Millennials on the move

Obama for America

Article Highlights

  • Young people often lead change, and two new surveys provide some clues as to where that change is headed

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  • While a solid majority of millennials, 57%, currently approve of the job Obama is doing, 73% approved in February '09

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  • Demographically the millennials are distinct. They are more racially diverse than in the past

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Young people often lead change, and two new surveys provide some clues as to where that change is headed.

Last week the Pew Research Center released its new report on "millennials," who the survey defined as 18- to 29-year-olds. At 50 million strong, the group is larger than the boomer generation, so we can expect its members, as they age, to exert disproportionate influence on everything from politics to fashion.

"The president's ratings on handling the economy have dropped 22 percentage points among millennials since April 2009." --Karlyn Bowman

Barack Obama did extraordinarily well among millennials in 2008: 62% of 18- to 29-year-olds voted for him vs. only 32% for John McCain. The way you cast your first vote can anchor you as you age, and Obama's big margin suggested he had an opportunity to cement a generational allegiance to the Democratic Party, like Franklin Roosevelt before him. Those who came of age politically during the Roosevelt era became wedded to the Democratic Party and carried their Democratic identification with them as they got older.

Interestingly, 18- to 29-year-olds are the only age group to give the president majority support today.

The evidence a year after the election, however, isn't as promising for the president. While a solid majority of millennials, 57%, currently approve of the job Obama is doing as president, a whopping 73% gave their approval in February 2009. (Interestingly, 18- to 29-year-olds are the only age group to give the president majority support today.) The president's ratings on handling the economy have dropped 22 percentage points among millennials since April 2009 (from 66% to 44% in January 2010) and 17 points on handling health care (from 63% to 46%).

Fifty-four percent of millennials identified themselves as Democrats (and 40% as Republicans) in Pew's fourth-quarter 2009 data, but the Democrats' advantage was much larger a year earlier. Not only are the president's marks lower, but the early enthusiasm young people showed for him didn't carry over to Democrats in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections in 2008 nor in the Massachusetts Senate election this year. In fairness to Obama and the Democrats, millennials are hardly warming to the Republicans. When asked how they will vote this fall, 37% of millennials say they will vote for a Republican and 51% for a Democrat.

Demographically the millennials are distinct. They are more racially diverse than in the past. Today 61% are white, 20% Hispanic, 14% black and 5% Asian; in 1972 the age cohort was 90% white. Millennials are more accepting of interracial dating and interracial marriage than older groups. They are also more supportive of immigration and less likely to worry about assimilation.

Although they express more liberal attitudes than older people on most social issues, they split pretty evenly on ideological identification: 32% call themselves moderates, 29% liberals and 29% conservatives. This should raise some questions about their possible long-term allegiance to the Democratic Party.

Furthermore millennials display some conservative family values. Nineteen percent of in Pew's survey said they grew up in divorced homes. Most of their mothers work outside the home. Their life experiences may explain why they place strong emphasis on having good marriages and being good parents. These conservative values seem to have extended to the younger generation as well: A survey for the Girl Scouts done by Harris Interactive suggests teens and tweens are less likely than 20 years ago to think smoking is OK (27% in 1989, 18% now), more likely to say they will wait until marriage to have sex (24% to 33% now) and more likely to say they would refuse a drink at a party (36% to 58% now). However, like their older brothers and sisters in the millennial survey, they value diversity and accept homosexuality.

The millennials are somewhat more pessimistic than other age groups about where they are financially today. That's hardly surprising. They are at the bottom of the ladder and just starting out. But they are very optimistic about their prospects. Two-thirds told Gallup in a 2003 survey that they would be rich.

And, as all of us know, they are tech-savvy. Eighty-three percent in the Pew poll say they sleep with their cellphones or keep them nearby at night. As for fashion, 38% sport tattoos, but of that group, 72% say the tattoos are hidden.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.

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