The Personal Is The Apolitical

In popular stereotype, the freewheeling young are forever rebelling against the stodgy old. The reality is more complex. Polling commissioned by The Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University finds 18-29-year-olds more conservative than their elders in some respects. And even on matters where it’s less traditionalist, the young cohort is scarcely a hotbed of countercultural sentiment. For instance, 24 percent of 18-29s say religion is “the most important thing” in their lives, and another 33 percent say it’s “very important” to them. While less likely than their elders to favor permitting prayer in public schools, a majority of 18-29s (58 percent, vs. 71 percent of all adults) are nonetheless in the pro-prayer camp. The young folks are more likely than older Americans to value “individual freedom” over “law and order.” Even among the young, though, order draws nearly as many votes as freedom (48 percent vs. 50 percent, compared to 49 percent vs. 46 percent among adults in general). If forced to choose between “working for the rights of women” and “preserving traditional family values,” the 18-29s would prefer the latter by 56 percent to 41 percent. (Among adults overall, traditional values won by a margin of 65 percent to 29 percent.) Though the 18-29s stand to the left of their elders on topics like gay marriage and affirmative action, they stand to the right on issues like school vouchers and Social Security. Perhaps their most conspicuous political difference vis-à-vis olderAmericans is that the 18-29s tend not to vote in large numbers. Apparently they’re too busy going to movies, surfing the Web, listening to music, etc. In its analysis of the data, The Washington Post laments that the “underrepresentation of young voters is becoming more acute” and “creating a distorted national politics.” But one can see a defensible division of power here: The young call the tune for popular culture and the old set the agenda for government. Each group gets what it cares about most. If 18-29s aren’t flocking to the polls, it may partly be because they feel no great impetus to change things. Fifty-nine percent said they’re “very satisfied” with their lives overall, and 36 percent are “somewhat satisfied.”

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