Millennials 101

Paul Taylor: So millennials are a generation, we define them as having been born after 1980.  So the oldest of them is in his or her early thirties.  The youngest is mid teenagers.  Typically generations last about 20 years or so.  We don’t really know when the back half of this generation ends.  There’s probably a 12 or 13 year old who’s somebody different.  But he or she hasn’t quite come of age yet.  It’s a very distinctive generation and the oldest of them has now made the passage into adulthood so we know a little bit more about them than we did eight or ten years ago when they first came on the scene.  Distinctive.  They’re a very large generation.  By the time the 20 year cycle is done there’ll probably be 80 million strong, the largest generation since the baby boomers.  They are very distinctive racially and ethnically.  They are the transitional generation in an America that in the middle of the last century was about 85 percent white.  By the middle of this century will be only a little more than 40 percent white.

Millennials are the most nonwhite generation.  They’re more than four in ten are nonwhite.  This is driven by the great modern immigration wave that’s now about four or five decades old.  Like our earlier immigration waves which are almost entirely from Europe, this immigration wave is mostly from Latin America and Asia.  And it’s the immigrants themselves but more so now it’s the children of the immigrants, the U.S. born children of the immigrants who make up a very heavy portion of this millennial generation.  They’re distinctive politically.  They’re now old enough to have voted in two or three presidential elections and they were a very big part of both of President Obama’s victories.  By our calculation at the Pew Research Center where I work and did a lot of the research that led to this book, they are the most democratic voting generation of young adults of any we have seen in 50 or 60 years of tracking voting patterns.

They’re very liberal in their social and cultural values so some of the changes that are going on in the country on issues like same sex marriage, marijuana legalization – we see pretty dramatic changes in a fairly short period of time in terms of public attitudes.  It’s the millennials, it’s the young adults who are leading the way.  Despite their distinctive political and social views and voting behaviors, however, they’re not terribly attached to the Democratic Party even though they gave big votes to democratic presidential candidates.  When we asked adults of all ages are you a democrat or republican or an independent, millennials – 50 percent of millennials say I’m independent.  We’ve never seen that high a share from any age cohort.  We see a similar thing when we ask about their religion.  I mean, what are you?  Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish?  A record share of millennials say I’m nothing in particular.

And there’s a third anchor institution of society, if you will, that millennials are not attached to and that’s a little old 5,000 year old institution called marriage.  So of today’s 18 to 33 year olds only about a quarter are married.  If you go back to older generations when they were the same age, five in ten, six in ten of the older generation, more than six in ten were married.  I think the slow walk toward marriage and the disassociation from anchor institutions, I think, are explained by first their economic circumstances.  Another distinctive thing about this generation is they’re the first in modern American history and perhaps the first in American history that at least so far – we don’t know how their story ends but we know how the story of their economic lives have begun and at least so far they are the first generation in modern times that is doing less well economically than their parents’ generation on any way you measure it.

Whether it’s income, whether it’s wealth, whether it’s poverty, whether it’s employment, unemployment – all the classic measures.  And you correct for inflation and you make it an apples to apples comparison, they’re doing less well.  The fact that they’re doing less well means a lot of them when we asked them those who aren’t married, would you like to marry?  Almost seven out of ten say yes.  Why haven’t you gotten married?  Well, look at me, you know, I don’t have a job.  I don’t have a career. I don’t have the economic foundation to get married.  And that will reverberate in interesting ways as they mature into middle age and beyond.  And then finally perhaps if not the most distinctive thing about this generation – certainly one of the most distinctive things is they are a first generation of digital natives.  So they are the only age group of adults now for whom these amazing gadgets we now all hold in our hand and we all take for granted that with three click you can access the sum of all human knowledge.

And frankly, these days if it takes you a third click you’re wondering what takes so long.  So somebody my age this is jaw dropping.  It’s still jaw dropping every time I access these information platforms and do it in mobile sites and I’m just amazed.  These young adults are not amazed.  It’s the only world they’ve ever known and they are carnivores in terms of their habits with these information systems.  Not just for information acquisition but for the creation of networks.  They organize their social lives around these networks.  They can build their own tribes.  Somebody more clever than me described them as a pre-Copernican generation.  The universe really does revolve around them because they can build their social networks and they can place themselves at the center of their social networks because their social networks are built around the things they care the most about whether it’s their hobbies, whether it’s their work, whether it’s the games they like to play, whether it’s information seeking and all the rest.

This behavior has led some to suggest that it’s a narcissistic generation.  My own view is that that’s a bum rap.  I think it’s all about the new platforms and it’s all about the human condition.  And if you have the ability to kind of place yourself at the center of the universe you will take it.  I think it’s empowering.  It may lead to another – a trait of the millennials.  They’re somewhat distrustful of other people, and it may be because as they navigate the online world it turns out not everybody is exactly who they say they are and there’s a certain wariness about this generation.

And I think there’s an interesting question about whether the networks that they build online with their the median millennial has 250 “friends” on Facebook.  Somebody my age or older has only one-fifth that amount of friends.  And many fewer of us are on Facebook so, you know, discuss among yourselves – has there been a quantum leap in human friendliness over the past few generations or is it simply that the new platforms create new behaviors and new ways of organizing your social life.  It’s clearly the latter.  I think an interesting question I don’t think we know the answer to it yet is as millennials age more into middle age, as they probably age into some of the more traditional anchor institutions of society – marriage, children, home ownership and all the rest.  And these things are all happening more slowly for millennials.  Will they establish a more of an offline network that begins to resemble the networks and the affiliations and associations that their parents and grandparents built.

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton


Paul Taylor, the executive vice president of the Pew Research Center and author of The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown, on what makes Millennials a "very distinctive" generation.

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