Just last week I was pretty secure in my belief that most of the ways Millennials are different could be attributed to their stage of life, not some fundamental difference in worldview.

Then I read a study featured in the New York Times regarding opinions on the legitimacy of the military's assuming control in a democracy. The data from that study is alarming:

  • While 43 percent of older Americans believe it is illegitimate for the military to take over if the government is failing to do its job, only 19 percent of Millennials feel the same way.
  • Growing Millennial support for military rule isn't limited just to the United States. In Europe, 53 percent of older citizens believe military rule is illegitimate. Only 36 percent of European Millennials feel the same way.

The research, previously published in The Journal of Democracy, indicates that support for democracy has decreased globally every year since 2005.

We've spent more than 10 years talking about how generational differences impact product marketing when we should be talking about far more important issues. For example, over the past decade, I can't count how many articles I've read about businesses and their attempts to make themselves "Millennial friendly."

The underwear company Hanes.

But I can't recall many articles from mainstream publications discussing why an entire generation of people, worldwide, appears to be losing faith in democracy at an alarming rate.

If those articles were written, my guess is the comment section would be filled with statements like "Typical Millennials. I'm not surprised. A dictator is just a helicopter parent in a funny looking uniform."

Then everyone would agree this loss of faith in democracy was yet another example--sandwiched somewhere between sagging pants and the overuse of those puppy-nose Snapchat filters--of how this generation is the worst generation ever.

Except Millennials are not the first generation to lose faith in democracy.

In Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, historian Ira Katznelson writes that calls for a dictator during the early days of the Great Depression were relatively common. Walter Lippman, at the time the country's most influential journalist, wrote just prior to Franklin Roosevelt's inauguration that "a mild species of dictatorship will help us over the roughest spots in the road ahead."

Alfred E. Smith, a popular former presidential candidate and governor of New York, said in the face of the Depression that the nation should wrap the Constitution in a "piece of paper and put it on a shelf" until the crisis had ended.

When people stop believing democracy works for them, they stop believing in democracy. That's not unique to Millennials. Before we dismiss this study as the latest evidence that there is something wrong with an entire generation, it might be worth finding out why this segment of the population believes that a group of generals storming Washington, D.C., would be preferable to an election.

Whatever we do, we shouldn't ignore data like this, or use it to further Millennial stereotypes. Instead, we should use it to start a real conversation with a large group of people who obviously think the current system doesn't work for them.

Because Millennials will age. They will lose their hair. They will have kids. They will buy minivans.

They will assume positions of power.

And if they don't believe in democracy, what will they believe in?

Published on: Nov 29, 2016
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