Monday, August 20 , 2018, 10:40 am | Overcast with Haze 70º

 
 
 
 

Michael Barone: Are Today’s Millennials a New Victorian Generation?

Public policymakers and political pundits tend to focus on problems — understandably, because if things are going right they aren't thought to need attention. Yet positive developments can teach us things as well, when, for reasons not necessarily clear, great masses of people start to behave more constructively.

One such trend is the better behavior of the young Americans of today compared to those 25 years ago. Almost no one anticipated it, the exception being William Strauss and Neil Howe in their 1991 book, Generations, who named Americans born after 1981 the Millennial generation and predicted that "the tiny boys and girls now playing with Lego blocks" — and those then still unborn — would become "the nation's next great Civic generation."

The most obvious evidence of the Millennials' virtuous behavior is the vast decline in violent crime in the last 25 years. The most crime-prone age and gender cohort — 15- to 25-year-old males — are committing far fewer crimes than that cohort did in 1990.

Statistics tell the dramatic story. In two decades the murder rate fell 49 percent, the forcible rape rate 33 percent, the robbery rate 48 percent and the aggravated assault rate 39 percent. Government agencies report that sexual assaults against 12- to 17-year-olds declined by more than half, and violent victimization of teenagers at school declined 60 percent.

Binge drinking by high school seniors is lower than at any time since 1976, and sexual intercourse among ninth-graders and the percentage of high school seniors with more than three partners has declined.

There has been much ado about rape on college campuses today, with President Barack Obama among others stating that one in five women students will be raped or sexually assaulted. But that statistic is based on a bogus survey, covering just two colleges, with self-selected rather than randomly selected respondents and a laughably broad definition of "sexual assault." A recent Justice Department report showed that the rate rape on campus was not 20 percent but 0.6 percent.

And today's young are better behaved despite what blind statistical trends might seem to hint at. Compared to the young Americans of 1990, their ranks include a higher percentage of Hispanics and blacks, who statistically tend to have above-average crime rates. Today's young are also more likely to come from single-parent households — another high-risk factor. Demographics suggested there would be more bad behavior. Instead, there is much less.

What accounts for this virtuous cycle? I am inclined to give some credit to better police tactics and welfare reform, the great positive conservative policy successes of the 1990s. Others might credit the Clinton administration's increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit or bipartisan-supported education reforms. But partisan explanations, though plausible, seem inadequate.

I think what we are seeing is a mass changing of minds, something like the movement in Victorian England toward what historian Gertrude Himmelfarb described as "the morality that dignifies and civilizes human beings."

My theory is that young people do what is expected of them, in two senses of the word "expected." One is statistical expectation. Americans in 1990 expected young people, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds, to commit lots of crimes. They had been doing so, after all, for 25 years. But Rudy Giuliani and others adapting his methods reduced crime dramatically, and statistical expectations rapidly changed.

The other sense of the word "expected" is moral expectation. A parent tells a boy he is expected not to shoplift, bully, rob, rape or kill. She tells a girl she is expected not to sleep around or get pregnant. The parents of the last 25 years grew up in years of high crime, high divorce and high unmarried births. Evidently they wanted — expected — something better from their own children.

It's true that unmarried parenthood has risen. But teen births, like violent crime, have been in sharp decline. Now the latest statistics tell us that birth rates are, unusually, up among married women and down among unmarried women.

There remain stark differences between the experiences and behaviors of high-education and -income and low-education and -income Americans, as Charles Murray showed in his 2012 book, Coming Apart. But perhaps they are starting to converge.

Liberals and conservatives often assume that moves away from traditional moral rules must inevitably continue. How can you keep them down on the farm once they've seen "Paree"?

But today's America, like Victorian England, shows that virtuous cycles are possible as well. People can learn from experience, and those who have seen the downside of bad behavior may choose to behave better.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @MichaelBarone, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through Stripe below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Enter your email
Select your membership level
×

Payment Information

You are purchasing:

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >