The disconnected generation
Millennials choose the path of least resistance.

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Article Highlights

  • Politically, 50% of Millennials classify themselves as independents rather than as Dems or Repubs.

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  • 60% of Millennials voted for Obama in 2012. Now, only 49% approve of Obama's performance.

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  • Some 29% of Millennials are religiously unaffiliated, a percentage that has been rising in recent years.

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  • Nearly half, 43%, of Millennials are non-white — about 20% Hispanic, 15% black, and 8% Asian and other.

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When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in 1830, he was struck by how many Americans were participating in voluntary associations. It was quite a contrast with his native France, where power was centralized in Paris and people did not trust each other enough to join in voluntary groups.

Tocqueville might have a different impression should he, utilizing time travel, visit the America of 2030. Or so I conclude on reading the recently released Pew Research Center report on the attitudes and behavior of America’s Millennial generation.

By then the Millennials, people born after 1980, will be closing in on age 50 and will be the dominant segment of the working-age population.

Today the Millennials, write the Pew analysts, are “relatively unattached to organized politics and religion,” and significantly more unattached than the age cohorts — Generation Xers, Baby Boomers, the Silent Generation — that came before.

Politically, 50 percent of Millennials classify themselves as independents rather than as Democrats or Republicans, compared with about 36 percent of their elders, and less than one-third of Millennials see a great deal of difference between the political parties.

Large majorities of Millennials voted for Barack Obama — 66 percent in 2008 and 60 percent in 2012. But only 49 percent approve of his performance now, just a bit more than among Xers and Boomers. Only 34 percent of white Millennials rate Obama’s performance positively.

On religion, most Millennials say they believe in God, but it’s a smaller majority than among older age groups, and only 36 percent say they see themselves as “a religious person,” versus nearly 60 percent of their elders.

Some 29 percent of Millennials are religiously unaffiliated, a percentage that has been rising in recent years. They’re evidently moving away from their parents’ religion but not toward one of their own.

One reason may be that people tend to join churches when they marry and have children — and Millennials, so far, aren’t doing much of either. Only 26 percent of Millennials age 18 to 32 are married, far lower than other generations were at their age (Xers: 36 percent; Boomers: 48 percent; Silents: 65 percent).

Millennials aren’t entirely rejecting parenthood, but 47 percent of births to Millennial women are outside marriage. Even so, about 60 percent of Millennials, like their elders, say that having more children raised by a single parent is bad for society.

Unlike Tocqueville’s Americans, and unlike the generations just before them, Millennials seem to be avoiding marriage, church, and political affiliation and to lack a sense of social trust. Only 19 percent say that, generally speaking, most people can be trusted, compared with 31 to 40 percent among older generations.

This is in line with Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam’s thesis that social trust is declining in America. The Pew analysts speculate that this may result, as Putnam has uncomfortably concluded, from increasing racial diversity.

Nearly half, 43 percent, of Millennials are non-white — about 20 percent Hispanic, 15 percent black, and 8 percent Asian and other. Non-white percentages are much lower among the more trusting Boomers (28 percent) and Silents (21 percent).

Racial divisions are mirrored in political attitudes, with white Millennials souring on Obama and his party, Hispanics doing so to some extent (according to other surveys), but blacks remaining loyal.

So whom do Millennials trust? Their friends, those they are connected to in digital social networks. Some 81 percent of Millennials are on Facebook, with a median 250 friend count, and 55 percent have shared a selfie.

The picture we get from the Pew numbers is of a largely disconnected generation, in touch with self-selected peers and distrustful of others. They are more likely to be college-educated but also to be hobbled by college-loan debt. They’re not doing as well economically as their elders were at their age, but they’re eerily optimistic about their economic future (only 14 percent think they won’t earn enough to lead the life they want).

A Tocqueville arriving in 2030 will see whether these optimistic expectations are met, and whether the Millennials’ connections to marriage and parenthood, religion, and political party were just delayed or never widely established.

He will see whether the absence of a universal popular culture aimed at everyone, like what America had from the 1920s to the 1980s, has caused atrophying social disconnectedness and trust, or whether the Millennials have managed somehow to turn current trends around. Good luck.

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