Why Do Millennials Love Political Correctness? Generational Values

November 16, 2015 | By Neil Howe

This editorial originally appeared in Forbes.

Of all the cultural themes that have inspired lengthy thinkpieces this year, perhaps none have spilled more ink—or generated more criticism—than political correctness. Among the most widely read critiques were a nearly 5,000-word essay in New York, a withering op-ed in The New York Times and a pseudonymous confessional penned by a college professor for Vox. The latest development has taken place on college campuses: Students at the University of Missouri and Yale are speaking out against racial discrimination, demanding an inclusive, protective campus culture.

Critics warn of a resurgent political correctness that threatens to suffocate free expression and leaves young people unprepared for the real world. We see it as a sign of something else: a demographic changing-of-the-guard that has been approaching ever since the first Millennials came of age—one that will set the tone in any public arena for years to come.

Most of the recent commentary on political correctness has referenced incidents on college campuses. But this debate is resonating far beyond the ivory tower. For example, at least a dozen popular comedians, mostly Boomers and Gen Xers like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, claim that oversensitive young audiences are ruining their profession.

The current frontrunners in the Republican presidential race—Donald Trump and Ben Carson—have made “anti-P.C.” rhetoric central to their campaigning, with Trump declaring during the first primary debate that “the big problem this country has is being politically correct.” And the public is inclined to agree: According to a Rasmussen poll, 71% of Americans think “political correctness is a problem in America today,” up from 58% four years ago—with little difference across age groups.

What, exactly, does “political correctness” mean? In the 1980s and ‘90s, the term was a sarcastic reference to Maoist or Stalinist thought police, popularized largely by conservatives in order to deride the liberal-led orthodoxy. Detractors claimed that P.C. campaigns often went to absurd lengths, turning P.C. accusations into one more feature of the roiling culture wars waged among politicians and activists. These ideological debates continue today—and are still the first thing most Americans over age 40 associate with the term.

The current incarnation of the movement, however, is focused inward. P.C. policies today are supported and reinforced by an increasingly diffuse “victimhood culture” that transcends ideology. Conservatives as well as liberals champion these policies, which are less often about enforcing a worldview or uplifting oppressed groups than about protecting individuals from emotional distress—for example, when Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee urged students to steer clear of any Halloween costumes with the potential to offend. Also to be avoided are “microaggressions”: subtle displays of racial or sexual bias.

These requests are largely coming from college students who are bringing their concerns to faculty and often getting them enforced by administrators. The ultimate goal, in the words of authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, “is to turn campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.”

In turn, the nature of anti-P.C. criticism has shifted. What was once a debate centered on free speech and censorship along partisan lines now includes exasperated calls from all sides for students to toughen up. Critics presume a certain level of emotional fragility among young people that the last P.C. movement did not—exacerbated, some say, by a more consumer-oriented mindset at colleges that leads administrators and professors to bend over backwards to cater to students.

Why has political correctness returned as a flashpoint nearly two decades later? Behind its resurgence are a number of long-term explanations. The first and perhaps most obvious is the rise of social media, whose speed and enormous reach have amplified a bottomless outrage cycle that rewards the most strident voices.

Another factor is widespread disaffection with the political establishment. Voters fed up with years of public-sector paralysis are buying into the argument that political correctness stifles the ability of our nation’s leaders to speak freely and act decisively. To supporters, Trump’s devil-may-care attitude and outsider status feel like a welcome rebuke to elites who would rather squabble over terminology (e.g. President Obama’s controversial refusal to use the phrase “Islamic terrorism”).

Others have labeled today’s brand of political correctness the outgrowth of a broader therapeutic culture. As essayist Jeet Heer describes in The New Republic, the newfound focus on emotional well-being comes at a time when people are increasingly encouraged to use psychological tools to alleviate personal suffering. Particularly powerful, he argues, has been growing acceptance of the validity of PTSD—including the idea that traumatic memories can be triggered at any moment.

The most powerful driver, however, may be generational change. Where Boomers once sought to promote progressive values, Millennials want to minimize hurt feelings. Where Gen Xers once touted resilience and grit, Millennials tout tolerance and inclusiveness. Young adults’ lifelong reliance on institutional support, combined with the formal implementation of two decades’ worth of P.C. thinking in curriculums and classrooms, has also led them to expect those in authority to help them in their quest—an impulse that prompted a Times columnist to remark, “[It’s] disconcerting to see students clamor for a kind of intrusive supervision that would have outraged students a few generations ago.”

Ultimately, Millennials view political correctness not so much a partisan stance as it is a way of life. Their crusades for emotional security in the classroom are a symptom of the much bigger movement underway to push the culture at large in a kinder, gentler direction. The sensitivity training sessions and less edgy comedians seen so often at schools today haven’t been forced on students; they want them. After a recent visit to the annual convention where college student representatives evaluate potential comedy acts to bring to their campuses, author Caitlin Flanagan noted that the selection process—for better or worse—seemed “wholly animated by kindness.” What a difference a generation makes.