Ross Douthat's column in The New York Times on Sunday makes some familiar noises about America's young people, who are now annoyingly labelled "millenials." According to the Pew survey which clearly sparked Douthat's piece, today's youngsters are less likely to marry, less likely to believe in God, less likely to call themselves environmentalists, and less likely to be Democrats or Republicans (especially Republicans). They are also more likely to be in favor of gay marriage, liberal immigration policies, and drug legalization. According to Douthat, these are all signs that we have entered what he calls the "age of individualism."
The first problem here is that not all of these positions line up with individualism. For example, what is the connection between a liberal immigration policy and individualism? You could perhaps find one, but you could also draw the reverse conclusion. You might argue that support for gay marriage among young people shows that they believe individuals should be able to do what they want. But you could also argue the opposite, and say that gay marriage acceptance shows support for structured family life. Moreover, "individuals doing what they want" and "individualism" are two very different things. You can go all the way back to Adam Smith to find support for the belief that giving people a certain amount of autonomy allows the community to flourish, too. Many family-friendly conservatives would argue that society is best served by offering entrepeneurs the freedom to operate; they would be unlikely to label themselves "individualists."
But the real problem with Douthat's analysis is that it ignores how millenials think about government. Here is the crucial paragraph:
But the millennials’ skepticism of parties, programs and people runs deeper than their allegiance to a particular ideology. Their left-wing commitments are ardent on a few issues but blur into libertarianism and indifferentism on others. The common denominator is individualism, not left-wing politics: it explains both the personal optimism and the social mistrust, the passion about causes like gay marriage and the declining interest in collective-action crusades like environmentalism, even the fact that religious affiliation has declined but personal belief is still widespread.
I don't have a good answer for the environmentalism results, which perhaps signal something bigger than a concern about the economy. (People tend to see protecting the economy and saving the environment as zero-sum.) But you would never know from Douthat's analysis that the very same Pew poll contains fascinating data about what millenials think about the role of the state.
Overall, Americans believe in a "smaller government with fewer services" over a "bigger government with more services" by a 51%-40% margin. Among millenials, however, the numbers are more than reversed: Only 38% favor a smaller government, and 53% favor a bigger one. Millenials are also likelier than the population-at-large to express the belief that gun control is of greater importance than gun rights--surely the opposite of "individualism." And millenials believe more strongly than any other age group that government has a responsibility to provide everyone with health insurance. The only issue on which this trend doesn't hold is the obvious one of social security, where millenials are most likely to "consider" benefit cuts. (Baby-boomers, by the way, self-identify more as "conservative" than "liberal" by 20 percentage points; millenials are more "liberal" than "conservative" by 5 percentage points.)
If anything, then, millenials actually seem less politically individualist than any generation in a long time. (Jon Chait has a good analysis here.) And thus Douthat's closing worry about our individualist future morphing into a privacy-less online communalism (which he sees as potentially having totalitarian undertones) is probably more than a little overstated.