Originally posted on Pewresearch.org.
Portraits of America
Generations tend to be about 20 years in length and are shaped by the historical events people experience at roughly the same stage in their life cycle. As a result, they share what might loosely be called a generational persona, one that’s also influenced by (and often in reaction to) the persona of their parents’ generation.
While obviously there are as many different personality types within a generation as across generations, there’s value in understanding what defines a generation. Pew Research surveys have allowed for comparisons between today’s young and today’s old. Because we’ve been asking the same questions over many years, we can also compare today’s young with yesterday’s young. Let’s start with the thumbnail sketches.
Who Are the Millennials?
The Millennials are our youngest adult generation. They’re America’s most racially and ethnically diverse generation ever. More than four-in-ten are non-white, many the U.S.-born children of the big wave of Hispanic and Asian immigrants who began arriving half a century ago.
They’re political and social liberals, they’re social media wizards, they’re highly educated, they’re not very religious, they’re slow to marry and have kids, and many are saddled with college debt and lousy jobs. Because of their difficulties getting launched in a tough economy, 46% have at some point boomeranged back to their childhood homes, where the refrigerator is stocked, the washing machine isn’t coin-operated, and all their dreams are on hold, but intact. Despite these economic woes, Millennials are the nation’s most dogged optimists. They believe their own best days are ahead – and so are America’s.
The Age, Race Voting Gaps
In the past few elections, the young/old partisan voting gap has been the biggest since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1972. As recently as the year 2000, there had been no difference in the way young and old in America voted. Now, there’s a chasm.
Six-in-ten young voters supported Barack Obama in his re-election bid in 2012, compared with just 47% of those in the age ranges of their parents (45 to 64) and 44% of their grandparents (65 and older). By race, six-in-ten white voters supported Republican candidate Mitt Romney, whereas more than nine-in-ten black voters supported Obama. Obama also captured more than 70% of the Asian-American and Hispanic vote.
Liberal Youth, Conservative Elders
Millennials have voted more Democratic than older voters in the past five national elections. They came of age in the Bush and Obama eras and hold liberal attitudes on most social and governmental issues, as well as America’s approach to foreign policy. Just as members of the Silent Generation are long-term backers of smaller government, Millennials, at least so far, are strong supporters of a more activist government.
On some social issues, such as legalizing marijuana and same-sex marriage, Millennials particularly stand out for their favorable views compared with other generations. Nearly seven-in-ten (68%) Millennials favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry, compared with just 48% of Baby Boomers and just 38% of the Silent Generation.
The Young Are Less Religiously Affiliated
The generations are divided by more than race and politics. The young are the least religiously affiliated group in modern American history; the old are the most devout believers in the advanced, industrialized world.
A record one-in-five American adults today – and fully three-in-ten Millennials – do not have any religious affiliation. Of these so-called “nones,” roughly three-in-ten describe themselves as atheists or agnostics; the remainder say they have no particular religion.
The Technology Gap
Then there’s the technology revolution. Today’s young are history’s first generation of digital natives. The online world isn’t something they’ve had to adapt to — it’s all they’ve ever known, and it’s their indispensable platform for social interactions and information acquisition.
Today’s old have been playing catch-up online, some more enthusiastically than others, but they have a long way to go. The typical Millennial who uses social media has 250 Facebook friends — making them five times “friendlier” than the smaller number of Silents who use social media.