America’s increasingly detached youth

Religion is not the only organized institution that young Americans are becoming detached from.

According to Paul Taylor, Pew Research Center’s executive vice president for special projects and author of the new book “The Next America.” young American’s 18-33 are unmoored from three anchor institutions of society — political parties, organized religion and marriage.”

Most of the data in the Pew report (released 3/7/14 came from a February 2014 telephone survey of 1,821 adults with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6%.

About 49% of millennials think the nation’s best years are ahead, the survey said. That’s a higher percentage than among older baby boomers (44% feel the same way), and Generation X (42%).

But half of millennials describe themselves as unaffiliated political independents. Also, about three in 10 (29%) say they are not affiliated with any religion.

“These are at or near the highest levels of political and religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation in the quarter-century that the Pew Research Center has been polling on these topics,” the report said, and just 26% of the millennial generation is married.

That’s a much lower percentage than when other generations were in the same age range.

Young Americans have forged a distinctive path into adulthood. Ranging in age from 18 to 33 they are relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry— yet optimistic about the future.

In all of these dimensions, they are different from today’s older generations. And in many, they are also different from older adults back when they were the age Millennials are now.

Pew Research Center surveys show that 50% of them now describe themselves as political independents and 29% say they are not affiliated with any religion.

These are at or near the highest levels of political and religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation in the quarter-century that the Pew Research Center has been polling on these topics.

At the same time, however, Millennials stand out for voting heavily Democratic and for liberal views on many political and social issues, ranging from a belief in an activist government to support for same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization.

These findings are based on a new Pew Research Center survey conducted Feb. 14-23, 2014 among 1,821 adults nationwide, including 617 Millennial adults, and analysis of other Pew Research Center surveys conducted between 1990 and 2014.

Millennials have also been keeping their distance from another core institution of society—marriage. Just 26% of this generation is married. When they were the age that Millennials are now, 36% of Generation X (34-49), 48% of Baby Boomers (50-68) and 65% of the members of the Silent Generation (69-86) were married.

Most unmarried Millennials (69%) say they would like to marry, but many, especially those with lower levels of income and education, lack a solid economic foundation.

Adults of all ages have become less attached to political and religious institutions in the past decade, but Millennials are at the leading edge of this social phenomenon.

They have also taken the lead in seizing on the new platforms of the digital era—the internet, mobile technology, social media—to construct personalized networks of friends, colleagues and affinity groups.

Thus, 81% of Millennials are on Facebook, where a median friend count is 250, far higher than that of older age groups (these digital generation gaps have narrowed somewhat in recent years).

Those 18-33 year olds have emerged into adulthood with low levels of social trust. In response to a long-standing social science survey question, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people,” just 19% of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31% of Gen Xers, 37% of Silents and 40% of Boomers.

They are also somewhat more upbeat than older adults about America’s future, with 49% of Millennials saying the country’s best days are ahead, a view held by 42% of Gen Xers, 44% of Boomers and 39% of Silents.

The relative optimism of today’s young adults stands in contrast to the views of Boomers when they were about the same age as Millennials are now.

In a 1974 Gallup survey, only about half of adults under the age of 30 said they had “quite a lot” of confidence in America’s future, compared with seven-in-ten of those ages 30 and older.

Boomers came of age in the late 1960s and 1970s, helping to lead the civil rights, women’s rights, anti-war and counter-cultural movements of that turbulent era.

In 1972, the first presidential election in which large numbers of Boomers were eligible to vote, they skewed much more Democratic than their elders.

But attitudes formed in early adulthood don’t always stay fixed. In the latest Pew Research survey, about 53% of all Boomers say their political views have grown more conservative as they have aged, while just 35% say they have grown more liberal.

Millennials are also the first in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor

Perhaps because of their slow journey to marriage, Millennials lead all generations in the share of out-of-wedlock births. In 2012, 47% of births to women in the Millennial generation were non-marital, compared with 21% among older women.

Some of this gap reflects a life cycle effect—older women have always been less likely to give birth outside of marriage.

But the gap is also driven by a shift in behaviors in recent decades. In 1996, when Gen Xers were about the same age that Millennials were in 2012, just 35% of births to that generation’s mothers were outside of marriage (compared with 15% among older women in 1996).

Millennials join their elders in disapproving of this trend. About six-in-ten adults in all four generations say that more children being raised by a single parent is bad for society; this is the most negative evaluation by the public of any of the changes in family structure tested in the Pew Research survey.

But more than eight-in-ten say they either currently have enough money to lead the lives they want (32%) or expect to in the future (53%). No other cohort of adults is nearly as confident, though when Gen Xers were the age Millennials are now, they were equally upbeat about their own economic futures.

Some of this optimism, therefore, may simply reflect the timeless confidence of youth.

The confidence of Millennials in their long-term economic prospects is notable in light of another finding: Fully half of Millennials (51%) say they do not believe there will be any money for them in the Social Security system by the time they are ready to retire, and an additional 39% say the system will only be able to provide them with retirement benefits at reduced levels.

Just 6% expect to receive Social Security benefits at levels enjoyed by current retirees.

Not only do half of all Millennials choose not to identify with either political party, just 31% say there is a great deal of difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. More people in older generations, including 58% of Silents, say there are big differences between the parties.

Even so, this generation stood out in the past two presidential elections as strikingly Democratic. According to national exit polls, the young-old partisan voting gaps in 2008 and 2012 were among the largest in the modern era, with Millennials far more supportive than older generations of Barack Obama.

As Obama’s approval ratings have declined in recent years, however, Millennials have lowered their assessments even more. Add disillusioned to disaffected and disaffiliated.

Yet Millennials continue to view the Democratic Party more favorably than the Republican Party. And Millennials today are still the only generation in which liberals are not significantly outnumbered by conservatives.

Millennials’ liberalism is apparent in their views on a range of social issues such as same-sex marriage, interracial marriage and marijuana legalization. In all of these realms, they are more liberal than their elders.

However, on some other social issues—including abortion and gun control—the views of Millennials are not much different from those of older adults.

This generation’s religious views and behaviors are quite different from older age groups. Not only are they less likely than older generations to be affiliated with any religion, they are also less likely to say they believe in God.

A solid majority still do—86%—but only 58% say they are “absolutely certain” that God exists, a lower share than among older adults, according to a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.

But if past is prologue, these young adults may develop a stronger belief in God over the course of their lives, just as previous generations have.

In response to questions in the latest Pew Research survey about how they think of themselves, Millennials are much less inclined than older adults to self-identify as either religious or patriotic.

For example, only about half (49%) of Millennials say the phrase “a patriotic person” describes them very well—with 35% saying this is a “perfect” description.13 By contrast, 64% of Gen Xers, 75% of Boomers and 81% of Silents say this describes them very well. This gap may be due more to their age and stage in life than a characteristic of their generation.

When Gen Xers were young, they too lagged behind their elders on this measure in a similarly worded question.

Millennials are also somewhat less likely than older adults to describe themselves as environmentalists—just 32% say this describes them very well, compared with at least four-in-ten among all older generations.

On the other hand, they are far more likely to say they are supporters of gay rights—some 51% do so, compared with 37% of Gen Xers and about a third of older adults.

As is the case within any generation, Millennials are not all alike. They are a diverse group with a myriad of views on many of the important issues of their time. Cultural arbiters have yet to determine how young the youngest Millennials are, or when the next generation begins.

And some political analysts have suggested that older and younger Millennials may differ in terms of their political views and party allegiances.

But an analysis of Pew Research surveys conducted in 2014 shows that the shares of younger and older Millennials who identify with the Democratic Party are roughly comparable.

White and non-white Millennials have different views on the role of government as well. On balance, white Millennials say they would prefer a smaller government that provides fewer services (52%), rather than a bigger government that provides more services (39%).

Non-white Millennials lean heavily toward a bigger government: 71% say they would prefer a bigger government that provides more services, while only 21% say they would prefer a smaller government. The racial gaps are about as wide among Gen Xers and Boomers.

I am not a prophet or the son of a prophet but I foresee a much more detached and uncommitted generation growing increasing subject to existential anomie in America’s future.

God willing, the generation after them will stabilize our country again.

Rabbi Maller’s web site is:

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.