The "generation gap" endures as a staple of American political and social analysis. The notion that the special circumstances and experiences of succeeding cohorts imbue them with different perceptions, beliefs, and values seems intuitively reasonable and appealing. It's also flattering. In a mass-market culture, belonging to a distinct subgroup, even if it numbers many millions, creates a sense of identity. In a 1969 Gallup poll, 74 percent of Americans believed in "the generation gap." A poll last year found that 79 percent still do.
Between then and now, of course, generations have shifted. Then it was baby boomers (those now 46 to 64) arrayed against the World War II and Depression generations. Now it's "millennials" (those 29 or younger) and Gen Xers (from 30 to 45) vying with boomers and the dwindling World War II and Depression cohorts. These generational boundaries are somewhat arbitrary, and other individual differences (income, religion, education, geography) usually count for more. Still, generational contrasts are one way to plot change and continuity in America.
Consider a study of the 50 million millennials 18 and older by the Pew Research Center. The report found some surprising and some not-so-surprising developments. Surprising (to me): almost two fifths of millennials (38 percent) have tattoos, up from a third (32 percent) among Gen Xers and a seventh (15 percent) among boomers. Not surprising: millennials are the first truly digital generation. Three quarters have created a profile on Facebook or some other social-networking site. Only half of Gen Xers and 30 percent of boomers have done so. A fifth of millennials have posted videos of themselves online, far more than Gen Xers (6 percent) or boomers (2 percent).
In many ways, millennials merely extend existing social trends. Since the end of the draft in the early 1970s, military service has become increasingly rare. Just 2 percent of millennial men are veterans; at a similar age, 13 percent of boomers and 24 percent of older Americans were. Every generation shows more racial and sexual openness. Half of millennials favor gay marriage; among boomers and older Americans, support is a third and a quarter, respectively. Only 5 percent of millennials oppose interracial marriage, down from 26 percent among those 65 and older.
What's also striking are the vast areas of continuity. Pew asked about having a successful marriage. Roughly four fifths of all age groups rate it highly important. Homeownership? Three quarters of all age groups say it's also highly important. The belief in God is widespread: 64 percent of millennials, 73 percent of those 30 and older. There's consensus on many values, even if ideals (stable marriages, for instance) are often violated. Generation doesn't matter.
But it may matter a lot in one area: the economy. The deep slump has hit millennials hard. According to Pew, almost two fifths of 18- to 29-year-olds (37 percent) are unemployed or out of the labor force, "the highest share…in more than three decades." Only 41 percent have a full-time job, down from 50 percent in 2006. Proportionately, more millennials have recently lost jobs (10 percent) than those 30 and older (6 percent). About a third say they're receiving financial help from their families, and 13 percent of 22- to 29-year-olds have moved in with parents after living on their own.
The adverse effects could linger. An oft-quoted study by Yale University economist Lisa Kahn found that workers entering a labor market with high unemployment receive lower pay and that the pay penalty can last 15 years or more. Writing in The Atlantic, Don Peck argues that many millennials, overindulged as children and harboring a sense of entitlement, are ill prepared for a "harsh economic environment." That may unfairly stigmatize younger workers. Regardless, they face more bad news. As baby boomers retire, higher federal spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid may raise millennials' taxes and squeeze other government programs. It will be harder to start and raise families.
Millennials could become the chumps for their elders' economic sins, particularly the failure to confront the predictable costs of baby boomers' retirement. This poses a question. In 2008, millennials voted two to one for Barack Obama; in surveys, they say they're more disposed to big government than older Americans. Their ardor for Obama is already cooling. Will higher taxes dim their enthusiasm for government?