TNGG: Gen Y Not Afraid of Terrorism

Abstract: A nationwide poll (which I authored) found that while a majority of older voters expected a terrorist attack on the U.S. in the next year, young people were far less likely to share this fear. This article discusses some of the possible reasons for this difference. 

Originally posted on TNGG.

I’m a pollster, I look at spreadsheets all day long, and seldom do the numbers in the column under 18-34 match any of the others around it. Millennials have typically been seen as a progressive, politically left-leaning group, and oodles of data over the last few years continue to suggest this is true.

So imagine the surprise when a nationwide poll conducted at Suffolk University found that 58% of young people (18-34 years old) approve of enhanced interrogation and “some forms of torture.” And, 59% of Millennials agreed that the Patriot Act “is necessary to keep us safe,” — both in line with national averages.

An important note on these findings, the 18-34 year old sample may lean to the right on this survey.** Still, given past research on Millennials, it’s a bit surprising to find strong support for both some forms of torture and the Patriot Act.

More importantly, these more conservative findings put the poll’s next question into sharper focus:

Just 35% of those between 18-34 said they think there will be a terrorist attack on the U.S. in the next year. Compared with the nationwide average, over half of likely voters (51%) say they expect an attack, a difference of -16 points. That might not seem like a big deal, but it is.

It’s a significant gap statistically, and contextually. Consider that these same young people did not break on other national security issues, and yet, on the question of an attack they were the only age group to break, and did so in a big way.

Put simply, young people aren’t scared of terrorism and older voters are checking the freshness of their duct tape.

But wait, maybe “Gen Y stands fearless” isn’t the best analysis. Could it be instead that we are numb to the threat of terrorism?

Historic circumstances and events have a dramatic effect on shaping the personal identities and value systems of young people. Generation theory rests on this premise. Thus, according to Pew Research, context is key when analyzing Gen Y’s world view.

Sure, we remember John Hughes and Pogs, but only recently have we become politically aware. As Peter Singer of The Brookings Institute writes, “[Millennials] grew up in a world in which there was no divided Germany,” and without the experience of Vietnam, experiences that shaped the world view of older Americans.

Similarly, others have stated that 9/11 was Gen Y’s first defining moment. And, as I wrote here on TNGG, “at that time the oldest among us were in high school or just graduating from college — and so I ask: how long did we truly live in a pre-9/11 world? I’d argue few Millennials ever really did.”

We barely remember airports before heightened security. We came of age in a country at war, and it has stayed that way our entire adult lives. We lived in a constant state of yellow, “elevated risk” which, until that color system was retired this January, had not been raised or lowered since 2006. It’s hard not to wonder what kind of effect that may have on American Millennials and their perspective of the world.

A survey of “young American leaders”  put out early this year by The Brookings Institution found that nearly 85% of politically engaged Millennials could not envision a point in their lives when terrorism will no longer be a danger. The report notes that, “This sense of permanence… may indicate the power of terrorism as a wedge political issue is passing, as is the validity of promising to ‘win’ any ‘war on terrorism.’”

Or, are we optimistic?

In light of the “never-ending conflict,” as well as a terrible job market, Gen Y still remains optimistic about the future. This May, Gallup found “young adults are mostly hopeful that today’s youth will have a better living standard, better homes, and a better education than their parents.”

But things are really bad, right? Or at least they’re not good. Are Millennials choosing to ignore anything that rains on their parade or are we’re choosing to see the world through rose colored glass? In spite of all the optimism, “it’s difficult to deny that almost all young people face the twin issues of crushing debt and the real possibility that they will never achieve the standard of living of their parents.” And yet, the numbers indicate that young people haven’t stopped smiling.

Maybe we’re just naive?

Finally, it’s also possible that our fearlessness could stem from a youthful sense of invincibility, or worse, perhaps we’re simply naive. In contrast to generation theory, Pew Research points out, “young people may be different from older people today, but they may well become more like them tomorrow, once they themselves age.” Another conclusion we might draw from Mr. Singer’s point (above) is that we lack the context of the 20th century that shaped our parent’s more realistic, hardened worldview.

So, which is it, are we fearless, numb, optimistic, or naive? I expect some might say we just don’t care about anything but ourselves. Or that we lack the attention span it takes to worry. I don’t think either of these is true. Consider the sample asked were likely voters, not Gen Y in general. These respondents are plugged in, politically aware kids – and the fact still remains that for some reason, we just aren’t afraid of terrorism.

What do you think? What explains why Gen Y feels safer than any other age group in America?

**(The 18-34 year old sample for this poll split evenly Democrat and Republican—not representative of how Gen Y breaks by party, and the sample of drew heavily from the southern region of the United States.)

Photo by lintmachine

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