CHICAGO — This generation of young Americans has been called many things, from civic-minded to “entitled.” But fiscally conservative?
That’s a new one, and it just might have an impact on the presidential election.
Listen to Caroline Winsett, a senior at Chicago’s DePaul University, who considers herself fairly socially liberal but said being fiscally conservative matters most right now.
“Ultimately, I’m voting with my pocketbook,” said Winsett, a 22-year-old political science major who is president of the DePaul student body. She recently cast an absentee ballot for Republican Mitt Romney in her home state of Tennessee.
To be clear, polls show that President Barack Obama remains the favorite among 18- to 29-year-old registered voters, as he was in 2008. No one thinks the majority of young voters will support Romney in the Nov. 6 election.
But the polls also hint at a “schism” between those who weren’t old enough to vote in 2008 and their older twentysomething counterparts, said John Della Volpe, the polling director at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.
In one poll, for instance, he found that 42 percent of 18- and 19-year-olds identified as “conservative,” compared with just over one-third who said they were “liberal.”
By comparison, those proportions were nearly flipped for 22- to 24-year-olds — 39 percent said they were “liberal,” and a third called themselves “conservative.” It was much the same for older twentysomethings.
Tina Wells, head of Buzz Marketing, an agency that tracks the attitudes of young people, has noticed this shift to the right. Her own researchers have found that the youngest adults are much more likely to label themselves “conservative,” “moderate” or “independent” than older millennials, a term for young adults who have entered adulthood in the new millennium.
Like a lot of youth experts, Wells thinks it has to do with one thing: the economy.
Suddenly, she said, the “entitled generation,” those who grew up in more prosperous times and were seen as having ridiculously high expectations for jobs and standard of living, was no more.
“That bubble burst the minute the economy started tanking, and they were the ‘unemployed generation,’?” Wells said. “They had to grow up.”
She said the recession had a particularly profound effect on the political attitudes of younger millennials, who have come of age as the adults who preceded them have lost homes, jobs and retirement funds. It has set a decidedly grimmer tone as their age group also has faced the highest unemployment rate of any age bracket, while many others have had to take jobs below their qualifications.
“We heard about how our parents’ bank accounts were shrinking and how money that was there one day was gone the next,” said Jessie Wurzer, a 17-year-old in Fairport, N.Y.
She said it has left her and her peers “with a lingering anxiety about money and finances in general.”
They worry about how they will afford college, whether Social Security will be there when they are ready to retire and how the national deficit will affect them. That’s why Wurzer now calls herself a “fiscal conservative.”
At the same time, however, she considers herself a moderate on social issues, including gay marriage and abortion. So in traditional political terms, this generation is hard to peg.
Unemployment is now the top concern among young people, said Deborah Maue, vice president at TRU, a Chicago-based research company that specializes in tweens, teens and young adults.
Just after the 2008 election, unemployment ranked fifth, behind such issues as education and health care.
Maue said this is a generation that also is passionately “hands off” on social issues. TRU’s research also has found that teens are increasingly uninterested in organized religion.
“They’re all about individuality and accepting people as individuals,” said Maue, who leads the TRU Enrollment Insights Program for higher education professionals.
For some young people, an interest in individual freedom has sent them to the Libertarian party. Rachel Palermo, a 19-year-old in Northfield, Minn., is one of them.
“Our loss of trust may be why we have the mentality that the economy would be best with less intervention” said Palermo, a sophomore at St. Olaf College. She plans to vote for Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson.
“Even though politician after politician promises they’ll improve the economy, they have failed, and we are going to suffer from it.”