America is a very young nation. For most of its relatively short history, certain generational trends and patterns were fairly consistent. Americans were born and raised in generation after generation with certain expectations for their lives – what patterns they would follow, how they would grow up, and what path they would traverse as they travel through life. You grow up; you go to school; you at least take a swing at college; you meet somebody where you worship, study, work, or drink; you get married; you buy a place to live; you raise a family; you become part of a community. The paths and expectations regarding these goals have changed over time, but within the current Millennial generation, they may be undergoing a more thorough evolution – one which could alter the state of American political and cultural life in previously unanticipated ways. There are several trends which have gone on for too long now, and have too many historically unprecedented aspects, to be merely dismissed as the temporary consequence of the economic downturn or exceptions that prove a rule.
What we know about Millennials is:
“Along with the decline in marriages among 18- to 29-year-olds in the U.S. in recent years, Gallup trends on Americans’ living arrangements reveal that the percentage of young adults “living together” has hardly budged. This means that not only are fewer young adults married, but also that fewer are in committed relationships. As a result, the percentage of young adults who report being single and not living with someone has risen dramatically in the past decade, from 52% in 2004 to 64% in 2014… [I]t is also evident among adults aged 30 to 39, creeping up from 15% to 19% over the same period. The important question for society is whether the dramatic shift in living arrangements seen among 20-somethings persists into their 30s, furthering the revolution in U.S. household and family structure.”
“Overall, 35% of adult Millennials (Americans born between 1981 and 1996) are religiously unaffiliated. Far more Millennials say they have no religious affiliation compared with those who identify as evangelical Protestants (21%), Catholics (16%) or mainline Protestants (11%). Although older generations also have grown somewhat more religiously unaffiliated in recent years, Millennials remain far more likely to identify as religious “nones.” The 35% of Millennials who do not identify with a religion is double the share of unaffiliated Baby Boomers (17%) and more than three times the share of members of the Silent generation (11%).”
“A report released last week by the Urban Institute found that millennial women are reproducing at the slowest pace of any generation in U.S. history. Childbearing fell steeply in the years immediately following the “Great Recession,” with birthrates among women in their 20s declining more than 15 percent between 2007 and 2012… Johnson estimates that roughly 500,000 fewer babies are now being born per year than would have been the case had the higher fertility rates of the mid-2000s continued. He says it’s too soon to say whether millennial women will take after the lastingly lower fertility rates of their Great Depression-era predecessors or whether they’ve simply put off childbearing temporarily while they get their finances, careers and educations in order.”
“When I moved into my first apartment years later, my stovetop seemed foreign and intimidating. At one point during graduate school, in a particularly tiny Bay Area apartment, I used my oven as a filing cabinet. Now, at age 32, after three years of marriage, my husband and I find ourselves wanting to sit down to a nice home-cooked dinner at the end of the day. But we’re too busy and too inexperienced in the kitchen to make that happen. We eat out a lot, often hitting up Chipotle or our local Vietnamese place on the way home from work, behavior fairly typical of our demographic. Millennials spend more on food outside the home than any other generation, averaging 50.75 a week. As the two of us consider starting a family, we worry about how our culinary ineptitude will impact our future children. We are beginning to wonder whether we even have what it takes to put a proper, nutritious dinner on the table for our little ones.” Sewing and laundry too.
The overall picture is of a generation that has largely delayed or avoided the trappings and responsibilities of adulthood. This is a generalization, of course – plenty of Millennials are following the previously normal paths through life – but it does represent changes in behavior on the parts of millions of Americans. As a political matter, whether these shifts are enough to alter the character of the electorate remains to be seen – but I don’t believe it’s a question any longer of whether they have altered the culture. Americans are dramatically changing how they live and work and form households, and that has consequences.