Millennials in Adulthood

Pew Social Trends, March 7, 2014

Overview

The Millennial generation is forging a distinctive path into adulthood. Now ranging in age from 18 to 33, they are relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry—and optimistic about the future.

They are also America’s most racially diverse generation. In all of these dimensions, they are different from today’s older generations. And in many, they are also different from older adults back when they were the age Millennials are now.

Pew Research Center surveys show that half of Millennials (50%) now describe themselves as political independents and about three-in-ten (29%) say they are not affiliated with any religion. These are at or near the highest levels of political and religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation in the quarter-century that the Pew Research Center has been polling on these topics.

At the same time, however, Millennials stand out for voting heavily Democratic and for liberal views on many political and social issues, ranging from a belief in an activist government to support for same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization. {snip}

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Millennials have also been keeping their distance from another core institution of society—marriage. Just 26% of this generation is married. When they were the age that Millennials are now, 36% of Generation X, 48% of Baby Boomers and 65% of the members of the Silent Generation were married. {snip}

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Racial diversity

Millennials are the most racially diverse generation in American history, a trend driven by the large wave of Hispanic and Asian immigrants who have been coming to the U.S. for the past half century, and whose U.S.-born children are now aging into adulthood. In this realm, Millennials are a transitional generation. Some 43% of Millennial adults are non-white, the highest share of any generation. About half of newborns in America today are non-white, and the Census Bureau projects that the full U.S. population will be majority non-white sometime around 2043.

The racial makeup of today’s young adults is one of the key factors in explaining their political liberalism. But it is not the only factor. Across a range of political and ideological measures, white Millennials, while less liberal than the non-whites of their generation, are more liberal than the whites in older generations.

Low on social trust; upbeat about the nation’s future

Millennials have emerged into adulthood with low levels of social trust. In response to a long-standing social science survey question, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people,” just 19% of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31% of Gen Xers, 37% of Silents and 40% of Boomers.

Their racial diversity may partly explain Millennials’ low levels of social trust. A 2007 Pew Research Center analysis found that minorities and low-income adults had lower levels of social trust than other groups. Based on similar findings over many years from other surveys, sociologists have theorized that people who feel vulnerable or disadvantaged for whatever reason find it riskier to trust because they’re less well-fortified to deal with the consequences of misplaced trust.

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They are also somewhat more upbeat than older adults about America’s future, with 49% of Millennials saying the country’s best years are ahead, a view held by 42% of Gen Xers, 44% of Boomers and 39% of Silents.

The relative optimism of today’s young adults stands in contrast to the views of Boomers when they were about the same age as Millennials are now. In a 1974 Gallup survey, only about half of adults under the age of 30 said they had “quite a lot” of confidence in America’s future, compared with seven-in-ten of those ages 30 and older.

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Economic hardships

Millennials are also the first in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations (Gen Xers and Boomers) had at the same stage of their life cycles.

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At the same time, fully a third of older Millennials (ages 26 to 33) have a four-year college degree or more—making them the best-educated cohort of young adults in American history. Educational attainment is highly correlated with economic success, even more so for this generation than previous ones. In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, young adults today who do not advance beyond high school have been paying a much stiffer penalty—in terms of low wages and high unemployment—than their counterparts did one and two generations ago.

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Not only do half of all Millennials choose not to identify with either political party, just 31% say there is a great deal of difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. More people in older generations, including 58% of Silents, say there are big differences between the parties.

Even so, this generation stood out in the past two presidential elections as strikingly Democratic. According to national exit polls, the young-old partisan voting gaps in 2008 and 2012 were among the largest in the modern era, with Millennials far more supportive than older generations of Barack Obama. As Obama’s approval ratings have declined in recent years, however, Millennials have joined older adults in lowering their assessments of the president.

Yet Millennials continue to view the Democratic Party more favorably than the Republican Party. And Millennials today are still the only generation in which liberals are not significantly outnumbered by conservatives.

Social and religious views

Millennials’ liberalism is apparent in their views on a range of social issues such as same-sex marriage, interracial marriage and marijuana legalization. In all of these realms, they are more liberal than their elders. However, on some other social issues—including abortion and gun control—the views of Millennials are not much different from those of older adults.

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Millennials by age and race

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The political views of Millennials differ significantly across racial and ethnic lines. About half of white Millennials (51%) say they are political independents. The remainder divide between the Republican (24%) and Democratic (19%) parties. Among non-white Millennials, about as many (47%) say they are independent. But nearly twice as many (37%) identify as Democrats while just 9% identify as Republicans.

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White and non-white Millennials have different views on the role of government as well. On balance, white Millennials say they would prefer a smaller government that provides fewer services (52%), rather than a bigger government that provides more services (39%). Non-white Millennials lean heavily toward a bigger government: 71% say they would prefer a bigger government that provides more services, while only 21% say they would prefer a smaller government. The racial gaps are about as wide among Gen Xers and Boomers.

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[Editor’s Note: The full report is available at the original article link below.]

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