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Millennials: Less Patriotic, Or Just Differently Patriotic?

White House Celebration May 2011

Surveys indicate that younger Americans are “less patriotic,” at least in the ways that people older than they are seem to define what it means to be patriotic:

Americans are a patriotic bunch. Compared with people in most other countries, Americans express more pride in their nationality, and most say that being an American is an important part of their identity.

Even so, patriotism in America is on the decline.

But the decline seems to have more to do with reactions to the symbols of American democracy than its values. Older Americans remain remarkably high in their devotion to symbols like the flag, while young citizens are cooler toward Old Glory but express higher support for classic American ideals like equality and opportunity.

The patterns suggest the shifts are generational and not driven by stages in the life cycle. Past generations have declined only marginally in their nationalism over time – they start out high and mainly remain so. But today’s youngest generation begins adulthood with much lower levels of fondness for the symbols of America, and if the past is a guide, there is no reason to expect increases as they age.

Measures of American patriotism over the last several decades are found in the American National Election Study (A.N.E.S.), the nation’s longest-running data collection on political attitudes and behavior. Started in 1948, the A.N.E.S. is funded by the National Science Foundation, and the interviews are done in person every four years, in the homes of nearly 2,000 randomly selected Americans.

(…)

There are small differences in levels of patriotism across political parties, between men and women, and among racial groups, but these patterns pale in comparison to the differences across generations, with overt patriotism shifting down with age. Here’s a striking example: 81 percent of the Silent Generation (those who are 69 to 86 years old in 2014) love America while only 58 percent of millennials (18 to 33 years old) feel the same. Born between 1928 and 1945, the Silent Generation fought both the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Thirty-one percent of them report that they personally served on active duty in the United States Armed Forces. Only 4 percent of millennials have done so.

Seventy-eight percent of the older generation consider their American identity to be extremely important. That drops to 70 percent for baby boomers (50 to 68 years), 60 percent of Generation X’ers (34 to 49 years), and only 45 percent of young adults define themselves this way. And while 94 percent of the Silent Generation say that seeing the U.S. flag flying makes them feel extremely or very good, only 67 percent of millennials muster the same affection.

Millennials, it seems, are a different breed. According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, millennials are “detached from institutions … linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry – and optimistic about the future.” They are, the report concludes, “different from older adults back when they were the age millennials are now.”

These trends can be seen in the A.N.E.S. data by examining the 1988 version of the question about flying the flag. Millennials start out in a very different place than other generations. In 1988, when Gen X members were 23 or younger, 73 percent said the flag made them feel extremely or very good – the same percentage of that generation that says so today. And 82 percent of the boomers in 1988 (age 24 to 42), who may be more comparable to the age range of today’s millennials, report extremely or very good feelings when seeing the Stars and Stripes – very close to the 87 percent who say this same thing today.

Patriotism seems to span the life cycle, not change with it, which might give us pause given the low starting levels of the millennial generation. But it shouldn’t. Just as the Pew data found young people to be optimistic despite being saddled with debt, the A.N.E.S. data show millennials to be extremely supportive of the ideals and values of democracy, if not the symbols of America. In particular, equality stands out.

The A.N.E.S. asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with six statements about equality. One of them was: “It is not really that big a problem if some people have more of a chance in life than others.” People who agree with the statement are saying that the differences in people’s prospects aren’t terribly problematic for American society. Only 28 percent of Americans agree with that statement; 21 percent neither agree nor disagree. Half think it is a big problem that some people get more of a chance in life than others.

On some level, I’m always skeptical of surveys like this that try to measure something like “patriotism.” In no small part, I think that’s because it’s rather obvious that these are the kind of poll questions that respondents will tend to give answers that they think that people want to hear, or the ones that make them look good in the eyes of the questioner. There was some example of that in political polling in what used to be known as the “Bradley Effect,” which got its name from the fact that African-American candidates would often poll higher than they would actually perform on Election Day. It got its name from the 1982 run for California Governor of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who polled well throughout the race but ended up losing One theory that pollsters developed to try to explain this disparity was the idea that respondents were saying that they supported Bradley because they didn’t want pollsters to think they were being prejudiced in not supporting an African-American. Arguably, the same thing may be at play in these surveys. Most Americans, after all, will likely want to be seen as patriotic. That impulse is likely to be stronger among older Americans than it is among younger Americans as well, for a variety of reasons that probably have nothing to do younger Americans being less “patriotic” and everything to do with the different attitudes of different generations.

The other problem with a survey like this, though, is the fact that “patriotism” is not nearly as easy to define as the questions would seem to indicate. For some people, patriotism indeed about the tangible symbols like the American flag and such. For others, patriotism morphs into an unhealthy form of nationalism that tends to believe that there’s nothing that the country can do wrong, as long as its led by the right people (there are far too many of this type in American politics for my taste, but that’s the subject of another post). For still others, patriotism is about the ideas that the nation was founded on such as liberty and equality under the law. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t go around waving American flags and such, but he quite obviously drew on the founding principles of the nation to advance his cause by arguing that it was time for the nation to “live out the true meaning of its creed.” If that’s not patriotism, then I don’t know what is.

When it comes to younger Americans, it’s perhaps understandable why they wouldn’t exactly be “gung-ho” Americans in the manner of other generations. In many respects, they’ve been dealt a pretty crappy hand thanks to a weak economy, a weak job market, and a decade of war that only now seems to be coming to an end. When you’re dealing with things like that, it makes sense that you might be a little less enthusiastic about things like a flag. At the same time, though, its clearly a mistake to say that Millenials are anti-patriotic, or that there is even anything to worry about here. As the survey noted above, for example, this generation has a strong commitment to principles of equality that have long been a part of the American mileau. Additionally, younger Americans are just as likely as anyone to rally around the flag at the appropriate times, as the turnout in various American cities to watch the U.S. Men’s National Team play in the World Cup, and the spontaneous rally outside the White House the night the death of Osama bin Laden was announced, demonstrates quite well. So, maybe these Millenials aren’t dressing up like Uncle Sam and such, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t patriotic. I’d suggest that it just means they’ll end up expressing their patriotism in a different way.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. beth says:

    Lately, whenever someone says they are a “patriot” my mind immediately thinks “a**hole”. I don’t want to but what comes after them proclaiming that is usually some sort of right wing nonsense that proves that while the person may love America, they sure don’t like many Americans.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 3

  2. Davebo says:

    Newflash. People who made crap sandwich like it more than those forced to eat it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 3

  3. Tillman says:

    The word “patriot” is being seized on by right-wing groups, so I think it’s largely a culture-war thing than a specific feeling towards one’s country.

    There’s a reason the XM station for right-wing talk radio is called Patriot radio.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 3

  4. Ron Beasley says:

    I must admit that as a person who became “political” during the Vietnam war I have never been very “patriotic.” The Bush/Cheney cabal certainly didn’t do anything to increase my patriotism.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 3

  5. Todd says:

    @Tillman:
    Exactly. I was just thinking about this as I saw pictures on the news of those who are angrily accosting the immigrant kids in CA waving American flags. It’s gotten almost to the point where I wouldn’t want to fly the flag in front of my house for fear that others might think I’m of the same mindset as those heartless a$$holes. If that makes me “unpatriotic”, so be it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 4

  6. CB says:

    I, for one, associate the contemporary use of ‘patriot’ with blind nationalism, which, yeah, not cool.

    @Todd:

    I’d say those idiots should be ashamed of themselves, but they obviously don’t have the capacity for shame.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 3

  7. Kari Q says:

    I also think that the ending of the Cold War is a factor. They are the first generation to grow up without thinking that their country is leading a global effort to prevent Communists from imposing totalitarian regimes in every country around the globe. Without that ‘other’ to define ourselves against, patriotism will naturally change.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  8. James Joyner says:

    In addition to factors cited above, I think:

    1. We’ve become more cynical since the Vietnam-Watergate period, not without good reason.

    2. As noted in the soccer thread, we’re becoming more cosmopolitan and therefore less jingoistic. While there’s still plenty of “America is number one is everything and everything” sentiment out there, increasingly even our political leaders are telling us that it just ain’t so.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 1

  9. Mr. Prosser says:

    It strikes me as patriotism has become a sort of exercise in desperation as the “Silent Generation” gets older. There was, for awhile, at ballgames a cynical cymbal sound made by audience members during the national anthem which, frankly I got a chuckle out of. Now the anthem is sung like a hymn and during the 7th inning stretch I’m expected to stand again and remove my cap while God Bless America is performed. It’s become a loyalty test.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  10. DrDaveT says:

    @Tillman:

    There’s a reason the XM station for right-wing talk radio is called Patriot radio.

    …And that the biggest recent legislative blow to Liberty is called “The Patriot Act”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  11. grumpy realist says:

    Who was it who said that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel?

    Seeing what the Tea Party mavens have made of it, I’d say it’s the first.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  12. anjin-san says:

    I’m expected to stand again and remove my cap while God Bless America is performed.

    I wonder about this one – why do we need two mandatory patriotic songs at a ballgame?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  13. Moosebreath says:

    @grumpy realist:

    “Who was it who said that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel?”

    Samuel Johnson.

    I prefer Shaw’s line that patriotism is the belief that one country is superior to all others because you was born in it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  14. michael reynolds says:

    I don’t know about the Millennials, but for legitimate reasons (I write for kids and have my own) I spend way more time than most 59 year-old adults do interacting with, and pandering to, teenagers. I have sensed for a long time now that there is something different about this crew.

    My generation was largely defined by our rejection of the previous generation over rock music, Vietnam, hair and race. This generation doesn’t have that with their parents. There’s a gentleness, a lack of aggression and anger in this bunch. They are tough-minded, very willing to defend their beliefs, and yes judgmental, but there is still a kindness to them. They don’t have to learn to be tolerant, it’s built in for them.

    I’m tempted to say that it grows from equality of the sexes. The girls aren’t just the girlfriends anymore, they aren’t second-class citizens, nor are they drawn to angry assertions of their equality – they assume it, and the boys assume it as well. Males don’t always set the agenda. I think we’ll have a hard time convincing these kids to rush off and kill people in foreign lands without a very good reason.

    Their world is different in some fundamental ways. Everything can be time-shifted. They will never be lost or out of touch. They will never assume that different is bad. They are almost immune to advertising or appeals to authority. They are secular in outlook, even the religious ones. Their connections are often invisible to those outside their group – a group that may only rarely interact in the offline world.

    I can’t prove any of this, it’s just a sense. But I’ll say this: I like them. I like them better than I do my own generation. The sooner the Baby Boomers get out of the way the better for the country and the world. We did a lot of good, and we were the (too) angry generation when some anger was called for. But the way we still go on playing out our 1960’s era grudges (hippies vs. hardhats) in politics is just kind of sad.

    That said, our music was better.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 1

  15. Bruce Henry says:

    @michael reynolds: I’ve got two daughters, 18 and 22, and I have to say you’ve described them and their friends pretty well.

    I like ‘em too.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  16. wr says:

    @anjin-san: “I wonder about this one – why do we need two mandatory patriotic songs at a ballgame?”

    Especially since God Bless America is probably the worst song ever written by a truly great songwriter.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  17. anjin-san says:

    Being a patriot is a lot like being a hero. If you have to go around telling people you are a hero, there is a good chance you are not. If you go around telling people that you are a patriot, there is a good chance you are not.

    I’m old enough to remember a generation(s) of Americans that knew how to let their actions do the talking. This seems to be an age of sunshine soldiers and summer patriots.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  18. ernieyeball says:

    …why do we need two mandatory patriotic songs at a ballgame?”

    Who’s “we” Homer? At Wrigley Field Uber Patriotic Cub fans sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame mid 7th.
    ———————————

    I’d suggest that it just means they’ll end up expressing their patriotism in a different way.

    What could be more Patriotic on the 4th of July than Nathan’s Women’s Hot Dog Eating Contest from Coney Island?
    Miki Sudo I love U!
    http://ftw.usatoday.com/2014/07/miki-sudo-nathans-hot-dog-contest-sonya-thomas

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  19. anjin-san says:

    @ ernieyeball

    Well ya, but you’ve got to watch the Cubs :)

    I remember Harry Caray doing Oakland A’s games back in the early 70’s, before he was the King of Chicago.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  20. Moosebreath says:

    @anjin-san:

    No, you also get “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” if you watch the Phils.

    On the other hand, I married an Orioles fan. Their idea of 7th inning stretch music is “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. bill says:

    they’re all clueless until they get a career/family,etc and realize just where taxes come from- and then see where they go. Having no real military enemies in close range and living in the best place on the planet makes them take things a bit more for granted. i think the “history” they teach in high school has been edited to the point where it’s moot.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 4

  22. Grewgills says:

    So once they have families and homes and see the big tax breaks they get to encourage them to do so they will embrace their welfare and lose their empathy and sympathy and no longer support welfare for anyone else?

    I do like living in this particular part of the US and don’t think I will move out of this state before I die, though I hope to retire on a different island. That said, I preferred Western Europe to living in most of the continental US. The bread and dairy were better and the politics were less frustrating.

    I don’t think moot means what you think it does. History, the more so the further back we go, is the subject of debate and it should be. I would much prefer high school history students questioning history rather than memorizing dates.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  23. Grewgills says:

    @Grewgills:
    The good beer, chocolate and cheese were also much cheaper. Public transit was easy, so I hardly had to drive and I paid between half and two thirds what I pay for my wife’s health insurance and I would save a bundle on health insurance for my daughter.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  24. beth says:

    @michael reynolds: Can we Boomers get just a little credit? After all, we fought for the equality those women now enjoy and hell, we raised those wonderful kids!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  25. superdestroyer says:

    Does the patriotic feelings of millennials matter to anything in the U.S. If they are not very patriotic will they be willing to pay very high taxes to fund the level of government that they are demanding. Will they tolerate the high level of regulation and social engineering that is coming in the future? Will they be willing to tolerate diminishing economic and quality of life prospects in the future?

    I wonder if progressives would support the building of patriotic feelings if shown that people who are patriotic are willing to pay more taxes?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  26. DrDaveT says:

    @superdestroyer:

    I wonder if progressives would support the building of patriotic feelings if shown that people who are patriotic are willing to pay more taxes?

    As was pointed out way upthread, you can’t have a coherent conversation on this subject without first defining what you mean by ‘patriotism’. It’s clear from the comments that at least three wildly divergent definitions are in play.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  27. ernieyeball says:

    @anjin-san:..Well ya, but you’ve got to watch the Cubs :)

    So did Yankee manager Joe Girardi (former Cub) May 20 watch the Cubs at Wrigley crush Masahiro Tanaka 6-1 ending his regular-season unbeaten run at 42 starts.

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  28. jim m says:

    I think that people are more likely to distinguish between their feelings toward the country vs their feelings toward the government. There is a difference between a sense of identification with the people as a nation versus what one feels toward the politicians in charge. In that sense I think that surveys probably fail to capture that nuance and I don’t think that “patriotism” in that sense has declined that much at all. Evidence of that fact is that people are still willing to argue quite energetically about what the right path is for the country. You don’t argue if you don’t care. (Well there are a some that just want to accuse)

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