William Frey says he’s read a lot about the quirky aspects of millennials.
“They’re never going to buy a house, they’re never going to buy a car, they’re against any kind of institutions — religion or government — that kind of thing,” he said. “But then the people who are writing about them will say, sort of in passing, ‘Oh, and they’re racially diverse.’ ”
Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said writers who’ve casually referred to millennials’ diversity have glanced off of a key point. The generation’s racial diversity is what gives it the potential to become what he describes as a bridge generation.
Frey, an internationally recognized demographer who is visiting UNLV this week, sat down with the Sun on Tuesday to discuss his research on the millennial generation and how it could shape the nation. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow:
What do you mean when you say millennials could be a bridge generation?
To me, their diversity is the biggest thing they’re going to bring to our country. And the reason has probably never been more apparent than it is right now in terms of our politics and everything else; the older generation — people older than millennials, maybe Gen Xers to some extent but definitely baby boomers — have a very different view of what America was and what it should be than the younger generation.
All kinds of surveys have shown that older people are not happy about the demographics. They think the country is going in the wrong direction culturally. They may be personally afraid of what’s going on.
I’m one of that generation, so not everybody thinks that way in our generation. But many people grew up, as I did, in a time when there were not too many immigrants around. The immigrants I knew when I was young were grandparents of my friends in the 1950s who emigrated from Italy or Poland or somewhere like that.
The biggest group of racial minorities were blacks in a highly segregated society. So most whites, unless you lived in a place like New York or parts of the South, you didn’t have a lot of interaction with African-Americans.
So now that we have this Latino population growth, people are not only concerned about it, they’re not willing to pay tax money to support things like education and the social safety net that will go to people who aren’t their children or grandchildren.
So really, the first (diverse) generation that will be able to make their bones as leaders in society, government, industry, popular culture and everywhere else are the millennials. So they not only have to bear the brunt of this but also have to show it’s possible to make good stuff happen.
People sit up and notice (that) they’ve got a lot of good ideas. They’re really going to make a difference. It’s not only important to show that to the older generation, but also to show it to the people who follow them, who are even more racially diverse.
There’s 44 percent minorities among the millennial generation, while among everybody older than millennials, it’s 68 percent white. And younger millennials are coming close to having a majority minority. So given the importance of race in our country and the fact that people are scared — and it doesn’t help that politicians are trying to make bones about that, and not just the president — it’s very important for us as a country to make sure this next generation is fit to be able to do things in our labor force to be able to be leaders. That calls out a need for investment in their education and in other kinds of opportunities, and a recognition that this is our future. Since 2011, there’s been minority white births in the United States.
Millennials not only are diverse themselves, but they embrace diversity-friendly policies and politicians, don’t they?
Yes, by and large. Even white millennials. Nationally, white millennials voted a little bit toward Donald Trump but not nearly as far as older generations did. And in fact, white millennials under 30 voted Democratic in at least one of the two (previous) elections.
So both in terms of voting patterns and in attitudinal surveys, they think America’s future is ahead of us and things are getting better, as opposed to older generations thinking things are not going well. Even in terms of things like Black Lives Matter, young, white millennials are very supportive of it and older whites are not.
And 1 out of 7 marriages among millennials are multiracial. It was 1 out of 20 among baby boomers at the same age.
Now, maybe in largely white pockets of the country, kids emulate their parents a little more. But national surveys as a whole show they’re much more open to diversity and inclusiveness.
Wouldn’t a pessimist say that younger generations are generally more moderate to liberal and more likely to embrace diversity, but then adopt more conservative attitudes as they get older?
Well, that’s true. My generation was at Woodstock! (Laughs) I don’t know if Trump was at Woodstock — he was probably making money off of it somewhere.
But no, I think there’s some of that. But I think the idea of racial inclusiveness is much more endemic to their generation than some of these other kinds of attitudes that change.
You’ve done extensive research showing where millennials are choosing to live. In general, where are locating?
They tend to go to Sun Belt areas. In my study, I looked at the growth of the 18- to 34-year-old population, which includes millennials moving into those ages from 2010 to 2015, and also migration and immigration.
There are three Texas metro areas that are in there — Austin, Houston and San Antonio. Seattle is part of it. I think Orlando, Fla., is even on the list. Denver is a big one.
They’re places that have younger populations to begin with, and then maybe attracted some millennials along those lines.
These are places that are generally kind of progressive politically?
The time frame that I looked at was 2010 through 2015, so the economy hadn’t quite come back yet and a lot of millennials were still living in their parents’ basement. But to the extent they moved somewhere, it would be a place where they’d kind of fit in. So you’d see San Francisco or Seattle or Denver or Washington, D.C.
But I think as the economy gets better, they’ll go off to other places to get jobs.
For Las Vegas, it seems like there’s some good news and some not-so-good news about our millennial population. Let’s go through the good news first.
The percentage of millennials living here is higher than the national average. There was 6 percent growth from 2010 to 2015, and that’s pretty good. You know, that was not exactly the high-water mark of migration to Las Vegas. But that’s important, because there are a lot of youth here, and the other thing in Las Vegas is the diversity of that group. I think it’s 37 percent white among the millennials, maybe 31 percent white among the under-millennials. That makes this one of the most diverse parts of the country, and you get both opportunities and challenges that go with that.
You can think there’s Buffalo on one hand and Las Vegas and Los Angeles on the other. And you can say, “Well, in Buffalo maybe there’s not as much crime or poverty,” but it’s an old population there. If you’re going to attract young people today, you’ve got to attract minorities. Forty-six states have declines in their white under-18 population, and only about half the states are gaining in their child population. And of those, most of that gain is from racial minorities.
So there’s a positive trend as far as the size of our population, but you point out that we’re not doing so well in attracting educated millennials. Why?
(Las Vegas) is 93rd out of the top 100 metropolitan areas in the percentage of college graduates. But that has something to do perhaps with the kind of jobs that are here, and it does give people opportunities. For first- or second-generation Americans, this is a place where they can come and get a start. So the challenge for Las Vegas and Nevada, I guess, is for people to make sure their kids, should they be staying here, move up and put Las Vegas higher in the rankings.
But here, we rank low for education funding and achievement. What does that say about Nevada?
The idea that funding for the next generation is not ample enough is not endemic to Nevada. Texas is a probably more visible example. In terms of child growth in the United States, more than half of the growth of children in the United States is in Texas, because all of these other states are losing children.
And the predominant part of that growth in Texas is in Hispanics. But if you look at the ranking of education spending in Texas, it’s not so high. And that’s a big state. So you’re talking about a good part of the next generation of the United States. So it’s not just in Nevada that there’s this kind of issue, and it means people do need to pay attention to it.
What else is the media missing about in all of this?
The white population is aging, there’s a decline in the white population under age 18, and after the year 2025, the Census Bureau says the overall white population will be showing a decline — more whites will be dying than will be born or will be immigrating. Now, that could change, but it gives you a sense that this century is going to be one where diversity and how we deal with diversity is a critical issue.
People say, “Well, at the turn of the previous century, we had a lot of Italians and Poles and Eastern Europeans coming in, and we thought of them as minorities and now they’re Americans.”
But I think with racial minorities, there’s something different. They’re going to be more central to what America is going to become and how we think about what an American is. And millennials are going to be playing a big part of that.
Those immigrants of the past kind of felt they had to adapt to a white model, and they did. Their success came as they intermarried, and then became part of the middle class and adapted to those values.
Plus, back then we didn’t have a shrinking white population. So any growth that you see in the youth today is going to be people from all these different backgrounds.
And fortunately, despite what we see in the current politics, we have a longer history where people are open to these changes. I think that serves us well for this new generation, where they’re going to be proud of their heritage. And what it will mean to be an American going forward will not be what the white, middle-class 1950s was.
Do you think the Trump administration’s policies will have an effect on the trends you’ve found?
I guess they could in the short term. I did a projection for somebody from The Washington Post, and I figured out that instead of turning minority white by 2044, we’d do it in 2047. They did an independent one that said 2049. So 30 years from now, whether it tips a year or two later, it doesn’t really matter.
More than half of the babies born in the U.S. are minority today — they’re not immigrants. So I think the Trump administration is trying to sell the wrong kind of message. Maybe the idea that undocumented immigrants are taking manufacturing jobs from Midwestern workers might have been relevant 25 years ago, but in fact we haven’t had a significant net growth of undocumented immigrants to the U.S. in the past eight or nine years. And between 2010 and now, most of the growth in the immigrant population are people with college degrees.
So it’s exactly the wrong message you need to have in a demographically pivotal part of our country’s change. What you need is someone who can explain what’s changing and why it’s important.