Millennials are defying long-established patterns by getting older without becoming more religious or voting more conservative. It's an unpleasant surprise for the American religious right.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

You get more conservative as you get older. Everyone knows that.

As you age, you settle into the world. Your youthful passions cool, and the fire of rebellion fizzles out. You get a corporate job, a steady paycheck, a pension, and a house in the suburbs. The reckless fantasies of your younger self become fond memories of the good old days. As old age creeps up, you get used to things as they are, and you instinctively become suspicious of change.

It happened to the Boomers. Those rebellious beatniks and peace-loving hippies became retirees, churchgoers, Trump supporters. It happened to Gen X too. Now, as the Millennials approach middle age, it’s their turn. It’s the way of things, as natural and inevitable as the seasons.

There’s just one problem. It’s not happening this time.

Millennials are breaking the oldest rule of politics

It’s true, historically speaking, that people tend to be liberal in their youth and to become more conservative as they age. As John Burn-Murdoch writes in the Financial Times, summing up a trend that applies to the U.K. and the U.S.:

The pattern has held remarkably firm. By my calculations, members of Britain’s “silent generation”, born between 1928 and 1945, were five percentage points less conservative than the national average at age 35, but around five points more conservative by age 70. The “baby boomer” generation traced the same path, and “Gen X”, born between 1965 and 1980, are now following suit.

Millennials are shattering the oldest rule in politics.” John Burn-Murdoch, Financial Times, 30 December 2022.

With this evidence on their side, conservatives might have had an excuse for complacency. However, the Millennial generation has broken the pattern. Not only did we start out more liberal than average, we’re staying that way as we age. In fact, we’re getting even more liberal:

If millennials’ liberal inclinations are merely a result of this age effect, then at age 35 they too should be around five points less conservative than the national average, and can be relied upon to gradually become more conservative. In fact, they’re more like 15 points less conservative, and in both Britain and the US are by far the least conservative 35-year-olds in recorded history.

This chart shows just how dramatic the trend lines are:

Speaking as a Millennial, I can add an anecdote to confirm this data. I’m 41 now, middle-aged by any measure, and I’m a homeowner with a family. But I haven’t become the slightest bit more conservative. I haven’t become any less of a ferocious atheist, nor have my highest priorities become lower taxes and lawn care. I’m as bright-blue liberal as I ever was—maybe more.

This is a looming apocalypse for the religious right. Until recently, their voter pool was steadily replenished as people joined the ranks of the elderly. But if Millennials aren’t aging into conservatism, that means their voters are dying off with no replacement. It’s no wonder that Republicans are resorting to increasingly aggressive gerrymandering, vote suppression, legislating from the bench by far-right judges, and other anti-democratic measures. Once they lose their grip on power, they may never get it back.

We shouldn’t have been surprised

As welcome as this news is, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. This isn’t the first precedent Millennials have shattered.

In our heyday, Millennials were the least religious generation in American history up to that point (although Gen Z surpassed us). As poll after poll confirmed this result, Christian apologists were dismayed and bewildered.

They made some half-hearted suggestions about how to evangelize to us, but they were confident that their best ally was time. They insisted that we were just having a secular rumspringa, sowing some wild oats, and that we’d come back to Christianity as we settled down and grew older.

That didn’t happen. Instead, Millennials have been growing less religious with time.

Are these trends related? It’s very likely. Frequent church attendance and self-reported religiosity both map to political conservatism. You can debate which direction the arrow of causality points, but the connection is there. Since the Millennials are less religious than older generations, it’s to be expected that we’d also be less conservative.

Pulling up the ladder

There’s another explanation that Burn-Murdoch’s article suggests. Conservatism often accompanies wealth, stability, and a sense of security—in short, the things that make you feel like your life is going well and you’d like to keep it that way. However, younger generations haven’t had that same opportunity to build wealth.

In the U.S., the post-war generation enjoyed unprecedented prosperity. Rather than pass on those opportunities to the young, they’ve done their best to pull up the ladder behind them. Over the last few decades, conservative legislators have crippled union power, kept the minimum wage frozen at a pittance, taken a chainsaw to tax rates at the top, allowed college tuition to skyrocket, stonewalled the construction of affordable housing, and done their utmost to block universal health care.

Republicans have even proposed getting rid of (“sunsetting”) Social Security and Medicare. Nothing could be more emblematic of the conservative desire to yank away welfare programs after benefiting from them.

The predictable result is that a tiny minority has accumulated vast wealth, whereas life for everyone else has become harder and more precarious than ever. The Millennial generation has been pinched between recessions. Many of us can’t afford to buy houses. We have far lower rates of stock ownership.

All of this has left a lasting mark on Millennials’ political views. We never had the chance to become invested in the system the way our parents and grandparents did. It’s the least surprising thing imaginable that we’re in favor of a stronger safety net, higher taxes on the rich and other progressive economic policies.

“Dropped like a rock”

As Millennials and Gen Z grow older, their opinions become a bigger part of the national mix. That’s probably why “the importance of patriotism and faith has dropped like a rock”, according to a Fox News take on this poll from the Wall Street Journal:

The Monday poll questioned U.S. respondents about the importance of patriotism, religious faith, having children and other traditional U.S. metrics. The poll found that just 39% of Americans say their religious faith is very important to them, and just 38% say patriotism is very important. The WSJ compared those numbers to the first time it ran the poll in 1998 when 62% of Americans said religion was very important to them, and 70% said patriotism was very important.

Needless to say, these results have occasioned hand-wringing among the American right. However, they’ve got no one to blame for it but themselves.

For decades, conservatives have sought to weld both religion and patriotism to their own brand of politics. They wanted to convince people that the only way of being patriotic was to be a right-wing Christian. Arguably, they succeeded. But instead of forcing everyone into their mold, as they intended, all they achieved was to turn off everyone who didn’t identify with their brand and send them rushing for the exits.

That’s a major factor behind the decline of Christianity, and the same thing is happening with patriotism. Younger Americans are less inclined to identify with a country that ignores their desires and devalues their lives, just as they’re less inclined to identify with a religion that ignores their views on LGBTQ rights, climate change, gun control, and racial justice. It’s the ultimate reaping-the-whirlwind moment for the religious right.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...