Canaries in the Coal Mine

Historically—or so we are told—miners tested the breathability of the air in mines by releasing a canary into the space. If the canary continued to fly and look healthy, the air was safe; if the bird died, it wasn’t.

Recently, Pew Research published findings about the millennials who are, for all intents and purposes, our American canaries. As we older citizens die out, the values, fears and ambitions of the millennial generation will determine the direction of the country.

Pew announced six “key takeaways” about this generation. Some were unsurprising: this is a financially burdened generation, largely as a result of student loan debt; as a result, fewer millennials are married than previous cohorts at the same age. They are also the most racially diverse generation thus far.

Two of the characteristics found by Pew deserve special “canary” status.


Millennials have fewer attachments to traditional political and religious institutions, but they connect to personalized networks of friends, colleagues and affinity groups through social and digital media. Half of Millennials now describe themselves as political independents and 29% are not affiliated with any religion—numbers that are at or near the highest levels of political and religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation in the last quarter-century.

My discussions with students in this age cohort anecdotally support this conclusion—and suggest that the public behaviors and pronouncements of political and religious figures is one significant reason they reject those institutions. My students are repulsed by the use of religious or patriotic language in service of discrimination and generally hateful behaviors; rather than rejecting the specific individuals or organizations guilty of such behaviors, they tend to develop a “pox on all of you” attitude.

But a less obvious finding also casts considerable light on the institutionally detached status of this generation:

Millennials are less trusting of others than older Americans are. Asked a long-standing social science survey question, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people,” just 19% of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31% of Gen Xers, 37% of Silents and 40% of Boomers.

This really troubling absence of trust manifests itself in a number of ways: millennials don’t expect Social Security to be there for them, for example (although, interestingly, they oppose proposals to cut benefits for current recipients). Their lack of trust in a wide variety of social institutions helps explain their rejection of political and religious identification, their pervasive skepticism about media information sources, and their increased reliance on friends and colleagues.

Assuming these findings continue to hold, what does this “canary” generation tell us about America’s future?

One the one hand, greater diversity and tolerance—together with rejection of dogma and partisanship—bodes well. This generation is likely to reject racism and address the glaring flaws in the criminal justice system, likely to welcome immigrants, likely to scorn anti-LGBT bias.

On the other hand, participation in a democratic polity requires at least a minimal level of trust—trust that the information one receives is credible, trust that the operations of government are mostly fair and ethical, trust that one’s fellow citizens are basically well-intentioned. Without that trust, without social capital, societies cannot function.

The canary isn’t dead. But it’s coughing a lot.


  1. Speaking as one who is grandmother to Millennials, I relate to their views with one exception – my recent years of voting straight Democratic ticket for self-preservation. I miss, actually I resent, feeling forced to do this due to the current pseudo Republican party and their actions against human and civil rights of most Americans. Actually, against humanity in general. They have put me in a position of needing to vote for weak Democrats, like Gregg and Donnelly, who MIGHT do some good against anyone on the Republican side who can be counted on to do damage.

    The religious aspect speaks for itself during our “Year of Pence and RFRA” which continues today here in Indiana. On the national level we have the Hobby Lobby faction controlling one of the most personal medical decisions to be made by women in their employ and the other big businesses who have taken advantage of their SCOTUS ruling.

    Why should the younger generation trust the older generation? Unless they are keeping score on who are the actual culprits poisoning the air and killing off those canaries?

    I found a repost on Facebook this morning of an old, totally untrue accusation against Al Gore and the Nobel Peace Prize Academy. The old story that WWII Polish heroine Irena Sendler, who saved dozens of Jewish children from death during the Holocaust and should have been honored decades ago, losing her nomination for the Nobel Prize which was instead awarded to Al Gore for a slide show. I researched all information the first time I received this a few years ago; today commented to my unknowing sister-in-law who had reposted it and went to the Facebook page of the originator and messaged him. With ridiculous lies such as this one, dug up from years past, why should the younger generation trust us? If I weren’t in the habit of researching posted information, I wouldn’t trust “us” either.

  2. I wonder if the most useful insight from today’s blog is to reinforce what we already know. And that is how critical this year’s election is. Every Presidential election redirects the ship of state but my sense is that this year that turn is to the rocks or to the open sea.

    In my opinion the future of America as the home of the free and the brave will not be viable unless conservatism is soundly defeated once and for all. Any of the Republicans if elected wouldn’t turn the ship, they’d sink it.

    I’m still undecided between Hillary and Bernie personally but to me that’s minor problem solving over the upcoming months. What’s critical is to drive the Neandrathals back into their caves and wait for extinction.

    Sheila’s insight may be tactical – turn out the millennial vote and keep the bewilderds in their homes – but however it’s accomplished, those out to steal America, be they Cowboys in Oregon, bankers in New York, southern Bible thumpers, Texas oilmen, or polluted politicians, have to be once and for all shown the exit.

    Live free, informed, and unafraid again.

  3. When it came to international treaties and agreements, U.S. Presidents have cautioned us to trust but verify. That’s a good idea for the rest of us in our daily lives.

    Nevertheless I’m amazed by the outrageous claims often attributed to government officials and have learned to google and check such comments for hoaxes which ARE frequently hoaxes, but increasingly, the current crop of presidential candidates really do make outrageous comments. So it’s not too surprising that fewer folks trust the news they hear, but at some point, we have to trust something and someone or succumb to isolation, paralysis, and the ability to work together to benefit the common good. There IS strength in numbers and a united front.

  4. One issue is the bleak out look on jobs and thus opportunity in the USA for the younger generations. I am a Boomer so I lived through the times when for the most part, we had good paying jobs with benefits such as defined retirement and heath care.

    Dr. Paul Craig Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy under Ronald Reagan and an associate editor of the Wall Street Journal. He was columnist for Business Week, Scripps Howard News Service, and Creators Syndicate. Had this to say about the latest jobs report.

    Twelve years ago I predicted at a major Washington, D.C., conference that was nationally televised that in 20 years the United States would have a Third World economy if jobs offshoring, which benefits only corporate executives and shareholders, continued.

    Jobs offshoring has continued, and judging by the payroll jobs reports from the US government, the US is already a Third World economy.

    Now, we will pay attention, unlike the financial presstitute media, to the age groups who benefited, according to the BLS, from the 292,000 December new jobs. About half of the alleged new jobs—142,000—went to the 55 years old and over age group. These are part-time, lowly paid jobs without benefits. Americans of prime working age, 25 years old to 54 year old, only received 16,000 or 5% of the new jobs.

    Those aged 46 to 54 lost 165,000 jobs. In other words, middle aged people are losing their jobs before they can provide for their retirement. There are 527,000 more Americans working multiple jobs in December 2015 than in December 2014. Now, as we have done so often for many years, let’s look at the make believe jobs that the BLS claims. Almost all of them are in lowly paid domestic services, such as waitresses, bartenders, couriers and messengers, employment services, social services and health care (primarily ambulatory health care services).
    Outsourcing started before Bill Clinton but he along with Republicans, and Democrats put more nails on the coffin by passing NAFTA and then Permanent Normal Trade Realtions with China. Add in repealing Glass-Steagall and the big financial companies were let loose. Cry Havoc and Let slip the Dogs of Wall Street.

    Now we have very angry people who know something is wrong but feel helpless. Some politicians have seized on the fear and anger.

  5. When SCOTUS ruled that corporations are people and allowed the powerful to hide political donations via phony non-profit organizations they eliminated the common citizen’s ability to have a voice in our government.

    Our government is sold to the highest bidders on an almost daily basis and those bidders then turn ‘their’ politicians into their personal puppets.

    Like JoAnn, I feel that I don’t really have any good choices when voting. I continue to believe that gerrymandering has enabled the extreme right Republicans to hold us all hostage. Even members of their own party recognize this and have are unable to control them.

  6. Interesting insights, Professor K. So, how do lack of attachments and distrust impact our democratic processes and institutions?

  7. @ Nancy, BSH et al,

    “Democracide: The Far Right’s Path to Power” is partially online. So far only 5 of the 13 pages.

    Although, Barbara and I put “Democracide” together in three days back in 1993, it is still very relevant. The underlying forces haven’t changed at all. The Koch Brothers’ father was one of the founders of the John Birch Society.

    I wasn’t able to upload the copies of the pages. So I’m having to type them into the website:

    Enjoy. Time for lunch.

  8. Your remark on trust ” that the information one receives is credible” I think should be a focal point. Our press has become a joke. Polarization is a key problem. It’s a problem in mainstream media channels as well as independent and smaller sources, where Republicans and Democrats are referred to in insulting terms from either side. It’s handy to identify as one team and point to the other as the sole blame on our ills. Personally, I think it is lazy. You might say the older generation currently in power lacks social capital in their refusal time and again to cooperate, compromise and reach consensus. I blame this on the failure of what could have been great policy changes in our country.

    There’s a lack of cohesion being forced on us all, and I believe the lack of social capital is in large to blame on our media. As a person who might be shifted into the category of Millennial by age, I have personally resented people and institutions who are obsessed with a check in the box identification. I resent being forced to identify with a single political party in local voting booths thus narrowing my choices on both the local stage- not just the national stage.

    I don’t even see much difference between Republicans and Democrats. Their distinctions seem shallow and only real on symbolic levels. Maybe that could help others understand “the pox on you all” attitude. Both parties make a lot of hot air promises, then refuse to work together to achieve anything great.

    Also you mention young people opposing cuts to people covered by benefits is due to the Millennials strong sense of social justice, which has been noted in other studies. We are also a generation who has personally experienced cuts time and again in our schools. Why would we want to inflict pain on the elderly and disabled who depend on these programs? It wouldn’t gain us a thing or necessarily prolong the program to our own gain.

  9. Seems to me that the Millenials are keeping their cool pretty well. The angry people today are old white people. I should admit that I am an old white person, but I’m not mad at anyone. I have a very good memory and frankly, I don’t want to go back to the 50s, when I wouldn’t have been able to get credit and could be lawfully discrimated against for a number of things.

    If things seem so much worse today, it is our fault. We started as a generation of dreamers. We started by making changes to education that didn’t address the issues of the educational system. We could have adopted straight line school districts and integrated most inner city systems. Then we started demanding standards for public schools. If they didn’t meet the standards, they were punished. What a difference it would make if, instead of punishment, schools that failed got extra resources.

    Somewhere in the late 80’s we started to appreciate greed more than anything else our “capitalist” system offered. The business of business was defined by the business schools as making money, not as offering a great product at a fair price. Our so called capitalist system is, in fact a socialist system for big business. We all give our tax dollars to make businesses more profitable.

    The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act did their jobs and pollution was reduced. Now that you don’t see the air around LA, we think our work is done, so we are letting other forms of pollution kill off wildlife and ruin our wild places. Raise your hand if you think clear cutting is pollution.

    What can we do? I have read that there are more than 5 million jobs going unfilled in America today. What would happen if businesses were offered a tax rebate to train people who are currently unemployed for the jobs they can’t fill. How about investment tax credits for businesses that buy American made goods? I know this is more socialism for business, but in these instances the general public will also benefit. The most important thing we can all do, however is VOTE. Please remember to apologize to any millenial you happen to know.

  10. Gen X here, and I cannot imagine why they would trust anyone. I am certainly teaching my children to be skeptics. Religion is a mind control technique wrapped around a farcical fairy tale. Government had been captured by the oligarchs. US foreign policy is primarily bullying to support an economic hegemony that has no real reason to exist any longer. The Clintons are really conservatives, so if Hillary is elected we will have had 54 years of disastrous ruination before we are rid of her. All of these have real consequences that the young people can actually feel, so no, they are not going to trust in your imaginary just society and participate like dutiful plebes.

  11. All that being said, I agree with Pete, the one thing our kids have to look forward to is the death of the baby boom generation. But how much damage will be done by then, and will we still be free people?

  12. Peggy, I like your comments and especially your thoughts on training to fill open jobs. Those jobs are very technical production jobs and require very specific training that is not typically transferable to other types of jobs. It is simply too risky for individuals to invest in training that has such a limited potential for employment.

    I would like to see those corporations put some skin in the game and develop apprenticeships or offer the specific training that they want employees to have. Instead, they want potential employees to risk their own money for training just to have a chance to work for those companies who, in turn, will not guarantee employment after a person invests in the training.

  13. Pete- Louie, what do you suggest that government can do to affect off-shoring?

    First of all stop TPP if that is possible. Do not let companies manufacture a product in China, Mexico, etc, sell the product here in the USA and take the profits to some off shore closet office.

  14. Louie, I believe that the choice is to be part of the world or try for closed border isolation. My opinion is that the latter once was but is no longer possible.

    We are headed, like it or not, towards world government and global economy. May take 100 years but it seems inevitable to me. Corporations have become global, governments can’t afford to fall very far behind.

    We have to squarely face those facts and prepare – decide how we will compete with the rest of the world.

    To hide would be disastrous IMO.

  15. BT, I agree that the Clintons are to the right of Bernie but far left of all of the other choices that we are offered.

  16. What if we re-survey the Millenials in 20 years and compare their answers to today’s? I’m a boomer and I know my opinions have changed over the decades. And, if the Milennials don’t bother to vote, what difference does it make what they think anyway?

  17. We all agree that there is little or no choice. Old guard Dems are scared to death of Hillery and rightly so. Her husband did more damage than Reagan could ever imagine, simply because he was naive and distracted. What is so strange is that he acknowledges that fact. Far, far too late but it would help me lot just to hear him stand up and say it. And to allow that his wife would take another track.

    I’m afraid she might do additional damage, ( if possible) or that Bernie could lose it through voter apathy.

    I still believe Liz would have been a better choice but Wall Street snipped that in the bud.

    Oh, yes. The way to stop off-shoring: tariffs. Tax the hell out of everything not totally produced here! Make a Fiat cost more than Tesla!

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