The generation that grew up with the cellphone and the personal computer sees itself as much more independent than older generations and takes a far different view on traditions like marriage and religion than their parents and grandparents, according to a comprehensive new study.
The survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center, compared social attitudes and characteristics of the Millennial generation, those born after 1980, with members of Generation X, Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation, all of which are more conservative, more attached to institutions like political parties and more trusting of others than their younger compatriots.
Millennials, who are growing in political and social influence, are the most diverse generation in American history. Just 57 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 33 are non-Hispanic whites, four points lower than members of Generation X and 15 points lower than the Baby Boom generation. That diversity underscores the rapidly changing face of a country in which minorities are playing an increasing role in politics.
Millennials’ detachment from traditional institutions stands in stark contrast to earlier generations. Just 26 percent of Millennials were married by the time they turned 32 years old, compared with 36 percent of Generation X, 48 percent of Baby Boomers and 65 percent of the Silent Generation.
Slightly less than three in 10 say they are religiously unaffiliated, compared with 21 percent of Generation Xers, 16 percent of Boomers and just 9 percent of the Silent Generation. And only 36 percent described themselves as religious; majorities of every other generation said they were religious people.
Younger Americans are less likely to call themselves patriotic, too. Just 49 percent of the Millennials surveyed said they would describe themselves as a patriotic person, far below the 64 percent of Generation X, the 75 percent of the Baby Boomers and the 81 percent of the Silent Generation who described themselves that way.
But detachment from traditional institutions doesn’t mean the youngest generation of adults is completely detached. Millennials are creating their own networks through technology, networks the Pew pollsters say center around themselves. Millennials have more Facebook friends on average than older generations, and more than half, 55 percent, say they have shared a “selfie” on social networks. By contrast, just a quarter of those in Generation X have shared a selfie, while fewer than one in 10 members of older generations have done so.
The vast majority of Americans across generational lines have cellphones, but Millennials are more likely to say it’s acceptable to use a phone — whether to talk, text or surf the web — in virtually every setting. More than three in 10 Millennials say it’s okay to use a cellphone at a family dinner, while 22 percent said it was acceptable to use a phone during a class or lecture. Only members of Generation X come close to holding the same views.
At the same time, the youngest generation is far less trusting of others than their predecessors. Fewer than two in 10 Millennials said most people can be trusted, 10 points below members of Generation X and half the number of Boomers who say they generally trust most people.
And while fully half of Millennials says they are political independents, the younger generation’s views are decidedly more liberal — especially on social issues — than their parents and grandparents. Millennials are more likely to call themselves liberal and less likely to call themselves conservative than older generations.
The spike in support for legalizing same-sex marriage and marijuana, reflected in polls across the country, is being led by the youngest generation. Nearly seven in 10 Millennials back same-sex marriage, more than 10 points higher than any other generation — and 30 points higher than the Silent Generation, born between 1928 and 1945. Almost the same number, 69 percent, of Millennials back marijuana legalization, compared with just over half of Generation Xers and Baby Boomers.
Millenials are also more likely to say that more mixed-race marriages and more gay and lesbian couples raising children are good things for American society.
More than half of Millennials, 55 percent, say undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in the U.S. and apply for citizenship, while another 25 percent say the undocumented should be allowed to stay and apply for permanent residency. Majorities of older generations believe undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay, but less than half believe there should be a path to citizenship.
Millennials are also the only generation in which a majority agrees they would rather see a bigger government that provides more services than a smaller government that offers fewer services. The older a generation gets, the more likely they are to favor smaller government. Millennials are also the only generation that believes the government should be responsible for guaranteeing health care coverage to all.
There is little difference between the generations, however, on views on gun control and abortion rights. Slightly over half of Millennials, Generation X and the Baby Boom generation say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while right around half of all but the Silent Generation generation say the right to own firearms is more important than controlling gun ownership.
Millennials may want a bigger government with more services, but they don’t believe they will benefit much from the status quo. Just 6 percent predicted they will receive Social Security benefits at current levels, while more than half, 51 percent, said they expect to receive no benefits at all. Those numbers are on par with the pessimism felt by members of Generation X.
But Millennials are more optimistic about their own ability to make up the gap. About a third say they earn enough now to lead to the kind of life they want, far below every other generation. More than half, 53 percent, say they will earn enough in the future to give them the life they desire, a much more optimistic outlook than every other generation.
Self-declared independence notwithstanding, when Millennials vote they tend to favor Democratic candidates. Just 44 percent identified as members of a political party — 27 percent Democratic, 17 percent Republican — but they have twice voted overwhelmingly for President Obama. In 2012, 60 percent of those between the ages of 18-29 voted for the president, while just 37 percent voted for Mitt Romney. The gap between those who identify with or lean Democratic and those who identify with or lean Republican is larger among Millennials, 16 points, than among any other age group.
The changing societal and political attitudes held by those born after 1980 will challenge both political parties in coming elections, both ideologically and tactically. Candidates and parties will have to work harder to engage younger voters disaffected by the political process, while strategists will have to use new technologies to reach voters who are increasingly attached to their own social networks and cell phones than to television programs.