Generations, like people, have personalities. Their collective identities typically begin to reveal themselves when their oldest members move into their teens and twenties and begin to act upon their values, attitudes and worldviews.
America's newest generation, the Millennials,1 is in the middle of this coming-of-age phase of its life cycle. Its oldest members are approaching age 30; its youngest are approaching adolescence.
Who are they? How are they different from -- and similar to -- their parents? How is their moment in history shaping them? And how might they, in turn, reshape America in the decades ahead?
Even without further research, we already know a few big things about the Millennials.
- They are the most ethnically and racially diverse cohort of youth in the nation's history. Among those ages 13 to 29: 18.5% are Hispanic; 14.2% are black; 4.3% are Asian; 3.2% are mixed race or other; and 59.8%, a record low, are white.
- They are starting out as the most politically progressive age group in modern history. In the 2008 election, Millennials voted for Barack Obama over John McCain by 66%-32%, while adults ages 30 and over split their votes 50%-49%. In the four decades since the development of Election Day exit polling, this is the largest gap ever seen in a presidential election between the votes of those under and over age 30.
- They are the first generation in human history who regard behaviors like tweeting and texting, along with websites like Facebook, YouTube, Google and Wikipedia, not as astonishing innovations of the digital era, but as everyday parts of their social lives and their search for understanding.
- They are the least religiously observant youths since survey research began charting religious behavior.
- They are more inclined toward trust in institutions than were either of their two predecessor generations -- Gen Xers (who are now ages 30 to 45) and Baby Boomers (now ages 46 to 64) when they were coming of age.
Couple of points to quibble with. Number one, I'm not sure the claim that Millennials are "starting out the most politically progressive" is accurate. It assumes their first presidential election was 2008, but technically Millennials began to flex their political muscle as early as 2000. And in the 2004 election, the 18-24 age group was much more evenly split, with Bush receiving nearly 45% of their vote.
Second, perhaps I'm just a "bitter" Gen Xer, but the technology of today (Tweets, Facebook, etc.) doesn't seem quite the "astonishing innovation" Pew makes it out to be. The "internets" have been around more than 15 years, somewhere between 1/3 to 1/2 of Gen X's lifespan. While I can remember life before email (and when cell phones were the size of bricks), I can't remember life without p.c.'s or video games (as crude as they were in the 70's). By that measure we could have been the "first generation in human history to regard the VCR as an everyday part of their social lives." Web technology may certainly be more a norm for today's youngest generation, but the technological divide seems overstated.
The report itself, however, is a great explanation of the importance of what Strauss & Howe call birth cohorts and why the generations we belong to shape so much of who we are as individuals.
Generation differences can be the byproduct of the unique historical circumstances that members of an age cohort experience during adolescence and young adulthood, when awareness of the wider world deepens and personal identities and values systems are being strongly shaped. The unique nature of the times imprints itself on each successive age cohort, producing differences that persist even as a cohort ages and moves through the life cycle.
In addition to life cycle and cohort effects, there are also period effects. These are major events (wars, social movements, scientific or technological breakthroughs) that are likely to have a simultaneous impact on all age groups, though, again, their impact is often greatest among the young because their values and habits are less fixed than those of other age groups.
Global Sociolgy wonders how technology and progressiveness will be seen in the Millennials. Will they be more socially progressive or more individualized?
On the political scale, I think college students today are more conservative than this poll or the results of '08 indicate. For example, libertarian/conservative candidate Ron Paul received much of his early momentum for president in '08 from college students on campuses around the country. And on social issues they seem all over the board, with majorities favoring things like off-shore drilling and opposing government bailouts, and pluralities describing themselves as moderates and "not affiliated" with either political party.
As the youngest members of this massive cohort (80 million+) move into their adolescent years, we're just beginning to see the impact and importance this generation will have. Though some in my generation like to claim Obama an on-the-cusp Gen Xer, I have a feeling my generation's political and social relevance will be short-lived, sandwiched between the 88 million aging Baby Boomers and all these technologically hip Millennials.
Oh well, we'll always have Grunge.