The popular conception of millennials in the conservative imagination is that they are a bunch of over-sensitive, politically correct crybabies. Young people are often referred to as ‘snowflakes’, that is, people who think they’re so special and unique, rather than simply being just like everyone else. Universities are seen as places where freedom of expression is under attack- where anyone who espouses traditional, conservative or nationalistic attitudes risks being shut down, ‘no-platformed’ or de-invited. Students are more concerned with being seen as well-meaning and tolerant than with the truth. They feel entitled to a state-subsidised education and government handouts, without a proper sense of patriotism and responsibility towards wider society.
As a millennial, I have to admit that the conservative critique of our generation is not without merit. We millennials, particularly those lucky enough to attend university, think too much in terms of personal interest, and not enough about the broader consequences of what we believe in. For example, most students believe that higher education ought to be free. Now this policy may benefit students, but would it really be good for the country? Taxes would have to be raised, and the money would benefit graduates, who tend to be a fair bit richer than non-graduates. In other words, a policy intended to be progressive would be in reality, anything but.
Millennials are also guilty of fostering a culture of outrage. Dare to question the merits of the welfare state, gay marriage, mass immigration or pacifism, and young people will often become uncontrollably angry. Rather than engaging with the implications of what you may be proposing, they will engage in ad hominem attacks on you as a racist, sexist, homophobe etc. And while it’s true that some people’s views are motivated by prejudice, it’s important to give people the benefit of the doubt and believe in innocent until proven guilty.
More importantly, many millennials are unable to see any value in conservative ideas. Notions of hierarchy, order, tradition, a strong central authority and divinely-inspired morality are dismissed out of hand. Without a proper understanding of how conservatives, particularly older conservatives think, millennials are in danger of talking over their opponents, instead of seeking to persuade them. The lack of intellectual curiosity amongst some young progressives is at times astounding.
The problem with left-wing millennials ultimately comes down to wanting to be seen as the underdog: the little people fighting the authoritarian establishment. In a world where everyone wants to be seen as a victim, no one will stand up for the status quo. Combined with an increasing sensitivity towards minorities, the result is a toxic culture of playing the victim- a competition to be the most oppressed. Very few millennials will wear their privilege as a badge of honour.
Having said all that, conservatives need to understand the structural causes of my generation’s leftward drift. A slowing economy, increasingly unaffordable housing, tough competition for graduate jobs and few prospects for non-graduates have radicalised people who ought to embrace capitalism’s innovative and liberating qualities. More significantly, the young have moved left in reaction to the old moving right. While our elders used to defend liberalism, the international world order and globalisation, they now embrace Trump, Brexit, and a variety of right-wing authoritarian movements all over the developed world. America is the clearest example of this. It’s unsurprising millennial students call for the abolition of ICE when it forces parents apart from their children. It’s equally expected for young Britons to vote for a veteran socialist when the alternative is a party that has deported British citizens and compared the EU to the Soviet Union.
If we’re not careful, the generational divide could make our societies ungovernable. Partly as a result of it, it’s becoming harder for anyone to win over a convincing majority of voters. I very much doubt America will ever see a landslide presidential election of the scale of Reagan’s victory in 1984. In Germany and Spain, the two main parties are in decline, and in France and Italy, they have become virtually obsolete.
There are no easy answers to any of this, but I have a few suggestions. Young people should worry less about how offensive their views are, and instead focus on their practical implications. Universities should prioritise free speech and a diversity of opinions above the perception of prejudice. The older generations should try to understand why the young feel marginalised and not listened to. And the wealthy, both young and old, need to stop advocating for regressive state subsidies which the poor will have to pay for. The generational divide won’t ever be closed. But with a proactive dialogue and a willingness to listen, it can certainly be narrowed.