Will Millennials Become Generation X-treme?

Polarization may have legs. A Harvard study suggests that young Americans are becoming more divided politically, giving rise to a chilling thought: The so-called millennials could become “Generation X-treme.”

“Young adults seem to have the same view about politics as the rest of us,” said Esten Perez, communications director for the Institute of Politics at Harvard. “And that’s scary.”

The generation of adults between ages 18 and 29 is often considered by political observers and pop-sociologists to be a source of hope–measurably more tolerant, diverse, global-minded and adaptable than their parents and grandparents. And yet, millennials might be no less divided.

The institute released an update this week to its 13-year-old study of young adults. It is packed with clues about the nation’s future, including the potential durability of polarization.

“From immigration to government spending to views on morality, the divide between political parties, even among our youngest voters, is stark,” the study says. (Disclosure: I was an institute fellow in 2005.)

Four examples:

Immigration: In 2010, young Democrats were 3 points more likely than Republicans to agree that recent immigration to the United States “has done more good than harm.” Today, the gap is 9 points. Republicans were 13 points more likely to disagree with that statement in 2010. The difference is now 27 points.

Government spending: Three years ago, there was a 17-point gap among young Democrats and Republicans on the question of whether “government spending is an effective way to increase growth.” The gap is now 24 points.

Morality: In 2010, 47 percent of young Democrats said they were “concerned about the moral direction of the country,” compared with 67 percent of young Republicans. In three years, the number of concerned Democrats dropped 3 points while the GOP number increased 5 points.

President Obama: The difference between the way young Democrats and Republicans view the president has never been more dramatic. More than eight in 10 young Democrats approve of his job performance, compared with just 10 percent of Republicans. The net difference of 74 points is up 11 points over a year ago.

What does this mean? First, it’s worth noting that while the gap between young Republicans and Democrats is significant, and has consistently grown across issue areas, some of the gains are slight. Second, it is impossible to know whether the gap is predictive of the future or merely a reflection of politics today. It is possible that polarization among millennials will ease as they grow older.

Still, these are red flags. Early voting behavior is typically predictive of the future. It is not outrageous to assume that the same forces dividing their parents’ and grandparents’ generations will polarize millennials.

These forces include increased mobility and the connectivity of new technologies and media, which empower people to sort themselves into virtual and veritable tribes. No generation has had an easier time consuming information that hardens their views, and finding people who share their opinions.

The institute's study holds older generations accountable for the future actions of millennials. Leaders today must urgently set an example.

“The vast majority of young people in our survey report having friends from another political party. While their views of politics may be increasingly partisan, they know that good people exist across the aisle; working together does not mean selling out,” the report reads.

“Unless the discourse in American changes, from the top-down, all of us will suffer and the nation will lose a generation of the best and brightest citizens, voters and public servants the world has to offer,” it says.

The report also includes jarring details about millennials’ cynicism toward politics and government. "That is Barack Obama's key constituency," Perez said, "and it's polarized and in danger of checking out."

Further reporting is required: I plan to spend time in high school and college classrooms in the next few weeks to explore whether millennials can reverse a generation-long decline in U.S. politics. Will they rejuvenate comity, compromise, and a viable political center? Will they pull together, or will they become Generation X-treme? Most important: Will the best and brightest of the largest generation even bother with politics or government?