Why millennials are wary of freedom

Young Americans seem to be losing faith in freedom. Why?

According to the World Values Survey, only about 30 per cent of Americans born after 1980 believe it is absolutely essential to live in a democratic country, compared with 72 per cent of Americans born before World War II. In 1995, 16 per cent of Americans in their late teens and early adulthood thought democracy was a bad idea; in 2011, the number increased to 24 per cent.

Young Americans also are disproportionately sceptical of free speech. A 2015 poll from the Pew Research Centre found that 40 per cent of millennials (ages 18 to 34) believe the government should be able to regulate certain types of offensive speech. Only 27 per cent of Gen-Xers (ages 35 to 50), 20 per cent of baby boomers (ages 51 to 69) and 12 per cent of the silent generation (ages 70 to 87) share that opinion.

For many conservative commentators, especially those concerned about attitudes on college campuses, this is merely more evidence of the deleterious influence of the radical left in academia. But while ideology certainly plays a role here, these trends transcend political party affiliation, as recent polls indicate.

A 2016 Gallup survey found that a majority of both Democratic and Republican students believe colleges should be allowed to restrict speech that is purposely offensive to certain groups. A survey of students' attitudes concerning free speech released last week by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education found that 66 per cent of Democratic and 47 per cent of Republican students believe there are times a college should withdraw a campus speaker's invitation after it has been announced. And a survey published by the Brookings Institution last month found that 20 per cent of Democratic and 22 per cent of Republican students agreed it was acceptable for student groups to use violence to prevent a person from speaking.

If wariness of democracy and free speech does not represent a political position, what does it represent? What unites so many young Americans in these attitudes? I propose that the answer is fear - the ultimate enemy of freedom.

Parental culture in this country has become increasingly guarded and safety focused, as illustrated by the rise of "helicopter parenting". The benefits of increased safety are many. But somewhere along the way, protecting children from needless harm became conflated with shielding them from stressors and uncertainties (such as having to solve everyday problems, like getting lost, on one's own) that are critical for developing personal independence.Researchers have linked helicopter parenting to college students' having a lower degree of self-confidence. Relatedly, a study released last month found that today's teenagers and young adults are less likely than those of past generations to engage in a range of activities that involve personal independence, such as working for pay, driving, dating and spending time with friends without adult supervision.

Colleges and universities have exacerbated the problem of dependence by promoting what is sometimes called a culture of victimhood. American college students (who are some of the safest and most privileged people on the planet) are to be protected from, and encouraged to be ever-vigilant about and even report, any behaviour that could cause emotional distress. Feelings and experiences that were once considered part of everyday life, such as being offended by someone's political views, are now more likely to be treated as detrimental to mental health.

Making the problem worse, victimhood culture is "contagious". Studies have shown that when one group is accused of causing harm to others, members of the accused group become more inclined to feel that their group is being discriminated against.

There may be some benefits to an increased sensitivity to students' psychological vulnerabilities. Young people today face unique stressors, such as the ease of harassment presented by social media. But instead of helping, a culture of victimhood worsens the underlying problem.

Fear, in all its forms, is at the heart of these issues - fear of failure, ridicule, discomfort, ostracism, uncertainty. Of course, these fears haunt all of us, regardless of demographics. But that is precisely the point: Our culture isn't preparing young people to grapple with what are ultimately unavoidable threats. Indeed, despite growing up in a physically safer and kinder society than past generations did, young Americans today report higher levels of anxiety.

Fear pushes people to adopt a defensive posture. When people feel anxious, they're less open to diverse ideas and opinions, and less forgiving and tolerant of those they disagree with. When people are afraid, they cling to the certainty of the world they know and avoid taking physical, emotional and intellectual risks. In short, fear causes people to privilege psychological security over liberty.

What can be done? It isn't enough to criticise young people for being overly sensitive and insufficiently independent. They didn't engineer our security-focused culture. We must liberate them, let them be free to navigate the social world, make mistakes, fail, experience emotional pain and learn to self-regulate fear and distress. If we want future generations to have faith in freedom, we need to restore our faith in them.


•The writer is a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2017, with the headline 'Why millennials are wary of freedom'. Print Edition | Subscribe