There's just about no way to get a "generational" analysis of anything right. People aren't really grouped, naturally, into generations -- Baby Boomer mythology notwithstanding.
So when Ron Fournier went to look for how the "Millennials" are going to change US politics, the odds of a train wreck were high. And, yeah, it's Really That Bad.
We learn, for example, that students at the Kennedy School aren't planning to run for office. Is that news? I have no idea! I don't know how many similar students thirty or fifty years ago wound up running for office, or what their plans were at a similar life stage.
We learn...well, I'll quote:
College students increasingly prefer the private sector, graduate school, or non-profit work, according to the Partnership for Public Service’s analysis of the 2011 National Association for Colleges and Employers Student Survey. In 2008, 8.4 percent of students planned to work for local, state, and federal governments after graduation. That number reached an all-time high of 10.2 percent during the 2009 recession, before dropping to 7.4 percent in 2010.Students "increasingly prefer the private sector"? C'mon. Fournier is apparently putting a ton of "generational shift" weight on a shift from 2009 to now), which makes no sense at all. There's nothing at all here about comparable data from the 1980s or 1960s. Or how well college preferences line up with actual career choices. And even within these data, it seems far more likely that the year-to-year shifts are either meaningless reactions to the latest news, or even more meaningless random variation. It's hard to believe that there's something truly radical going on if the "all-time high" in the other direction was just a few years ago.
Now, just 6 percent of college students plan to work for public sector institutions, and only 2.3 percent want to work at the federal level.
And it's not the only time he does that in this article:
Diggles is the first to admit that, contrary to conventional wisdom, her party does not have a lock on the youth vote -- and thus Democrats are not immune to the withering forces of generational change. For instance, she says, 51 percent of Millennials believe that when government runs something it is usually wasteful and inefficient, up from 31 percent in 2003 and 42 percent in 2009: “Hardly a ringing endorsement for a bigger government providing more services.”But how do those numbers compare to sentiment in the general population? This sort of thing, again, goes up and down all the time in reaction to events and political fortunes (note that lots of indicators of government approval jumped up after the September 11 attacks; that 2003 number may be unusually low for that reason). But it's not at all clear that it matters in any way at all. There are some political preferences that are "sticky" over time (such as party identification), but others just aren't; they're just answers to pollster questions.
All of this, to Fournier, are "hard data" that back up his conclusions, which are about how the parties are going to be replaced by apps, or something like that: "The GOP and (less likely) the Democratic Party could die." Oh, and he has "experts on the Millennial Generation say they can easily envision a future without a two-party system." Perhaps so -- but perhaps Fournier should have checked with some experts in, well, the two-party system. It exists not because of some particular technology or ideology of government, but because of the very logic of large democracies and a first-past-the-post electoral system.
Or, perhaps, I'm just an old guy who can't see something new coming. But here's the thing: these millennials have actually been around for a while now (the oldest, by Fournier's definition, are thirty), and there's no sign yet of anything like that. Instead, the parties are if anything getting stronger and more institutionalized. It's nothing like the real crack-up and destabilization of the parties that happened when the baby boomers first entered the political scene, although to be fair the disruptions of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s only sometimes had anything to do with baby boomers as a group.
Basically, what Fournier finds is that high school kids, college students, and Kennedy School students are perfectly comfortable mouthing the same anti-party sentiments that have been popular in the US for a century or more; that many of them also like to repeat anti-politics rhetoric that's been popular for even longer; and that many of them believe that there's something "new" coming that they get and their elders don't, which is probably how the younger generation has thought since forever.
Hey, there may be something to all of this, but it's just not here. For example, Fournier is concerned that millennials aren't going to run for office...but it would be nice to check and see what the oldest of this cohort is actually doing in state and local elections, and to compare that with what people in their 20s were doing in 1995 or 1975. But throughout the piece, there's no hint of any baseline that would allow us to see how anything happening now is any different from what happened before.
Of course, new technologies and new ways of thinking will change the parties and how government works...which is the story of pretty much all the time. The parties we have now are a lot different from the parties of the 1960s, or the parties of the 1930s, or the parties of the 1890s; the government we have now has some continuities, but plenty of disruptions, too. I'm sure there will be disruptions to both the parties and the government in the future, too! But there's nothing at all here to tell us anything about any of that.
Yeah, it's enough to make me cranky.