, and dramatically out-of-step in a world where friendly, artificially intelligent speakers in your home instantly tell you the news and ship almost anything to your front door overnight. Conservatives should have something to say to young people about the free markets that deliver so much of what gives them this material quality of life, and why ideas like socialism that failed dramatically in the past (often long before they were born) remain bankrupt today.
Young Americans are also increasingly experiencing the effects of a loneliness epidemic spawned in part by the fact that genuine community and human connection have too often been replaced—inadequately—by screen time and social media. It is true that social conservatism, which is often unfairly portrayed by the media as a basket of retrograde views on gender and sexuality, remains a nonstarter with young people, but the idea that families and communities need strengthening, that they are not replaceable by the state, and that they are essential to a fulfilled life is a message that conservatives should be shouting from the rooftops.
The world is changing, and changing quickly. Donald Trump was able to build a coalition and win an election by tapping into voters’ anxieties about these changes—economic, cultural, technological, demographic—and convincing many people that these changes haven’t all been for the best. In the process, many young people have been driven away from the right, and they can be forgiven for wondering if standing athwart history tweeting “Stop!” is an appealing long-term strategy for the country.
For their part, conservatives have done little to bridge the generation gap, or even effectively to make their case, instead treating young people as at best a nuisance and at worst a problem. But as young people’s political power continues to increase, their influence over the direction of the country will intensify as well. Their voter turnout levels will rise, their ranks among candidates for political office will grow, and their occupation of positions of influence throughout society will expand. Far better for conservatives to harness this power now than to risk losing it forever.
Also from THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Ben Shapiro looks at the fundamental differences between older conservatives and younger conservatives, and offers advice for how to keep young voters in the fold.