They have arrived. “Millennials” the largest age cohort in American history is now pushing 80 million. They were born roughly between 1982 and 2000. (There is no precise agreement on this.) The youngest is about 18 and the oldest about 35. Over the next 10 to 20 years they will dominate the nation’s economy, government and politics.
But there is widespread disagreement about what they will do with their rapidly accumulating power or even their core character. On the one hand, there are the generational chroniclers, pop analysts and contemporary sociologists who regularly deride Generation Y, (Millennials). They call them shallow, narcissistic, overly coddled as children and often lazy as adults.
Others, however, counter these views, like the highly regarded scholars Strauss and Howe. They argue that Millennials are emerging to resemble what Tom Brokaw called the “greatest generation,” his iconic term for those who survived the Great Depression and fought and won World War II.
Some superb work by the Pew Research Center, Gallup and others now allow us to learn a good bit about the views of Millennials across a spectrum of subjects likely to influence the nation’s future. Politically, culturally and economically, Millennial beliefs, behaviors and experiences help define them:
. Politically – Millennials tend not to be attached to a political party. More than four in ten (44%) consider themselves independent. But on a range of political and social issues, Millennials’ view are closer to the Democrats. Last year, slightly more than half (55%) identified as Democrats to 34 percent who called themselves Republicans.
Traditionally, younger voters, whether Republican or Democrat, have not made themselves felt politically because their voting turnout lags older age cohorts. But the sheer size of the millennial cohort changes that. In past presidential elections the Baby Boomer and prior generations dominated turnout. But early in 2017 Millennials became the largest proportionate of the electorate. Inexorably, the Millennial share of the vote will continue to grow, profoundly effecting American politics.
. Culturally – They are quite liberal. Regardless of political party preference they overwhelmingly support the legalization of marijuana, with Democrats (77%) and Republicans (63%) doing so. Moreover, half of them (50%) believe it’s morally acceptable for couples to live together without any intention of getting married while 40 percent think it’s morally acceptable to have children without being married.
They are also strong supporters of gay marriage, transgender rights, and a range of issues surrounding women’s equality. In general, this generation tends not to be as religious as previous generations. In fact, Pew research portrays Millennials as relatively unattached and untrusting toward a variety of institutions – including organized politics and religion.
. Economically – Millennials tend to describe themselves as neither “capitalists” nor as “socialists.” Moreover, they place a heavy emphasis on education. In fact, more millennials have earned a bachelor’s degree than any other generation – and more are employed with that degree than any other generation.
They are extremely tech savvy and they are shoppers. Gallup reports that Millennials shop online more than any other generation. Professionally they are less committed to remain in their current employment. Given a new opportunity, they are likely to move on. They are much less likely to own a home, be married, or have kids. Altogether, one-third of them live with their parents. In their personal lives they have assumed substantially more debt than earlier generations, primarily attributable to student loans and unemployment.
But Pew and other data leave unanswered a critical question. What effect will Millennials, as did the once dominant Baby Boomers before them, have on national politics?
Some believe, following the scholars Strauss-Howe, that this generation is destined to confront great challenges and large crises – in many respects comparable to that faced by the World War II generation. Some theorists describe them as “hero” archetype because Millennials will come to resemble earlier generations that fought World War 1, the Civil War and even the Revolutionary War.
Other less grandiose visions have noted Millennials marked cultural liberality, strong political preference for Democratic candidates and personal history of economic struggles. These analysts forecast a vast Democratic demographic harvest of Millennials that could transform American politics in as little as a decade.
But much of this analysis ignores the well-established pattern of succeeding generations to move from liberalism toward conservatism as they age. The Democratic Party does confront a unique opportunity with Millennials that could cement its dominance for decades. But it is far too early for Democrats to celebrate or Republicans to lament the political role Millennials will play.
Similarly, it is too early to know if Millennials will become the “hero” generation of the Strauss-Howe world, or more simply, just another American generation now emerging into American history toward a destiny largely hidden.
What’s abundantly clear, however, is that some 80 million Millennials, as did the Baby Boomers before them, are becoming the new 800-pound gorilla in the room, soon to dominate American culture, politics and economics for a very long time. And like that proverbial formidable gorilla, they will “sit” wherever they choose to sit, and the rest of us will learn to like it.