The prevailing perception that the Millennial generation is somehow uniquely different from preceding generations was essentially confirmed by a new Pew Research Center study published last week.
In what is arguably the most comprehensive and exhaustive report on Millennial cultural and social trends ever published, researchers found that the 18- to 33-year-old demographic is more detached from political and religious institutions, encumbered by debt, distrustful of people and less inclined to marry than any generation prior.
Moreover, Millennials are the most racially diverse generation in American history, a key driver of these trends.
Made clear in the report is that Millennials’ shared ideology on a wide array of issues has deviated more significantly from their forerunners’ than at any point in modern history.
This departure from traditional generational tendencies indicates that the cultural and social construct of America will be totally reshaped as Generation-Y fully matures to adulthood.
It is a generation at the precipice of sparking a social renaissance, refusing to conform while embracing the opportunity to blaze its own path.
Despite voting overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, half of all Millennials identify as independent, shying away from affiliating with any political party. In an historical context, Millennials refuse to associate with a major political party more than any generation prior.
What’s more, only 31 percent feel that there is a significant difference between republicans and democrats.
Still, Millennials remain the only generation in which liberals are not considerably outnumbered by conservatives.
Generation-Y’s liberal leanings on political and social issues come from their support for an activist government (53 percent), same-sex marriage (68 percent), marijuana legalization (69 percent), and providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (55 percent).
These statistics indicate that while Millennials might favor democratic candidates over conservative candidates, they connect more strongly with individual politicians than their political institutions. They are reluctant to accept a party platform on the whole, politically motivated, instead, by singular issues.
This means that, in the coming years, politicians won’t be able to rely on party loyalties to drive votes their way. Instead, they will have to clearly identify their positions on specific issues in order to compel people to the polls.
There seems to be a clear correlation between Millennials’ liberal attitudes on a range of social issues and the role religion plays in their lives.
Aside from the fact that members of Generation-Y are less likely than older generations to affiliate with any religious institution, they are also less likely to profess a belief in God.
Though 58 percent claim to be absolutely certain that God exists, 11 percent don’t believe in God at all, nearly twice as many than can be found in any other generation. Only 36 percent identify themselves as a religious person, and 54 percent are not concerned by the mounting disaffiliation from religion occurring in American society.
Historically, people tend to become more religious as they age, but the Millennials’ departure from religion may be motivated by their socially liberal views, which religious institutions tend to reject.
Unless these religious bodies prove that they can accommodate and embrace these same social viewpoints, they stand to see their support and membership decline even further.
Millennials claim the dubious honor of being the first generation in the modern era to endure higher rates of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, with lower levels of wealth and income than the two generations that preceded them.
Macro-economic trends fomented by the Great Recession, globalization, advancements in workplace technologies, and a shift away from manufacturing industries have all contributed to Millennials' economic woes.
According to the Pew survey, seven in 10 Americans, across all generations, feel that today’s young adults have it tougher than their parents did when they first entered the workforce.
Perhaps driving the higher cost of college education is the fact that educational attainment is more highly correlated with economic success than ever before. As a result, a full third of American Millennials between the ages of 26 and 33 have earned a four-year college degree or more, which marks the highest percentage ever in a group of young adults.
Because today’s job market requires candidates to possess higher levels of technical expertise and knowledge than it formerly did, Millennials who do not earn a college degree suffer more than individuals in previous generations who did not advance beyond high school.
While a college degree is becoming more and more necessary, higher education is also becoming increasingly cost prohibitive.
Two-thirds of recent college graduates are encumbered by student loans, which now average at roughly $27,000 per person. Twenty years ago, only about 50 percent of graduates were in debt at the time of their graduation, with their average debt standing at only $15,000.
The difficult and longer journey to financial security is likely contributing to historically low marriage rates among Millennials.
At 26 percent, fewer Millennials are married at this point in their lifecycle than any other previous generation. Though 69 percent of Millennials say that they would like to get married, many believe it would be too difficult right now given their low levels of education and income.
Optimism and Distrust
Given the fact that Millennials were left with an economy short on opportunity and rife with hardship, it is unsurprising that they exhibit lower levels in social trust than any other age group.
Only 19 percent of Millennials say that most people can be trusted, compared to 31 percent of people in Generation X and 40 percent of Baby Boomers who feel the same way.
The fact that Millennials are the most ethnically diverse generation in American history (43 percent are non-white) might contribute to their caginess.
According to a 2007 Pew study, minorities and low-income adults experienced lower levels of social trust than any other demographic segment. Relying on this and other findings, sociologists have claimed that populations who feel vulnerable or disadvantaged for one reason or another view blind faith as a perilous venture.
Regardless of their diminished confidence in people and institutions, Millennials hold the same favorable views on big business and the role of government as older adults.
It’s their faith in these institutions that helps elevate their shared optimism for America’s future, with 49 percent of Millennials believing that the nation’s best days still lie ahead.
Comparatively, only 42 percent of Gen Xers and 44 percent of Baby Boomers share the same optimistic view.
It is from that hopefulness for a better future that Millennials will reshape society. They do not embrace the belief that the social security and other government safety nets will be available to them in adulthood.
They embrace self-reliance and shun idealism. They are inspired by the belief that they can be the conduit for change, refusing to wait for others to request their participation in helping to bring it about.
Millennials might have entered adulthood at an incredibly disadvantageous time, but when considering their attitudes, principles and high levels of ambition, it might be a safe bet to join them in the belief that America has yet to experience its greatest moment in history.