Cathy Cohen
Big Brains podcst

What We’re Getting Wrong About Millennials with Cathy Cohen (Ep.18)

A leading scholar on race and politics says some of our assumptions about millennials are all wrong.

Cathy Cohen
Big Brains podcst

Show Notes

Every election year, poll after poll tries to predict where millennials stand politically. But Prof. Cathy Cohen of the University of Chicago says some of our assumptions about what issues matter to young people are all wrong.

Cohen’s innovative survey of millennials, GenForward, is a first of its kind. By oversampling young people of color, they investigate differences in responses by race and ethnicity. The data she’s collected gives us a unique window into what millennials are thinking and what they might do in the 2020 election.

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(Episode published February 4, 2019)

(Music used in this episode: Balti by Blue Dot Sessions.)



PAUL RAND: Every two years, you start to hear the exact same conversation in the news.

NBC TAPE: “Before every single election we talk about young voters. Are they extra motivated this year, are they going to make a difference. 2016, 2014, 2012, we have been talking about this, raising this question for a long time now.”

RAND: Trying to figure out where young voters stand has been a fundamental part of every election since 2008, when millennials were a decisive factor in Obama’s historic win.

CNN TAPE: “In 2008 he won the youth vote by 66%. Though 18 to 29 year olds only made up only a fraction of the electorate, they were crucial to his victory.”

FOX NEWS TAPE: “I think the question is will the youth actually turn out. Barack Obama inspired them bigly.”

RAND: Each election, poll after poll tries to predict if millennials will show up and if they do how they will vote. But one leading scholar says the way we’ve been trying to understand and track millennials is all wrong.

COHEN: There's a narrative out there that in fact there's this kind of monolithic millennial generation. And in fact what we found is actually there's quite a kind of complexity to this generation. And that if we're not paying attention to this generation we're really going to miss important trends.

RAND: That’s Cathy Cohen, she’s a professor in the political science department at the University of Chicago.

COHEN: I think there is a kind of compelling need to understand the complexities of millennials and there isn't sadly to say there isn't a lot of data out there.

RAND: So Cathy did what top researches do, she went out and collected it herself. She spent a decade working with young people with the Black Youth Project and then in 2016 she launched GenFoward, a survey of millennials across racially diverse lines.

COHEN: What's pretty amazing to me is when I go out and talk about GenForward people usually say Why study millennials who cares you know. And I said well they're really important. The largest share of the workforce largest share of eligible voters. They control about I think it's one point seven trillion in buying power and they're also the most racially and ethnically diverse generation that we've had.

RAND: This is an important group of people.

COHEN: Critical.

RAND: From The University of Chicago, this is Big Brains, a podcast about the breakthroughs and research re-shaping our world. On this episode, the myths of millennial voters and the future of our politics. I’m your host Paul Rand.

RAND: There’s never been a millennial survey quite like GenForward. It happens once every two months, so they can track response over time, and it’s widely diverse.

COHEN: We field a survey focused on lots of different issues but every survey includes a subset of questions on politics. Some surveys focus on something like the future of work. Others focus on technology. We've looked at race and immigration, so a range of issues and the idea is how do we begin to tell a more nuanced story about how millennials are thinking about the world.

RAND: But of all the data Cathy’s collected, one thing has stood out to her most.

COHEN: I’ll say the kind of narrative of progress and tolerance that we often hear about Millennials right. If we can just wait for millennials to take over racial issues will go away. I'd say clearly that's not true from our data and some of that is just reflected even in who they vote for. So you know there is an understanding or an expectation that in fact all millennials voted for Barack Obama and all millennials vote for Hillary Clinton. That's not true. In 2008 the majority of white millennials voted for Barack Obama in 2012 the majority of white millennials voted for Mitt Romney.

RAND: Mitt Romney?!

COHEN: Yes yes. And it gets better. And in fact in 2016 the plurality, the largest share of white millennials voted for Donald Trump. So some of the people who voted for Romney voted for Trump but there are also new people coming in younger people coming in in particular among white male millennials who voted for the first time and voted for Trump. Now some of that we would argue has to do with their perception of their economic prospects and some of it clearly has to do also with their views about race and racism. There are narratives that they're receiving from lots of different places about their position in society and in particular. It's funny that we're spending a lot of time talking about white millennials but that's OK. In particular for white millennials I think there is a kind of narrative of loss right. This idea that in fact they're losing jobs or losing their position and it resonates with a segment of that group who believe in fact about 50 percent we asked this question, “Do you believe in fact that whites suffer the same levels of discrimination as people of color in particular blacks”, and about 50 percent of white millennials say yes to that question. Right. So there is a sense of loss and a sense of vulnerability that we see in this population that I think really pushes back against the narrative of this being a new generation of tolerance and progress. If you go back to Charlottesville and think about the events of Charlottesville.

TAPE: We begin tonight with that breaking news, a horrific scene in Charlottesville Virginia. A white nationalist rally that descended into deadly violence and chaos. The images just coming in, a car plowing into a crowd of demonstrators protesting against those white nationalist. A 32-year-old woman killed, a number of sever injuries many life threatening. A drive has been taken into custody.

COHEN: Those were young men young white men with Tiki torches. Right. And I think oftentimes when we talk about white nationalism we're thinking about an older generation we associate it maybe with Jim Crow. And in fact part of her finding and this is maybe the surprising and disturbing part is that some of those tendencies some of those beliefs some of those kind of feelings of racism can also be found in this generation. And that's what I mean by if we accept the kind of monolithic narrative about progress that's coming from this generation and we don't understand the kind of differences the complexities and the nuances then we miss the opportunity to intervene and try to change that trajectory.

RAND: So as you look at this do you come out with a sense and maybe this is too ambiguous of a question with a sense of optimism about the next generation coming in or do you say actually it's just a continuation of what's been going on.

COHEN: Well I I'm optimistic in the sense of there's going to be demographic change. You know the fact that young black people can take to the streets and also take to social media and design a hashtag, black lives matter, and force the public conversation discuss the killing of young black people. I think that's powerful right. And I think that's what the democratic project is all about. So I'm optimistic that young people are in fact finding their voices they're building organizations they're you know taking to the streets and also taking to the ballot box. We saw an increase in turnout in 2018 in terms of the midterms for millennials. What we saw are younger members of Congress right. Younger members younger candidates being elected. We saw maybe the most diverse Congress. We saw you know one hundred women as members of Congress. So I think what we've also seen in our data is that young people are saying we want a different type of representation. Now the different type of representation operates on multiple levels. One of it is just I want a different group of people who seem to look different and maybe behave differently. But I think they're also saying we want the Congress actually to function and so maybe if we put new people in there then maybe it functions and maybe it functions on our behalf. So I think you know when we think about 2018 I think we see young people kind of mobilizing and being mobilized especially around new candidates and fresh faces with the possibility of change. And in our data when we ask them what's the thing you want what's the most important characteristic you're looking for in a candidate. They say we're looking for a candidate who will provide change.

RAND: Change. It was a key word in Obama’s campaign…hope and change…and it’s been a rallying cry for young people ever since. So what kind of change are young people looking for in a candidate for 2020? That’s coming up after the break.

RAND: So I'm running for president in 2020.

COHEN: You're not gonna win.

RAND: You're probably right. I'm coming to you saying I now understand that this gen forward generation is the largest most powerful group that I could possibly targeting. And if I figured out how to get them on my side I'd have a really good chance of winning.

COHEN: That's right.

RAND: Help me understand what I should be doing if I said I want to win the millennial vote. And you're saying all right I'm not going to tell you if you believe or don't believe this but if you're going to win you have to do these things right. What do I have to do.

COHEN: Well first thing I'm going to push back and say there's no millennial vote meaning you're not going to capture all millennials so you've got to figure out what's the majority of millennials that you want to try to capture and of course.

RAND: Those who vote.

COHEN: That's good. That's good right. But they're going to also be looking for some authenticity. So if you've for example been a supporter of President Trump and now you try to move to a position where you want to court African-American millennials it’s going to be very hard for you. But OK so let's the first thing I would say. You've got to be authentic. The second thing I'd say is you know one of the things we've learned from Gen Ford especially when we look at it through the data through the filter of race and ethnicity is that young people from different communities have very different issue priorities. So one I'd say the second thing I'd say is let's figure out the issue priorities. And again where you fit as a candidate within those issues. So for African-Americans we know that for almost two years when you ask what's the most important issue it is police brutality and racism. Right. If you ask Latinx young people what's the most important issue. It has almost consistently been immigration issues. For Asian-Americans it moves a bit, sometimes gun violence, sometimes health care, sometimes education. But we know kind of they tend to be at least in our sample a bit more progressive than maybe others would expect. And and immigration doesn't always pop up as the number one issue for Asian-American millennials. And for whites it moves all over it can be homeland security, sometimes it's education, sometimes it's health care, it's usually primed by what is the most important issue being talked about at the time. So the first thing I would say to you is what are your political commitments. So we're going to figure out what the issues are. But we're also going to figure out how do how do you communicate those messages. You got to use Twitter, you got to use Snapchat, you’ve got to use Instagram, you've got to figure out YouTube. I mean I think there are many different dimensions. Then we're gonna say OK so we've talked about the issues but there are also these crises coming up. So for example young people are worried about the future of work and a majority of young people we have found again in our data say that if someone's job is taken because of robotics or A.I. or technology in general the government has a responsibility right to support that person until they can find another job. And so you know we'd start to think about what's your response to the future of work. We also know that majorities of young people across race and ethnicity support the idea of free public higher education. So are you prepared to also say you know what, I think in fact everyone deserves a chance to go to college and so here's my platform on that. So you know the first thing I would say is instead of thinking about how do I win the millennial vote, I'd say how do I understand millennials and how do I understand the diversity and the complexity of millennials and then what do I stand for and how do I align with which group of millennials. And then of course as you hopefully know you know the other part of this is the mechanism about getting out the vote.

RAND: There's a lot out there, but actually it's a far more specific than I was expecting when I asked the question so that was great. OK. I actually now think I have a real shot at winning. I know you don't think that I do.

COHEN: I do not.

RAND: OK (laughs)

RAND: Can you talk a little bit about this interest in young people what sparked it and was that always a long thing for you and you knew it, or something happened that made you say wait a minute really made me think this is a great area to study.

COHEN: Well you know it's it's interesting you do all this academic work but it it really all starts with family or the people that you love and the people who are closest to you. My my focus on young people really started with my niece and nephews right. Watching them kind of move through the world having kind of holiday dinner conversations with them and recognizing that they had kind of real insight and analysis. But it was in particular watching my nephew I would say kind of struggle to find his way. You know I think there is a way in which we expect a kind of almost linear progression from generation to generation. My parents saw it with our generation. Neither one were able to go to college or to graduate from college then they had children who were able to go to college. And I think the expectation was that then their grandchildren would you know even surpass that. But you know my nephew and to some degree my nephews my nephews and nieces encountered a different I would argue economic system, public education system. You know this was a moment of deindustrialization, the kind of absence of what I would call kind of living wage jobs that didn't require a college education. I think he stumbled along the way had interactions with the criminal justice system. And it was really watching his trajectory right. Watching the ways in which he was trying to find his way that motivated my interests. It motivated my interests in part because as a scholar I know the the structural concerns, I know deindustrialization, I know the advent and the kind of imposition of mass incarceration, I know how neo-liberalism has kind of debilitated the safety net. But I think it was also that I knew what a beautiful soul he had. Right. He is what I of course consider to be a wonderful young man. And so the question is how do you tell a complex story about not just the people you love but young people that allow for all the structural challenges that I just mentioned but also don't take away their agency and the fact I think he would say that at times he made what might be really bad decisions and really the work of GenForward for the work of the Black Youth Project is is trying to not deny but really highlight the humanity and the complex humanity of young people and to pay attention to the structural challenges that they face but also the decisions that they make and to allow us to kind of not only tell a story of deficit but also to tell a story of assets, to represent them in their full humanity sometimes glowingly and sometimes you think, oh my God what are they doing, but you know but to provide that space and to hopefully provide data that where other people can tell complex stories about young people.

RAND: You're gonna continue I'm sure being sought after for as we get more into the political system and I've seen your work not only on NBC but you're quoted in The Washington Post and a number of other places as election season starts putting into a higher swing because every day we now have a new candidate for Democratic President teeing themselves up. What do you see happening over the next couple year period of time. And if you said, well these are the new things I want to be surveying on that. I know we're gonna be curious about what are you. What do you think you're going to be looking at a little bit more as we get into the swing of this election cycle.

COHEN: Right. So so part of it is that we're always looking at the political dimensions of how young people are experiencing the world and what do I mean by that. We have a set of questions probably a battery of 20, 25 questions that we always ask: their relationship to the parties, do they believe the country is going in the right direction, what’s the most important issue. Now we'll start to fold in another set of questions which we'll ask about you know: who do you feel like you're supporting also. Are you paying attention to politics right now. There is you know there's one argument that says there's so turned off at this moment it will be hard to re-engage them now 2018 suggested that that's not true, but it could become a lot when you have you know 12 people running for in the Democratic primary to really pay attention and to kind of understand specifics of who's arguing what. But we'll try to pay attention to their level of interest, of course who they're supporting, why they're supporting certain candidates and not others. I think we'll also pay attention to questions around kind of race. I think we're gonna we're getting ready to see the most diverse Democratic primary that we ever have. How does that matter to these young people? How does the representation of women and women of color running for office matter? So you know we want to look at at at at that level of analysis right. It's not just fresh faces. It's really demographically new faces that are entering the political arena. And you know we want to figure out how young people are going to react to that.

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