'Millennials' are optimistic, despite recession and war

March 9, 2010 | By Chuck Raasch

Americans under 30 are "confident, connected (and) open to change," a new report says.

They'd better be, with what their elders are leaving them.

The "Generation Next" study, released last week by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, says 18-to-29-year-olds — "Millennials" — remain optimistic, despite a job-killing recession, two wars and the threat of terrorism.

By a 2-1 margin, they helped elect President Obama. But they have somewhat soured on him. The Jan. 14-27 survey also showed that 48% of Millennials believe Obama hasn't changed the way things work in Washington, 5 points higher than "Generation Xers" age 30-45.

For some Millennials, debt is the scariest legacy.

"We have seen the policies that are being put into effect right now are going to affect us later on," said Maura Reilly, 21, a George Washington University from Westchester County, N.Y. "The government spending, the deficit rising — that is really going to affect my generation more than any other."

Despite these concerns, Pew's report portrays Millennials as optimistic, confident and quite different from the people their Boomer parents were in their late teens and 20s.

Neil Howe, one of the nation's top experts on generational differences, said Millennials have reversed Boomer trends on rising drug use and falling SAT scores. Millennials, he said, were born just as the nation refocused on child safety, and they know it.

"The last 25 years have seen one of the greatest childhood protection movements in American history," Howe said, citing the proliferation of "baby on board" bumper stickers, mandatory bicycle helmets, and national child-snatching alerts.

While their older brothers and sisters in Generation X say, "I can take care of myself," Howe said, "Millennials have no problem with shelter. They say, 'I get it, I'm special. You want to shelter me. ' "

In some respects, Millennials resemble what Pew calls the "silent majority" of people over 65. Majorities of Millennials want above all else to have good marriages and be good parents, and they respect their elders. Generally, they feel closer to their Boomer parents than Boomers did to theirs.

As the Pew report points out, Millennials also are more likely to have gay friends and be tolerant of gay partners raising children than other generations.

They also are what Pew calls "history's first always-connected generation," one that treats "multi-tasking handheld gadgets almost like a body part — for better or worse."

That's why experts like Howe argue that Millennials have shaped the new communications technology instead of allowing it to shape them. Kids who were kept out of the park because it was dangerous, or who couldn't ride their bikes through sprawling suburban neighborhoods yearned for new ways to connect. Hence, Facebook, Twitter, and the social networking that define a generation.

Obama's Facebook- and Twitter-friendly campaign was home to younger Americans, some of whom are trying to push the president and others to apply social networking to government.

Eli Pariser, 29, who helped found the liberal online group MoveOn.org, thinks members of Congress should telecommute from their districts and spend less time in Washington. That way, he said, lawmakers might develop stronger affiliations with their constituents than with lobbyists or interest groups.

Pew's survey of 2,020 adults offers this profile of Millennials:

  • They're more racially diverse than their elders. Sixty-one percent are white, 19% are Hispanic, 14% are black and 5% are Asian. Those older than 30 are 70% white, 13% Hispanic, 11% black and 5% Asian.
  • The burden of war is being spread over only a few. Only 2% of men from 18-29 are military veterans. When Generation Xers were that age, 6% were veterans. Thirteen percent of Boomers were and 24% of those over 65 were, according to the study.

Pew Executive Vice President Paul Taylor called the low percentage of young veterans "a profound shift ... in the classic pathway to adulthood."

  • Three out of four Millennials have a profile on a social networking site, compared with 30% of Boomers and 6% of those over 65. In one troubling finding, 64% of Millennials said they had sent or received a text message while driving. Only 21% of Boomers admitted they had.
  • Some 38% of Millennials say they have a tattoo, compared with 32% of Generation Xers, 15% of Boomers, and 6% of those over 65.