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Millennials Study Captures Snapshot of Young America

February 24, 2010 at 7:20 PM EDT
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Judy Woodruff takes a look at how the millennial generation -- people born after 1980 -- fits into the current political and economic spectrum. The Pew Center's Paul Taylor and Amanda Lenhart discuss their new report.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: They are 18 to 29 years old. There are some 50 million of them, and they’re often called the millennial generation.

Today, they were the subject of a conference at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The event, for which I served as moderator, coincided with the release of a comprehensive national study conducted by the Pew Research Center.

Among its findings: Millennials are the most diverse generation in U.S. history. Only 61 percent are white, 19 percent Hispanic, 14 percent black, and 5 percent Asian. That contrasts with those 30 and older, a group that is 70 percent white.

The study also found that millennials are voracious users of new technologies, from smartphones to social networking sites. When respondents were asked if they sleep with their cell phone nearby, 83 percent of millennials said they did, far more than their parents or grandparents.

LINDSEY LONGENDYKE, member of millennial generation: I just got my iPhone for Christmas, actually, from my boyfriend. And it’s probably my favorite possession. It’s the best possession I have ever owned. It blows my mind every day everything that it can do.

JOSEPH MICKENS, member of millennial generation: Well, I text about 150 times a day. I go check my e-mail every day, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, tag, all the, you know, social sites, so, yes, the iPhone. You know, I play video games all the time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The report also found that millennials are the most liberal generation and have different views about the role of government. They are the only generation for which a majority of respondents said government should do more, rather than less.

RAVI BUCK, member of millennial generation: I think, after seeing some of the stuff that happened in the previous administration, I really feel there’s a lot we can do this time around. And it’s not necessarily all going to be private sector. It’s going to be the government. There’s only so much Microsoft, Google, as an individual company, can say, vs. America as the aggregate.

JAISHRI ATRI, member of millennial generation: Right when I get out of med school, my goal is to go around the world and bring aid to people who are underserved and underprivileged in foreign countries, and then eventually bring it back to America and serve people in my own country, in my own home state, and, you know, just basically promoting education, promoting — promoting awareness, and helping improve the quality of life of other people, because, I don’t know, there’s just — that just seems like the main goal of living a good life, you know, helping other people get there, too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that willingness to serve, another characteristic of the millennial generation.

And a note: The Pew survey is a follow-on to work Pew and the “NewsHour” collaborated on a few years ago, looking at millennials, under the heading of Generation Next.

Well, we are joined now by two key contributors to the study. Paul Taylor is the executive vice president of the Pew Research Center and a former political reporter. And Amanda Lenhart, she directs the Pew Internet and American Life Project’s research on teens, children and families.

Thank you both for being here. It was good to be with you today.

Paul, Pew has been interested in this subject for several years, I know, because we have worked with you. Why this study?

PAUL TAYLOR, executive vice president, Pew Research Center: Well, why this generation?

Arguably, this is the most consequential generation of young adults, perhaps since the baby boomers, who famously made a lot of noise in the ’60s and were part of a counterculture movement.

This generation is also making a lot of noise. It made a tremendous amount of noise politically in 2008, when it voted more differently from older voters than at any time since the 18-to-20-year-olds have had a vote. And they turned out in very big numbers.

Now, politically, they may be in a slightly different place 15 months later than they were then, but they have sent a message: We — we intend to be involved in the political process. We have very strong views.

They are more liberal than their elders. They are more Democratic — capital-D Democratic — than their elders. But, as your setup piece points out, they are very different in other ways as well: technology use. They are the edge of the sword, if you will. We’re all going through a digital revolution.

These young adults are getting there faster than the rest of us, and they’re doing more — more different things. And then they are — they’re tolerant. They’re tolerant of new arrangements. They’re tolerant of immigrants. They’re tolerant of new family arrangements, gay couples raising children, interracial marriage. It — it all seems natural to them.

And, finally, just in terms of how distinctive they are, they are a very expressive generation. The new technology gives them the ability to go on a digital platform and say to their friends or the people they care about, here’s what I’m doing right now. Here’s a video of what I did yesterday.

And they take advantage of that. You also see their expressiveness, however, in their offline behaviors as well. I noticed that one of the fellows…

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s right.

PAUL TAYLOR: … one of the fellows in your setup piece is sporting a tattoo on his neck. Thirty-eight percent of this age group has a tattoo. And of those who have a tattoo, one is not enough.

PAUL TAYLOR: Half have two to five, and 18 percent have six or more. So, they — they — they’re out there. They want to let us know who they are. And they want to use all means that are available to them to get there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So many things to talk about with this generation.

Amanda Lenhart, I want to talk to you about the technology piece, because that’s what you focus on. They — they practically were born with a cell phone at their side. We saw how much they like to sleep with one nearby.

AMANDA LENHART, director, Pew Internet and American Life Project: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Talk about, explain what that’s all about.

AMANDA LENHART: Well, as Paul mentioned, this generation uses a tremendous amount of technology. They really lead the way with most major technologies that you can think of, whether that’s using your cell phone just to make calls, that’s using your cell phone to text message, or even using your cell phone to go online.

They’re also big leaders in, as Paul said, expressing themselves online and connecting with others online, through things like social networks, connecting with friends. And it’s really an important part of their lives.

But I think it’s important to remember that they’re not controlled by this technology. It’s something we talked about today in the event that you and I were at, where, you know, young adults both use the technology as it’s presented to them, as designers created the technology, but they themselves also change the technology in the way that they use it, in ways that, in fact, the designers maybe never anticipated.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, what is it, three-fourths of them have a — use social networking, like Facebook and similar sources.

AMANDA LENHART: Absolutely. It’s incredibly important.

And it — it really does drive a lot of the ways that, you know, teens are communicating with each other. We actually saw in our research a decline in blogging. And we think a lot of that has to do — is because of the rise of certain kinds of social networks that ask for people to participate and talk to each other in particular ways, through short message updates, through micro-blogging.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s talk about the economy. This is a generation — I want to ask both of you about this — but, Amanda, this is a generation raised in fairly prosperous times, but now they’re hit by this great recession.

I think it was 38 percent of them don’t have a job or are out of the work force altogether, have stopped looking. And, yet, how they’re dealing with that or how they look upon that is interesting.

AMANDA LENHART: Yes, you’re absolutely right. I mean, our data suggests they are less likely to have a full-time job than even people of the same age in 2006. They’re more likely to have recently lost a job, and they’re also more likely to be staying in school, to try to even stay out of the work force.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Paul, this — this attitude, though, that they…

PAUL TAYLOR: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What was it? I — I saw one part of the poll. I think it said 80-some percent of them, almost 90 percent, overwhelmingly say they still think, at some point in their lives, they are going to earn enough money; they will be OK.

PAUL TAYLOR: This is what is striking. This — these 18-to-29-year-olds, in terms of unemployment, have been hammered more than any other age group by this recession. They either can’t get the first rung on the job ladder, or, if they got one, they’re maybe the first to go when the layoffs and other things have come.

So, as you say, a record share, at least going back 40 years or more, are either unemployed or out of the work force, 37 percent. Now, the flip side of that coin is, a record share are in college. They — this generation is on track to become the most-educated generation in our history. Some of that is a long-term trend. It’s a knowledge-based economy. Everybody knows that.

And you go — have to go get your credential. Some of that is a short-term reaction to the fact, look, I can’t get a job anyway. I might as well go to school.

One in eight of them have boomeranged back to mom and dad, because they can’t find anything out there and…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Living — living back home again.

PAUL TAYLOR: Living with their parents.

But what you mentioned is really quite striking. In spite of these hard economic times — and there’s a lot of economic research that says, if — if you start out in your life in your 20s in a bad economy like this, those impacts are — those effects are likely to linger with you in terms of being behind, in terms of earnings and career, for — for a decade or more.

In spite of all that, they are far more optimistic than older adults about their own economic future. And they feel better about the state of the country. This is a very confident generation. Maybe some of it is — is — is youth. Young people think they’re invincible.

But I think some of that is also the culture and the times in which they have been raised. They have been told by their parents they’re special, they…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

PAUL TAYLOR: … need to be protected. And — and they believe that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to touch, Paul, once, quickly — quickly, again, on something you said earlier, and that is the politics.

This is a generation that did vote 2-1 for Barack Obama, and they still like him. When you ask what they think, I mean, the support for him personally has not dropped off as much as it has for older generations. But their impression of the Democratic Party — or their identification with the Democratic Party has shown slippage.

PAUL TAYLOR: It has shown slippage. And their — their job approval over the course of 2009, as the country’s ratings of President Obama have — what kind of job he is doing, they have come down for all age groups, and millennials among them.

Now, millennials are coming down from a higher height, and they’re not coming down quite as far. But, listen, they bought into Barack Obama and his message of change big-time. And it’s a year later, and they haven’t seen that much change, and they’re asking themselves, you know, are we getting what — what we thought we got, and is politics able to deliver what we thought it might be able to with a change agent like Barack Obama?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — and I was just going to say, very quickly, Amanda, technology was a part of that campaign.

AMANDA LENHART: Absolutely. You know, certainly, technology played a huge role in mobilizing young people and getting them engaged and enthusiastic, because that’s where young people go now to do things like find information about news and politics online and to — and to engage with others.

And, so, absolutely, politics was a huge driver, and technology was a huge way of getting young people involved.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, so much to look at about this generation. It’s fascinating.

Paul Taylor, Amanda Lenhart, thank you both so much for coming in.

AMANDA LENHART: Thank you.

PAUL TAYLOR: My pleasure.