Millennials. Gen-X. Baby Boomers. The Silent Generation. Once, these generations were in agreement about the need for American internationalism. More recently, however, doubts have begun to surface among the younger generations. Speakers an event at the Cato Institute, The Clash of Generations, discussed the differences in policy opinions among the four oldest generations right now—Millennials (1981-1996), Gen-X (1965-1980), Baby Boomers (1946-1964), and the Silent Generation (1928-1948)—and the impact on American internationalism and policy, including trade.
Dina Smeltz, Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said foreign policy used to be an area where most Americans were in agreement, but since 2001, there have been widening partisan opinions, as well as generational divisions. The Chicago Council released a new study on this trend, focusing on generational attitudes toward U.S. engagement in world affairs, support for maintaining U.S. military superiority, and views on trade and globalization. While the majority of Americans consistently favor active U.S. engagement in world affairs, each generation is less likely than predecessors to support active U.S. engagement; sometimes, this difference split Millennials from older Americans; at other times, Millennials and Gen Xers both differ from prior generations. The Silent Generation views trade as beneficial for the economy, consumers, and job creation at much higher rates (79 percent, 82 percent, and 66 percent, respectively) than Millennials (73 percent, 80 percent, and 54 percent, respectively). However, it’s important to note that younger generations are actually more supportive of free trade agreements than older ones, with 62 percent of Millennials expressing support for NAFTA and 63 percent for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), while among the Silent Generation, 45 percent support NAFTA and 58 percent support TPP. (The entire study is available here.)
Will Ruger, Vice President of Research and Policy at the Charles Koch Institute, noted that as more people challenge the status quo of foreign policy, it’s interesting to see how the opinions of the generations will impact policy. For example, Millennials are less likely than older generations to think it’s important to maintain superior military power worldwide, friendlier to cutting defense spending, and less likely to see the United States as threatened by other world powers. It remains to be seen whether Millennials will pursue a new approach to foreign policy, a less militarized version focused more on engagement in the world through diplomacy and trade.
Trevor Thrall, Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and Associate Professor at George Mason University, said the study reveals the differences that exist between generations, but the next step is discovering why the differences exist. There are several hypotheses that are part of the answer. First, as people age, they tend to become more engaged in what is happening in the world. Second, period events may lead to either more engagement, or a step back from engagement, temporarily, and older generations are generally less concerned about period events than younger ones. Third, social and demographic changes and cohort effects can have an impact.
So, where does this lead us? Should the United States take an active role in world affairs, and what does that role look like? Smeltz said very few of the survey respondents said the United States should have no leadership role, and while opinions do differ on how the United States should be engaged, the consensus is that there will continue to be engagement. Most importantly, concluded Ruger, it’s important to continue to have an open discussion with all generations.
USFIA Communications Coordinator Molly McNulty contributed to this report.