Millennials, welcome to adulthood. The youngest members of this generation have now put adolescence in the rear-view mirror, and their story is no longer just about what’s next; increasingly, it’s about how this adult generation is reshaping public life in the country today.
Generally defined as those born after 1980, millennials are a technologically savvy generation. The oldest members, who came of age in the post-9/11 era and were buffeted by the Great Recession, are now well into their 30s. While defining the beginning and end of generations is not an exact science, there is a widely shared sense among researchers that the millennials are moving on and that the nation’s youngest adults are part of a new, separate group that will soon get its own name.
That means that millennials—long the object of public fascination—are joining Gen Xers as generational “middle children.” But before turning the page on millennials, it is worth reflecting on how they changed the country and how they will continue to do so in the decades to come.
Millennials made themselves known as a distinct generation more than a decade ago. Amid the momentous technological changes of the 2000s, they stood out for their embrace of an increasingly networked, digital world. Millennials were the first generation for which Facebook meant something other than a hardbound collection of classmates’ photos and perhaps the last to remember dial-up internet and the pay phone. Early adopters of the real-time communication tools of texting and instant messaging, they were at the vanguard of a technological revolution that reshaped how people connect with one another and experience community.
Moving out of adolescence and into young adulthood during the George W. Bush administration (and later Barack Obama’s presidency), the millennial generation came of age as the most Democratically oriented cohort of young voters the country had seen in four decades.
And millennials looked different from generations that had come before them. The result of immigration and fertility trends over the previous half-century, they entered the adult population as the most racially and ethnically diverse generation of Americans to date. This diversity was a defining feature that shaped their outlook on issues as well as their political orientation.
They were also shaped by events and forces at play in the early part of the 21st century. Coming of age in the shadow of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, millennials were met with the realities of the post-Sept. 11 world. Familiar with the debates over privacy and security that defined this era, they brought a distinct voice to the national conversation, consistently coming down stronger on the side of personal privacy than their elders had.
As accelerating forces of globalization reshaped the American and global economies, millennials took these changes in stride, and expressed greater comfort with and support for an increasingly interconnected world than members of older generations did.
At home, they reflected the evolving structure of the American family, less likely to grow up in a two-parent household than those who came before them. They largely shrugged at previously contentious social trends such as rising interracial marriage and unwed cohabitation. And many developed their identities as young adults without the formative experiences of marriage, parenthood, or military service—experiences that were more prevalent in forming earlier generations.
Today, nearly two decades after the first millennials turned 18, their impact on the nation is readily apparent. They are now the largest adult generation in the country at over 80 million strong, and their attitudes are reshaping the nation’s opinion landscape.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the most diverse generation in the nation’s history is far more comfortable with the changing face of America than are older generations.
Public opinion about immigrants and their contributions to the nation has been transformed over the past decade—and millennials’ attitudes have been a major factor. As recently as 2010, Americans were divided over whether immigrants did more to burden the country (45 percent) or strengthen it (42 percent). Today, by a wide 65 to 26 percent margin, more people believe that immigrants strengthen rather than burden the country.
Clearly, many Americans—across generations and demographic categories—have changed their opinions about immigrants over this period. Yet the impact of millennials on these views is undeniable: They have been consistently more likely than older cohorts to say immigrants strengthen the country. Today, 79 percent of millennials express this view, compared with 66 percent of Gen Xers, 56 percent of baby boomers, and 47 percent of the silent generation.
A similar story can be told about attitudes regarding homosexuality and same-sex marriage. When today’s oldest millennials turned 18 at the turn of the 21st century, public opposition to same-sex marriage far outweighed support. But as millennials aged into the population with more accepting views of homosexuality and support for same-sex marriage than the generation they replaced, they helped drive a change in the nation’s outlook. Today, more than two years after the landmark Supreme Court ruling giving same-sex couples a right to marriage, nearly twice as many Americans favor (62 percent) than oppose (32 percent) same-sex marriage.
But while the early impact of millennials on the nation and its politics has become evident in recent years, it’s less clear where the story of this generation will go from here.
As with all generations, millennials are not a monolithic group. Divides mirror those among the broader public, on the basis of education, race, ethnicity, and, of course, partisanship. There are active debates that will play themselves out over coming years, refining the portrait of the generation along the way.
And while lifestyle choices and views expressed by millennials in their youth have made them distinct from prior generations when those groups were young, the extent to which millennials continue to move away from—or evolve toward—previous generations will prove deeply consequential.
As millennials pass on the title of America’s youngest generation to a new cohort, here are trends to watch as they age into adulthood (with the oldest approaching their 40s) and prepare to take on a larger role in American public life:
Will millennials retain their strong Democratic leanings?
Millennials tend to avoid affiliating with either political party; in fact, more call themselves independents than do members of older generations. But when asked which party they lean toward, most millennials lean toward the Democratic Party. More importantly, they vote Democratic at substantially higher rates than do their elders.
And millennials have distinctly liberal attitudes across a wide range of issues. For instance, millennials are more likely than older adults to say the government has a responsibility to ensure that all Americans have health insurance, and nearly half say this should be achieved through a “single-payer” system.
A generation’s initial political preferences can persist for decades. This was the case for those who came of age during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency and remained reliable Democratic voters into the 1970s and '80s. Similarly, members of the silent generation, many of whom cast their first votes for Dwight Eisenhower, continue to solidly back Republican candidates today.
There is no guarantee that millennials will remain as Democratically oriented in the future as they are today. But this generation has a strong, and possibly enduring, Democratic imprint.
When will the millennials fulfill their political potential?
In 2016, for the first time, millennials matched baby boomers as the nation’s largest cohort of eligible voters. About 69.2 million millennials were eligible to vote in 2016, compared with 69.7 million baby boomers.
But on Election Day, turnout among millennials was—once again—underwhelming. Younger adults have long voted at lower rates than older adults, and according to the Current Population Survey, just 49 percent of millennials said they voted in 2016 compared with more than two-thirds (69 percent) of boomers. And mirroring national patterns, white millennials (53 percent) were more likely than black millennials (49 percent) and much more likely than Asian (43 percent) and Hispanic (40 percent) millennials to say they cast a ballot.
Electoral participation typically rises with age. At similar stages in life, past generations saw meaningful upticks in levels of voting. For example, the share of Gen Xers who said they voted in the presidential election went from 47 percent in 2000 to 57 percent four years later. Given the sheer size of the millennial generation, its potential political impact is immense and small variations in the trajectory of increased levels of voting (and any widening or narrowing of the racial differences in participation) could have enormous impact on the nation’s politics.
Can millennials help address the nation’s racial divide?
Millennials have been much more likely than older generations to embrace the nation’s growing racial and ethnic diversity. In part, this reflects the fact that close to half of them—45 percent—are minorities themselves.
Nonetheless, there remain divides among millennials by race on questions about the country’s racial and ethnic disparities; but there are signs that these differences do not run as deep as with older generations.
On many racial issues, white millennials take more liberal views than do older whites. For instance, 47 percent of white millennials say racial discrimination is the main reason many blacks are unable to get ahead—only about a third or less of all whites in older generations say that.
In addition, millennials of different backgrounds place a shared emphasis on the importance of today’s racial issues. Most white and nonwhite millennials describe racism as a big problem in society, and in 2016, majorities of both groups said that addressing the treatment of racial and ethnic minorities was a very important issue when voting for president. These opinion dynamics among millennials present at least the possibility of greater consensus on a set of issues that has challenged previous generations of leaders.
How will non-college millennials fare in the future?
Each successive generation in the U.S. has been better educated than its predecessor, and millennials are no exception. Among those ages 25 to 36, 38 percent hold at least a bachelor’s degree. Older generations at the same age were significantly less likely to have a college degree (in 1964, just 13 percent of the silent generation had graduated from college).
But while a popular conception of millennials is that of a college-educated, upwardly mobile cohort, far more of them today are without (62 percent) than hold (38 percent) a four-year college degree. The number of millennial college graduates will undoubtedly continue to rise as the generation ages. But the disparities in outcomes for the educational haves and have-nots of this generation may be as wide as they have ever been.
Annual earnings for millennial workers are $24,000 higher for college graduates than for those without a degree. This gap is even a bit bigger than that seen among Generation X when its members were young, and far wider than the earnings gap among baby boomers and the silent generation at the outsets of their working lives.
Differences extend beyond earnings: While down across the board, declines in the marriage rate have been sharpest among those without a college degree. And those without a degree are having a harder time leaving the nest—they are twice as likely as millennial college graduates to be living in their parents’ home (18 percent compared with 9 percent, among those ages 25 to 36).
As millennials age, they face a challenge: Can the nation’s best-educated generation help ensure opportunity for those without a college degree and shrink the quality-of-life divides along educational lines that characterize both their own cohort and the broader public today?
Have millennials permanently redefined the signposts of adulthood?
Millennials are waiting longer to marry, delaying having children, and buying homes at lower rates than did older generations. Nearly half (47 percent) of millennials ages 25 to 36 have never been married. The share of households headed by a millennial with kids stands at 49 percent, much lower than when baby boomers were comparable ages. And only about 35 percent of millennial households own a home, down even in just the past few decades when compared with younger boomer and older Gen X households in the 1990s.
Have millennials just delayed these steps until later in life? Or will they eschew traditional markers of adulthood at levels not seen in this country before? And what will these choices mean for future generations?
The answers will have far-reaching implications for the country, from the potential disruption of parts of the economy devoted to servicing the needs of home-owning families to reshaping public notions about what adulthood should look like. As our aging society faces difficult choices about how to pay for the promises made to its oldest members, the child-bearing decisions made by millennials will form the tax base for social programs for decades to come, shape the nation’s labor force, and, in turn, affect the immigration debate.
Will more millennials find religion?
There is arguably no area where millennials are more distinct from older generations than religious identity and practice. As many as 35 percent are religiously unaffiliated, identifying their religion as atheist, agnostic—or nothing in particular. Much smaller shares of Generation X (23 percent), baby boomers (17 percent), and members of the silent generation (11 percent) say they are religiously unaffiliated. And even among millennials who are affiliated with a religion, they are less observant on several key indicators than are their older counterparts.
Belief in God remains widespread, and many millennials are devout members of faith communities. But while 82 percent of millennials say they believe in God, far fewer (52 percent) say they are absolutely certain about their belief, and just 41 percent say that religion is very important in their lives. In fact, most millennials (57 percent) say they attend religious services only a few times a year or not at all.
There are no signs that the youngest millennials, or the next wave of young adults, are set to reverse the trend of declining religiosity. In fact, surveys show that the share of Americans who are raised with no religion is growing and that those raised with no religion are increasingly likely to remain religiously unaffiliated as adults.
While it’s too soon to know the answers to these questions, there’s one thing we know for sure: Having already played a major role in remaking the American opinion landscape, millennials are poised to bring their unique perspective to new levels of influence. They are set to take on larger roles in American society, both privately in how they define family and home, and in public life as they alter the national conversation on divisive issues. As they advance in their careers, they will help reshape the workplace. And as they run for local, state, and national political office, they have the potential to transform policies that affect every American’s daily life.
Alec Tyson is a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center.