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How the values, uphill optimism of the Millennials compare to older generations

March 19, 2014 at 6:42 PM EST
Each generation leaves a unique imprint. “The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown” sheds light on how today’s youngest adults differ from and clash with their parents and grandparents. Author Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center joins Judy Woodruff to discuss what distinguishes today’s Americans aged 18-33.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, there’s the so-called silent generation, the boomers, Generation X, and most recently the millennials. Each has left, and is leaving, an imprint unique to their times.

But now we know more about the ways the youngest adults differ from and clash with their parents and grandparents. That’s the focus of the new book “The Next America: Boomers, Millennials and the Looming Generational Showdown” by Paul Taylor, the executive vice president of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

I talked with him recently.

Paul Taylor, it’s great to have you back on the program.

PAUL TAYLOR, Pew Research Center: What a pleasure. What a pleasure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So let’s talk about this. The looming showdown, what do you mean by that? And, as you talk, I want our audience to look at how we break down those age groups just to remind everybody.

But what do you mean by looming generational showdown?

PAUL TAYLOR: Well, there is a book about demographic change and its generational equity.

The country has gone through two massive demographic changes simultaneously. We’re becoming a majority non-white nation. In 1960, we were 85 percent white. By 2060, we will be 42 percent white. At the same time, we’re going gray; 10,000 baby boomers a day, today, turned 65. Another 10,000 tomorrow will turn 65. This continues every single day until 2030, at which point we have doubled the number of people on Social Security and Medicare and those systems don’t work anymore.

So what this book does is look at those changes and it looks at the potential generational conflicts they set up, because young and old today, because of these changes, don’t look alike, they don’t think alike and they don’t vote alike. And we are going to have to figure out how to rebalance our social safety net to make it work in the 21st century with a lot of political differences between young and old.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And big challenges.

And, again, I just want to remind everybody what those age groups are, the millennials 18-33 years old today, Gen X 34-39 today, the boomers 50 — the big group — 50-68, and the silent, 69-86.

But let’s talk about the politics. You mentioned they have very different views. You found — and, again, I did some reporting on this a number of years ago and it’s interesting how many of the things we saw then remained true for this millennial generation. They think of themselves, more of them, as independents than any generation at their age.

PAUL TAYLOR: One of the things we found fascinating is that they are not anchored to some of the traditional institutions of society.

They’re politically independent at the highest levels we have ever measured. Fifty percent say, I’m an independent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

PAUL TAYLOR: They’re unaffiliated with religion, again highest levels we have measured. About three in 10 say, I have no religious affiliation.

And they’re not getting married. One in four today of the 18-to-32-year-olds are married. That’s about half the number of their parents’ generation when they were the same age. The fact that they’re politically independent doesn’t mean that they don’t have strong political views. They do. They have now been in the election — in the electorate for two or three national election cycles, and they have come in as the mostly strong Democratic voting cohort in the 40 or 50 years that we have been measuring these things.

So they’re socially liberal. They’re politically liberal. They believe in an active government. They just don’t like the idea of attaching themselves to big organizations. They attach themselves instead to their friends through social networking sites. That’s the way they organize their lives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it is interesting, because, as you say, when you add the millennials who identify themselves as Democrats, and you add leaners, you get about 50 percent of this age group.

PAUL TAYLOR: That’s right. No, there’s no mistaking them as a distinctive liberal cohort, just not affiliated to parties and other institutions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One other thing — and there is so much to talk about from this book, Paul Taylor, but a little bit of a contradiction here. You start out talking about how this may be the generation, first one in our memory, younger generation, who may grow up to be not as well-off as their parents.

On the other hand, this is an optimistic generation.

PAUL TAYLOR: Very optimistic.

And maybe that’s just the timeless optimism of youth, but the economic circumstances are very striking for this generation. And it’s — quite frankly, it’s one of the other reasons why so few are getting married, even though they’re now well into their 20s and early 30s. We asked them, do you want to get married? Do you value marriage? And most millennials say yes.

Well, why haven’t you gotten married yet? And the most common response is I don’t have the economic foundation to be a good provider.

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot of them are living at home.

PAUL TAYLOR: And a lot of them are still living with mom and dad, because that turns out to be a good place to go when you can’t find a job and you can’t make ends meet.

But of all the economic indicators that we track, whether it’s poverty rates, whether it’s employment, whether it’s unemployment, whether it’s wealth, today’s millennials are doing worse than the Xers or the boomers were doing at the same stage of the life cycle. And this is new.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how do you explain this view that 49 percent, half of them are upbeat about America’s future?

PAUL TAYLOR: Most young adults are — they’re not only upbeat, by the way, about America’s future. They’re upbeat about their own future.

We ask the question of adults of all ages, do you have enough money now or do you think you will eventually have enough money to live the life you want to lead? And 85 percent of millennials say, eventually, yes, it’s all going to work out fine. And then we ask about the country’s future. Millennials are upbeat.

If you go back to the boomers, who had their complaints about the America of the ’60s and ’70s, they were much less upbeat in their youth about the future of the country. I think this is something distinctive about this generation. They know they have been dealt a lousy hand in terms of the economy.

The 32-year-olds who today — think about when they got out of school, and think about the economy they have faced over the last six or seven years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Financial collapse.

PAUL TAYLOR: The ones who didn’t go beyond high school have had a terrible time. The ones who did it right and went to college are saddled with this enormous student debt that’s an albatross to them getting started.

Yet, I don’t know whether it’s the way they were raised. There’s been very nurturing parental norms that brought them up. I don’t know whether it’s the sense of empowerment that comes from being digital natives, comes from organizing your lives around the technology that allows you to sort of place yourself at the center of the network that you have created. It’s empowering. But they believe in the future. They think it’s going to work out all right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They have got a lot of years for us to try to figure it out. They are a fascinating generation.

Paul Taylor with Pew Research Center, thank you.

PAUL TAYLOR: Thanks, Judy. Thank you very much.