Millennials are Skeptical of Freedom. Why?


An opinion column by Dr. Clay Routledge in The New York Times claims Millennials are increasingly skeptical of freedom. Why?

According to Routledge, polling data shows decreased confidence in democracy and an openness to curbing free speech. These trends are not confined to one corner of the political spectrum, but are inclusive of Democrats and Republicans alike. Dr. Routledge writes, “If wariness of democracy and free speech does not represent a political position, what does it represent? What unites so many young Americans in these attitudes? I propose that the answer is fear — the ultimate enemy of freedom.”

Where does this fear come from? Routledge cites a number of sources, including “helicopter parenting,” decreased involvement among younger generations in activities that require personal responsibility, and a “culture of victimhood” in higher education. Citing research, Routledge claims feelings of victimhood have been shown to be “contagious,” in that when one group is accused of victimizing another, the accused becomes increasingly sensitive to their own victimhood. Once begun, the vicious cycle spirals. Everyone is a victim.

Routledge writes, “Fear, in all its forms, is at the heart of these issues — fear of failure, ridicule, discomfort, ostracism, uncertainty. Of course, these fears haunt all of us, regardless of demographics. But that is precisely the point: our culture isn’t preparing young people to grapple with what are ultimately unavoidable threats.” The world, in other words, has always been a potentially dangerous place, filled with divisive and difficult issues requiring bold and creative solutions. It is difficult to be creative when you are afraid, for when you are afraid you are simply trying to survive; you are too anxious to try something new. Routledge notes that anxiety levels among the young are high.

What is to be done? Routledge states, “It isn’t enough to criticize young people for being overly sensitive and insufficiently independent. They didn’t engineer our security-focused culture. We must liberate them, let them be free to navigate the social world, make mistakes, fail, experience emotional pain and learn to self-regulate fear and distress. If we want future generations to have faith in freedom, we need to restore our faith in them.”

But how do we restore our faith in Millennials? Routledge does not fully answer that question. How do we allow Millennials to navigate the social world, make mistakes, fail, experience emotional pain, and learn to self-regulate fear and distress?

Routledge’s suggestions on how to liberate millennials are helpful, but they don’t get anywhere on their own. Routledge writes that the young “didn’t engineer our security-focused culture.” Therein is a possible key. If we are to lead Millennials out of the land of fear, we must take them into a new environment, one where community and fellowship is a practice, mistakes and failure are met with forgiveness, where emotional pain is named honestly and received with consolation, and where emotions like fear are dispelled by love, and distress is dissipated through the presence of a peace passing understanding.

In other words, Millennials would do well to be part of the people of God, the church. But it is leaders who must help to foster an environment that reflects the kingdom of God, offering a counter-culture, or at least a counter-narrative, that undermines the present social reality dominated by fear.

The church points to the reality of Christ in whom we find true freedom. It is not a freedom that is marked by the absence of constraints, but is instead defined by the right constraints, the kinds that lead to life, like love of neighbor as yourself, a willingness to listen and to disagree without being disagreeable, a respect for convictions of conscience, and a courage to debate ideas about how to best live as a society.

Living in a free society is a social good. And the church can help foster the habits and reinforce the postures that help a society flourish in its freedoms, rather than to be afraid when people invoke them. It just takes a willingness to be different, which, if we understand the Christian calling correctly, we already are.