March 28th, 2011
12:45 PM ET

Are millennials isolationists?

Editor's note: Peter W. Singer is senior fellow and director of Brooking Institution's 21st Century Defense Initiative. He is the author of the report, "D.C.'s New Guard: What Does the Next Generation of American Leaders Think?"

by Peter W. Singer, Special to CNN

History will mark 2011 as the year the baby boomer generation, which has so dominated American politics and society, first became eligible for retirement. But little is known about the new guard of American leaders, the Millennial generation, born between 1980 and 2005. There are more of them than baby boomers and, at numbers three times the size, demographically dwarf Generation X.

They have already made their power felt in everything from the Facebook phenomenon to the unlikely rise of Barack Obama to the presidency. And they are only now entering the scene. But what comes next?

To answer this question, the Brookings Institution organized a project in which we surveyed more than 1,000 young Americans - student leaders, kids attending young leader conferences, policy internships. These are kids seen by their peers as leaders and who want to become presidents, legislators, generals, journalists and diplomats.

Our questions ranged from how often they text and tweet to which nation they think will be the most powerful in the world when they are running America. Although we can't guarantee we captured the views of a future Colin Powell, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, the report captures the views of a representative set of young American leaders as their generation stands poised to take over.

Some of the findings were to be expected - they text and tweet like crazy, an average of about 79 times a day; they admire Apple and Google; they don't think terrorism will end in their lifetime. But many other outcomes ran directly counter to common preconceptions and media reports about today's young people:

Isolationism, not globalism, is winning out. Fifty-eight percent of the young leaders think that America is "too involved" in global affairs and should instead focus more on issues at home. This level of isolationism, forged by growing up in the time of 9/11, Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, doubled the number recently seen in adult survey results. Indeed, contrary to the idea of young, globally minded Obamacrats vs. inward-looking Tea Partiers, young Democrats are actually more likely to hold isolationist attitudes than young Republicans.

China scares them. When asked to name any countries that they think will present the biggest problems for the U.S. over the next 10 to 20 years, China was listed the second most frequently, behind only Iran and ahead of nations such as North Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan and Russia. An almost even number - 42% to 39% - believe that China will be the most powerful country in the world in 2025, when these young people will probably start moving into power. Indeed, a majority of young Democrats and independents think China will be more powerful than the United States.

Read more over here.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peter W. Singer.

Topics: Youth

soundoff (108 Responses)
  1. ian

    We call GenY "Millenials" now?
    That's all they need – something else to make them feel special and unique.
    We're so screwed....

    March 29, 2011 at 10:14 pm | Reply
  2. Dan

    Born 1963. Its not just wars, its policies that encourage free trade at the expense of our own economy. Free trade is great, as long as you are trading with people on a level playing field, but that doesn't exist unless we level we really want to live at the lowest denominator? 60 years ago, my parents had outhouses as children. Do you want to go back to that? We need to concentrate on America forward, not backward. If we continue on as we are, you can start digging holes on your backyard while China lays pipe.

    March 30, 2011 at 1:27 am | Reply
  3. Sarah

    Constitutionalists – not isolationists.

    "Commerce with all nations, alliance with none." – Thomas Jefferson

    Millenials want to trade and work with other nations – and believe strongly in globalization. They just don't want to form the entangling alliance the forefathers warn against.

    How can millenials who believe in free trade be isolationists?

    March 30, 2011 at 7:26 am | Reply
  4. Mary

    So-called "millenials" (what a ridiculous moniker!) are not the only ones who think the US government should keep its nose out of the world's business and its troops out of foreign wars. We have had a bellyful of the rich and powerful getting richer and more powerful on the blood and money of the poor and middle-class. We need to direct our attention to our failing infrastructure, eroding manufacturing base, and lack of good-paying jobs.

    By the way, the only people who are "Obamacrats" (another stupid moniker) are the idiots who report and work for CNN.

    March 30, 2011 at 7:43 am | Reply
  5. Joe

    I think "non-interventionist" is a more accurate term.

    Non-interventionism goes back to the Founders concept of avoiding entangling alliances and foreign involvement. Basically, trade with everyone, but bother no one. The new non-interventionists echo this belief. Do business in the word, but disband the 'world cop' idea. Too many of our people have died for that role.

    March 30, 2011 at 8:04 am | Reply
  6. EdwardInATL

    "A house built on shifting sands..."....we need to turn our focus on investing in innovation and education as the cornerstones of this great nation. As our debt load increases, our ability to project power diminishes as we become more dependent on foreign countries to service our dept. Energy Security, Innovation, R&D, Education...let's reduce our global spend and increase internal investment for the long term stability of this blessed country.

    March 30, 2011 at 8:17 am | Reply
  7. Pete

    We shouldn't be screwing around in the middle east. Those guys are not our allies. If England, Australia or Japan was at war – then we could go to bat and help them out. But why are we screwing around in the Middle east.

    If we had spent half of that stupid stimulus building Nuclear power plants – we would be like France and wouldn't need foreign oil and Presidents like Bush would have stayed out of Libya. But our new President is so stupid we get involved fighting wars for countries that don't even SELL us oil. What a moron..

    If we want to go save anyone – it should be North Korea. At least we are allies with South Korea and North Korea has NUKES. Those guys in the middle east are not our allies – and they don't want our help. We should leave them alone and let Europe help out if they feel like it. (And Europe includes Russia.)

    March 30, 2011 at 8:29 am | Reply
  8. teepee


    March 30, 2011 at 8:51 am | Reply
  9. teepee

    Globalism is here to stay...just ask the anti-christ...

    March 30, 2011 at 8:52 am | Reply
  10. Beverly

    I was born in 1948; my husband in 1945; my mother in 1928 and my dad in 1920. We ALL agree with the isolationist movement. The balance of trade is a joke; NAFTA killed the industrial divisions of US companies. Cheap goods do not last; nothing seems to be made in the US any more. We need to back off world problem-solving and concentrate on our problems. I'd even like to see all American military personnel brought home. Why pour money into other economies by basing American troops there? We should use them to MAN OUR BORDERS!!!!!

    March 30, 2011 at 9:40 am | Reply
  11. Steve

    Of course, this is neocon propaganda, otherwise Singer and Brookings would use the neutral "non-interventionist" term, which is a more appropriate description any way, rather that the hot button "isolationist" word.

    March 30, 2011 at 9:55 am | Reply

    CNN, don't tell me what I think.

    March 30, 2011 at 10:25 am | Reply
  13. Socialist Pigs

    isolationist?????as our socialist leader, barrack hussein obama, bombs a country that has no strategic significance to the US – as the chairman of JCS stated. Libertarians RULE!!!

    March 30, 2011 at 10:42 am | Reply
  14. Paul McLaughlin

    Your stupid generation made the mistake of thinking my generation is stupid. We know you are stealing from our future with the form of massive deficit. Don't worry though, we will get you back by cutting your social security when you are older.

    Happy trails.

    March 30, 2011 at 11:02 am | Reply
    • Monk

      There you go, proving our point again. We don't think your generation is stupid, your generation keeps proving it is stupid. It is all on you guys. Nothing to do with us or what we think.

      March 30, 2011 at 11:12 am | Reply
  15. Ron

    It's pitiful to me that our government cares more about our global image than what happens within our borders. If we spent the money we throw away on foreign aid for useful domestic projects then we would be able to get ahead and live the lives our forefathers wanted for future generations instead of degenerating into the Asbergers ridden children with ridiculous allergies to the natural world.

    March 30, 2011 at 11:02 am | Reply
  16. Awake

    I think that the millennial generation may be the one least blind to the fallacy of "American Exceptionalism," or the notion that the US is somehow superior to the rest of the globe by nature of being the US. We can look back over a long period of failed international interventions from Korea to Iraq (twice) and at the same time see our own parents living a lifestyle that is patently unattainable to us on the same financial means. We've visited Europe, China, Japan, India, Latin America, and everywhere else. We've seen new and different and effective ways of solving problems, and the roles that the respective governments play in them. We see a domestic infrastructure and energy policy at home that has not been seriously updated since the 1970's. We hear politicians of both parties promise the moon in terms of domestic programs but consistently deliver only one constant outcome, which is increased wealth for the top 2% and decreased wealth for everyone else.
    I don't agree with "isolationism" in its classical sense. Closing our borders to the world is a simple formula for backwardness and irrelevancy. However, I think that many people of my generation are anti international interventionist. We need a massive intervention in our own country by a government that actually represents the people, and not the dollars, of America. We see more than enough money to pay for it in the "defense" budget. I, personally, would like to see the US abandon the role of "superpower" and focus internally on education, energy, and infrastructure. We are in serious danger of becoming a hollow suit.
    Born 1982

    March 30, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Reply
  17. EB

    Rathern than calling them isolationist (an insult in certain neo-con/neo-prog circles) perhaps the term non-interventionists should be applied... isolationists want to hole up at home and cease interaction, Non-interventionists on the other hand prefer to let others lead their own lives, interacting with everyone in a voluntary, peaceful, way. May sound like a tomato/tomoto argument but the real effect of the two policies are huge.

    March 30, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Reply
  18. Joe

    The crack-pot American media, is a joke. Why even bother with American media, same old jokers working for it.

    watch: TERRORSTORM

    or You Tube: The crack-pot American media, is a joke. Why even bother with American media, same old jokers working for it.

    watch: TERRORSTORM



    March 30, 2011 at 8:51 pm | Reply
  19. james2

    I think the most important issues facing the next generation are going to be cleaning up campaign finance and dealing with the high levels of unemployment among youth today. They should ask themselves why their politicians are not pushing for initiatives that a strong majority of Americans want such as raising taxes on the rich, closing tax loopholes, taxing carbon emissions, and government spending on infrastructure and education. Why? Because Americans are stuck between a center-right party and a party that is driving itself over a cliff. In this day and age the Democratic Party has fashioned itself to be something like the Washington Generals, who never seem able to win. This is mainly because some of them take money from the same big corporations as the Republicans. Young people should be more involved in politics now than ever because it is very difficult for their peers to finds jobs and pay for school. They should be outraged that irresponsible bankers and investment companies quite literally stole their money, robbed them blind, and are now trying to dip their fingers into their Social Security in order to cover their own hide. If they do not recognize just how far corporate money has corrupted politics, then all the interventionism and isolationism in the world won't make any difference whatsoever
    The idea of "isolationism" is laughable because about 1 percent of the US budget is directed toward foreign aid and, as Fareed has pointed out, there are emerging more places in the world to do business. They should ask why a company based in Houston is able to get out of paying its fair share of taxes simply because it moves a large portion of its profits overseas to Zug for the sole purpose of evading taxes. Does this sound like a sensible policy? At a time when large overseas markets (China and India) are beginning to emerge, turning inward would only make matters worse; it would force nonsensible budget cuts to Americans while letting corporations do business overseas anyway.
    They should also recognize that because the mainstream media is run by big corporations, many of them are in fact part and parcel of the establishment and likely to hide important details from them (with only a handful of exceptions). Maybe I am being naive, but the protests in Egypt should make young people more open minded toward other countries, especially in the middle east. One of the most fascinating aspects of the revolution in Egypt was the age of the revolutionaries. Instead of turning their nose up at them, they should try to make up for the missteps of their predecessors and try to be friends. A good start would be becoming an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

    March 31, 2011 at 1:44 am | Reply
  20. james2

    So the important thing is not to be "anti-interventionist" or "isolationist". It simply means that Americans should make a better effort to learn about other countries before hand and be smarter about how it interacts with other countries. Although they may hear about people with resentment toward America in places such as Iran, China, or Egypt, on the whole people like the IDEA of America, particularly the rights afforded by the First Amendment. Love it or hate it, America is a great power and therefore has to use it responsibly.

    March 31, 2011 at 1:56 am | Reply
  21. Antonio

    Lol what garbage. This is the problem with the babyboomer (and above) generation which assumes that America can only be successful if America is forcefully assertive.

    "- Isolationism, not globalism, is winning out. Fifty-eight percent of the young leaders think that America is "too involved" in global affairs and should instead focus more on issues at home."

    Millennials want to stop creating wars and interferences in other countries, but that doesn't mean they are isolationist! They WANT to connect globally, they'd just rather do it through business than bombs.

    "- China scares them. When asked to name any countries that they think will present the biggest problems for the U.S. over the next 10 to 20 years, China was listed the second most frequently"

    This is a little less egregious, but just because a nation could prove to be problematic, doesn't mean people are "scared" of them. Problems can be overcome (through outreach), so viewing China as a potential rival to the U.S. does not preclude a fear-driven sense of isolationism.

    Normal, rational people do not oscillate between ecstatic euphoria and crippling fear.

    April 4, 2011 at 12:18 am | Reply
  22. tryecrot

    Yes there should realize the opportunity to RSS commentary, quite simply, CMS is another on the blog.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:00 am | Reply
  23. Dave

    One thing that we must ALL understand is that there are no exact dates to a generation. I define the millenials as those born beginning in 1977 for two reasons:

    1. Studies that included people born beginning in 1977 prove that even they are socially liberal on issues such as gay marriage and green technologies – see, for example, "Generation We," by Eric Greenberg and Karl Weber.

    2. An online chart proves that the "echo boom" period really began in '77, when about 159,000 more babies were born than during the previous year.

    I was born in 1979, and call myself a Millenial because I don't have much in common with Gen X.

    September 23, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Reply
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