The portrait painted of Millennial Americans by the Pew Research Center in its new report Millennials in Adulthood is not rosy. Sure, compared with earlier generations, Millennials (now aged 18 to 33) are exceptionally tolerant, optimistic about their economic future, and connected to friends, family, and colleagues on the “new platforms of the digital era” — from Facebook to Twitter. But this report makes clear that Millennial ties to the core human institutions that have sustained the American experiment — work, marriage, and civil society — are worryingly weak.
Take work. About 80 percent of young adults aged 25 to 29 are currently working, and Gallup estimates that only about 44 percent of young adults aged 18 to 29 are employed full-time. In fact, full-time employment for young men remains at or near record lows. This matters because full-time work remains the best way to avoid poverty and to chart a path into the middle class for ordinary Americans. Work also affords most Americans an important sense of dignity and meaning — the psychological boost provided by what American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks calls a sense of “earned success.”
Take marriage. Only 26 percent of Millennials are married, a record low for their age group. By contrast, back in 1980, when they were the age that Millennials are now, 48 percent of Baby Boomers were married. The Millennial retreat from marriage is particularly worrisome because it hasn’t stopped many of them from having children. In 2012, 47 percent of births to Millennial women took place outside marriage, a troubling trend because such children are much more likely to end up in single-parent families that put them at higher risk of educational failure, poverty, and emotional distress.
Take civil society — measured here by religion. Today, fully 29 percent of Millennials consider themselves religiously unaffiliated, a record postwar high. They are also much less likely to describe themselves as “religious” compared with earlier generations of Americans, as the figure below indicates.
Why does this matter? Historically, these core institutions have furnished meaning, money, and social support to generation after generation of Americans. Even today, data from the 2006–2012 General Social Survey suggest that, taken together, these institutions remain strongly linked to a sense of happiness among today’s Millennials. For instance, 58 percent of Millennial men who were married, employed full-time, and regular religious attendees reported that they are very happy in life; by contrast, only 25 percent of Millennial men who were unmarried, not working full-time, and religiously disengaged reported that they are very happy in life.
Perhaps more worrisome, however, is the erosion of trust documented among the Millennial generation in the new Pew report. Only 19 percent of Millennials say that “most people can be trusted” — a response rate that marks them as much less trusting of their fellow citizens than were earlier generations of Americans, as the figure below shows.
If today’s events in Europe, not to mention of the last century, tell us anything, it is that a generation of young adults “unmoored” from the institutions of work, family, and civil society, and distrustful of their fellow citizens, can end up succumbing to the siren song of demagogues, especially if the economy dips into a depression. It’s for that reason, among others, that policymakers, civic leaders, and business executives, not to mention young adults themselves, need to redouble their efforts to revive the American economy and better integrate today’s Millennials into the nation’s economic, familial, and civic fabric.
— W. Bradford Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, directs the Home Economics Project at the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies. Follow: @WilcoxNMP