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Most liberal generation believes nation’s best days are ahead

Choose your truism. Millennials are the most diverse, tolerant, connected, educated and idealistic generation ever. Or the most narcissistic, lazy, entitled, coddled, distrustful and disconnected.

Or the most downwardly mobile, debt-ridden, unlaunched, unmarried, unchurched and apolitical. Or a great bunch of kids who play nicely with others, love their parents, respect their elders, want to save the planet and can’t catch a break.

Each of these cliches — and all their wondrous Jekyll-and-Hyde contradictions — has been around for a quite a while. So have millennials. They’re not kids anymore; the oldest are 35.

Since the turn of the millennium, when they began what has turned out to be a slow walk toward adulthood, they’ve been a big, shiny object of media hyperventilation, what with their tattoos, participation trophies, backward baseball caps, online mating rituals and selfies, selfies, selfies.

This year’s presidential campaign finds them in their familiar perch, right in the middle of the Zeitgeist. After going big for Bernie Sanders in the primaries, they’re the most intriguing swing voters (or nonvoters) of the fall campaign. At 77 million strong, they’re now the largest generation in the electorate, workforce and population, a distinction they’ll keep for decades.

What kind of citizens will they be? Employees? Spouses? Parents? What kind of America will they build?

Here are 12 observations about what makes millennials tick, based on attitudinal surveys, voting data, and economic and demographic trend analysis, followed by a closing thought about what the generations can learn from one another.

They are liberal lions ...

Millennials are America’s most liberal generation by far. Just ask Mitt Romney. Had he waged the 2012 presidential campaign only among voters 30 and older, he would have won by 2 million votes instead of losing by 5 million.

Might they change over time? Can Republicans find comfort in the maxim attributed to Winston Churchill: If you’re not a liberal at age 20, you have no heart; if you’re not a conservative at age 40, you have no brain?

Not likely. Millennials’ liberalism derives largely from something they’ll never age out of: their diversity. They’re the transitional generation to America’s majority nonwhite future.

Diversity not only defines their identity, it’s the beating heart of their political value system. On the central social, economic and cultural issues of our time — same-sex marriage, immigration, economic inequality, criminal justice — millennials tilt left out of empathy for out-groups of all stripes. To them, pluralism isn’t a challenge to be managed; it’s an ideal to be celebrated, and the wind at America’s back.

... Who might not roar

The harder question about millennials isn’t who they’ll vote for this fall, but whether they’ll vote at all. During this year’s Democratic primaries, turnout declined from 2008 among all age cohorts, even the Bernie Bro millennials.

Worse, in the 2014 midterm general elections, just 19.9 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted, a record low and well below the 26.6 percent average for this age group in off-year elections over the past four decades.

Millennials have plenty of reasons to be apolitical. They’ve come of age in an era in which technology keeps reinventing most realms of modern life, while government seems stuck in an endless loop of partisan gridlock. Many believe politics is rigged, both parties are beholden to big-money donors and voting is futile. A record 50 percent say they are independents; no generation has ever been so unmoored from the two-party system.

They’re downwardly mobile

As the first downwardly mobile generation in modern American history, millennials have less wealth, lower household income, more debt and higher rates of poverty than their parents’ generation had at the same stage of the life cycle.

Here’s one data trend that tells this story: In 1983 the median household headed by someone over age 65 had eight times the wealth of the median household headed by someone under age 35. Not surprising; people generally accumulate wealth as they age. But by 2013, according to the Federal Reserve Board, that ratio had ballooned to 20-to-1.

During the intervening three decades, the wealth of the typical older household grew by 75 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars, while the wealth of the typical younger household fell by 31 percent.

They’re unlaunched

These economic storms, the byproduct of decades of globalization and automation, have driven a record share of millennials to a place that most didn’t expect to be at in this stage of their lives: back to mom and dad.

For the first time in more than a century, more millennial-age young adults were living in their parents’ home (32 percent) than with a spouse or romantic partner in their own household.

They’re unmarried

Just 26 percent of millennials are married, half the share of their parents’ generation when they were the age that millennials are now.

Most millennials say they’d like to marry, but a mix of factors is holding them back. Partly it’s a commitment phobia fostered by an online-dating culture that promises a new partner just a click or swipe away.

But by far the biggest impediment to marriage is economic. Most millennials who haven’t married say it’s because they lack the economic foundation. The sharpest declines in marriage have been at the lower end of the socio-economic scale.

Unfortunately, these choices tend to be self-fulfilling. Throughout human history, marriage has promoted prosperity, with its economies of scale, division of labor and incentives to save for the future.

The retreat from marriage has led to a rise in births to single mothers. They now make up 40 percent of all births, up from 5 percent in 1960. This trend has unfolded even as the share of teenage girls who give birth has dropped by 60 percent. Single parenting these days is mostly a millennial phenomenon.

They’re gender role benders

Gender roles are converging, both at home and work, and millennials are in the vanguard of this social revolution.

Most Americans of all ages (and both genders) welcome the rise in gender equality at home and work. Nevertheless, some traditional norms persist. Most adults today say it’s better for young children if their mothers stay home to raise them; only a small minority says the same thing about fathers.

Given these mixed signals, it’s no surprise that millennial women report feeling more stress than their male counterparts around work-life balance.

However, today’s young women are also much more likely than young men to say they feel a sense of purpose in life, to say things have worked out better for them than expected, and to place greater importance on marriage, children and making the world a better place.

Young women account for nearly 6 in 10 new college graduates, a mirror-image reversal of the gender patterns of four decades ago. At work they’ve nearly closed the gender pay gap with millennial men, though history suggests that the gaps will widen as they age.

Overall, millennial women appear to be adapting to the work, family and educational demands of the 21st century better than their male counterparts, many of whom are struggling to find their footing and life scripts in a knowledge-based economy.

They’re upbeat

Despite the economic challenges millennials of both genders face, they are not an angry, alienated or aggrieved generation. They are more optimistic than older adults about their own economic futures. And despite the strong correlation between single parenting and childhood poverty, they are the generation most inclined to believe that today’s children will have a standard of living as least as good as the one that adults have now.

Some of this optimism may simply be the invincibility of youth, an age-old human condition. Some may be the residue of their upbringing by coddling parents and everybody-gets-a-trophy teachers. And some is a byproduct of the empowerment they derive from being digital natives.

They’re pre-Copernicans

One way to think of millennials is as a modern pre-Copernican generation; online, their social universe really does revolve around them. They are the first generation in history in which anyone can tell the story of himself or herself, in words, pictures and videos, to an audience of one or 10 or a hundred or (if their content goes viral) a million.

Why do they take and post so many selfies? Because they can. Call them narcissists if you like. Their smartphone is their gateway to infinity and immortality. It has imbued their generation with a sense of wonder and possibility. It remains to be seen if the digital revolution also will improve their economic circumstances and enhance their overall well-being. That story is still being written.

They’re unaffiliated, anti-hierarchical and distrustful

Millennials’ hyperactive online social lives have helped to coax them away from conventional offline social institutions. They are less inclined than their elders to be affiliated with political parties, civic groups or organized religion. And they’re wary of hierarchies even within the social movement of their own creation, such as Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter.

But it’s not just institutions that millennials distrust; it’s also their fellow human beings. Just 19 percent of millennials say most people can be trusted, by far the lowest share of any generation.

This wariness may be a byproduct of spending so much time online, where it takes a nanosecond to figure out that not all your friends are who they say they are. It may be because they’ve come of age at a time when that moody kid next door might be a terrorist. And it could be the result of the record share of millennials who are poor or racial minorities. People who feel marginalized for whatever reason tend to be low on social trust because they aren’t well fortified to deal with the consequences of misplaced trust.

Whatever the cause, this is worrisome. America is a fast-moving, open, entrepreneurial culture; social trust is the glue that keeps the gears from grinding.

Algorithms are their friend; oversharing is their normal

Despite this social trust deficit, millennials are the generation that created Uber and thousands of other “share economy” enterprises that rely on the willingness of strangers to engage in unregulated commercial transactions with one another. How so?

They’ve come of age in a digital marketplace where every buyer and seller gets a rating. They may not trust people, bosses, brands or institutions, but they’ve come to trust the collective wisdom of the crowd. They assume (not always correctly) that reputational algorithms don’t have a dog in the fight.

In keeping with these instincts, the vast majority of millennials say people put too much private information online, but the vast majority also acknowledge that their generation is the prime offender.

To them, the risk-reward calculus is simple: the more information they share online, the more robust their social lives and the more efficient their consumer lives. Yes, bad things can happen online, but probably not to them.

Their America Is unexceptional but has a promising future

Just 16 percent of millennials say the United States stands above all other countries, making them less than half as likely as older adults to subscribe to this view of American exceptionalism. An additional 65 percent say the United States is one of the greatest countries. Millennials are also much less likely than older adults to describe themselves as patriotic.

However, the generation gap reverses when Americans are asked about the country’s future. Millennials are more likely than older adults to say our best days are ahead.

Many millennials believe their bad rap

Search for “millennials” with “narcissist,” “coddled” or “entitled’ on Google and you’ll get millions of hits. Sit in on seminars with human resource managers and you’ll get an earful about their poor work habits and unrealistic expectations. It’s no coincidence that the lousy reviews come mostly from older critics. Complaining about kids today is one of the privileges of age, and these days there are a record number of oldsters kicking around.

What’s more notable is that millennials have bought into the negative narrative. In response to a 2015 Pew Research survey that asked each of the four adult generations to assess itself, millennials were the most prone to describe their own generation as self-absorbed, wasteful, greedy and cynical, and the least likely to describe their own generation as hard working, moral and patriotic.

The only attribute tested in the survey that ran counter to this pattern was idealism; more millennials than any other age group said this was a characteristic of their generation.

But there’s more to like about millennials than even they may appreciate. They get along well with their parents, respect their elders and work well with colleagues. They’re open to different lifestyles and different races, and first adopters of new technologies.

Given how fast the world is changing and America is diversifying, all these traits should serve them and their country well. As for their idealism, who knows? It may save the planet.

Conclusion: across the ages

In a year when there’s been so much sparring about America’s greatness, it’s a good time to recall the ancient proverb that says societies become great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit under.

For most of our history, America has been a nation of planters: the intercontinental railroad, the Interstate Highway System, the internet, the Erie Canal, the Hoover Dam, the TVA, land grant colleges, the GI Bill.

Lately, not so much. These days the public inheritance we’re leaving for millennials and their children includes $19 trillion in government debt, a Social Security and Medicare system that won’t be able to pay them full benefits by the time they’re ready to retire, and a planet endangered by climate change. As a share of the federal budget, investments that favor the future — in infrastructure, education and basic research — have been declining for decades.

Private-sector investments have followed the same pattern. Down this path lies a lesser America.

There are Democratic and Republican ways to take on these challenges; that’s why we hold elections. The only thing we can’t afford is to ignore them, which is what today’s older generations have been doing for a long time. Maybe the problem isn’t millennials. Maybe it’s the rest of us.

Going forward, it’s clear the generations have much to teach one another. As millennials migrate into middle age and assume positions of leadership, they’ll need guidance about how to run the country’s great political, civic, business and religious institutions, many of which they’ve been shunning.

But the old hands dispensing that advice will do well to lend an ear to their young mentees. In the multiracial, multi-ethnic, pluralistic, polarized America of the 21st century, millennials are highly qualified to remind their elders of the enduring wisdom of the country’s founding motto: E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one.

Paul Taylor is author of “The Next America: Boomers, Millennials and the Looming Generational Showdown” and formerly executive vice president of the Pew Research Center. This essay originally appeared in the summer issue of “The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas” from the Bush Institute and is distribute