New Horizons

Much public commentary in the early twenty-first century concerned the “millennials,” the new generation that had come of age in the new millennium. Commentators, demographers, and political prognosticators continue to ask what the new generation will bring. Pollsters have found certain features that distinguish the millennials from older Americans. They are, the pollsters say, more diverse, more liberal, less religious, and wracked by economic insecurity.

Millennial attitudes toward homosexuality and gay marriage reflect one of the most dramatic changes in popular attitudes toward recent years. After decades of advocacy, attitudes over the past two decades have shifted rapidly. Gay characters–and characters with depth and complexity–can be found across the cultural landscape and, while national politicians have refused to advocate for it, a majority of Americans now favor the legalization of gay marriage.

Such change was, in many respects, a generational one: on average, younger Americans supported gay marriage in higher numbers than older Americans. The Obama administration, meanwhile, moved tentatively. Refusing to push for national interventions on the gay marriage front, Obama did, however, direct a review of Defense Department policies that repealed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 2011. Without the support of national politicians, gay marriage was left to the courts. Beginning in Massachusetts in 2003, state courts had begun slowly ruling against gay marriage bans. Then, in June, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex marriage was a constitutional right. Nearly two-thirds of Americans supported the position.

While liberal social attitudes marked the younger generation, perhaps nothing so defined young Americans than the embrace of technology. The internet in particular, liberated from desktop modems, shaped more of daily life than ever before. The release of the Apple iPhone in 2007 popularized the concept of “smartphones” for millions of consumers and, by 2011, about a third of Americans owned a mobile computing device. Four years later, two-thirds did.

Together with the advent of “social media,” Americans used their smartphones and their desktops to stay in touch with old acquaintances, chat with friends, share photos, and interpret the world–as newspaper and magazine subscriptions dwindled, Americans increasingly turned to their social media networks for news and information. Ambitious new online media companies, hungry for “clicks” and the ad revenue they represented, churned out provocatively titled, easy-to-digest stories that could be linked and tweeted and shared widely among like-minded online communities, but even traditional media companies, forced to downsize their newsrooms to accommodate shrinking revenues, fought to adapt to their new online consumers.

The ability of individuals to share stories through social media apps revolutionized the media landscape–smart phone technology and the democratization of media reshaped political debates and introduced new political questions. The easy accessibility of video capturing and the ability for stories to “go viral” outside of traditional media, for instance, brought new attention to the tense and often violent relations between municipal police officers and African Americans. The 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri sparked focused the issue and over the following years videos documenting the deaths of black men at the hands of police officers circulated among social media networks. It became a testament to the power of social media platforms such as Twitter that a hashtag, #blacklivesmatter, became a rallying cry for protesters and counter-hashtags, #alllivesmatter and #policelivesmatter, for critics.

As issues of race captured much public discussion, immigration continued as a potent political issue. Even as anti-immigrant initiatives like California’s Proposition 187 (1994) and Arizona’s SB1070 (2010) reflected the anxieties of many white Americans, younger Americans proved far more comfortable with immigration and diversity (which makes sense, given that they are the most diverse American generation in living memory). Since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society liberalized immigration laws in the 1960s, the demographics of the United States have been transformed. In 2012, nearly one-quarter of all Americans were immigrants or the sons and daughters of immigrants. Half came from Latin America. The ongoing “Hispanicization” of the United States and the ever shrinking proportion of non-Hispanic whites have been the most talked about trends among demographic observers. By 2013, 17% of the nation was Hispanic. In 2014, Latinos surpassed non-Latino whites to became the largest ethnic group in California. In Texas, the image of a white cowboy hardly captures the demographics of a “minority-majority” state in which Hispanic Texans will soon become the largest ethnic group. For the nearly 1.5 million people of Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, for instance, where the vast majority of residents speak Spanish at home, a full three-fourths of the population is bilingual. Political commentators often wonder what political transformations these populations will bring about when they come of age and begin voting in larger numbers.