The distrustful youth

The Pew Center fails to note the significant conclusions in its own poll on trust in government:

Historically, there have been only modest generational differences in trust in government. Over time, the trajectory of these attitudes has been similar across generations.

As noted, young people are slightly more trusting in the federal government than older people. Currently, 25% of Millennials (ages 18-34) say they can trust the federal government just about always or most of the time. That compares with 19% of Gen Xers (35-50), 14% of Boomers (51-69) and 16% of Silents (70-87).

In 2009 and 2010, the differences across generations were somewhat larger: In August 2009, the three-point moving average of trust in the federal government among Millennials was 36%, compared with about 20% across older generations.

In the early 1990s, Gen Xers – whose oldest members were then in their early 20s – expressed somewhat greater trust in government than did Boomers and Silents, but these differences have diminished over time. Similarly, there were, at most, small differences in trust between Boomers and Silents in the 1970s and 1980s. Most important, the steep downward slide in trust in government that occurred in the 1970s was seen among both Boomers and Silents.

Look at the chart to the right. Notice the very steep slide that began in 1965 for the Silents and 1970 for the Baby Boomers. What is relevant is not how a very old Silent or an old Boomer’s opinion compares to a young Millennial’s trust in government, but rather how those opinions compare at similar ages.

The Silents’ trust in government peaked at 82 percent, the Boomers’ at 73 percent. The famously cynical GenXers trust peaked at 58 percent, and the supposedly naive Millennials peaked at 62 percent right in the patriotic aftermath of 9/11. The oldest Baby Boomers were 48 years old before they reached the level of cynicism about government that the Millennials have already reached.

This is particularly significant considering that the Millennials are much more racially mixed, so white Millennials are, developmentally speaking, far more suspicious of government than were white Baby Boomers.