WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Millennials are easy to spot. They are the ones welded to their handheld devices, touting peculiar professional titles and ambitions. Born between 1980 and the early 2000s, Millennials, or Generation Y, are entitled, lazy, self-centered, and callow, according to popular perception. It is true, this generation is different – but not for those oft-repeated gloomy reasons.
As a new report from the Pew Center – "Millennials in Adulthood: Detached from Institutions, Networked with Friends" – demonstrates, most members of the Millennial generation were born into an American landscape vastly different from that of Generation X, Baby Boomers, and the Silent Generation.
For starters, this is the most racially diverse generation of Americans to date. Among adult Millennials, 43 percent are non-White; among their children, the first of a yet-unnamed generation, close to half are of color. The Census estimates that the country will be majority non-White by 2043.
This diversity does not mean that Millennials have escaped the pain of racism. Wynton Guess, a 20 year-old senior music composition major at the Boston Conservancy, spent his formative years in Jersey City, N.J., one of the nation's most diverse cities. Since then, he has lived in Louisville and Pittsburgh, has visited other countries, and is finishing college in Boston. Throughout his childhood, he recalls friends from all over the world and the familiarity of knowing the subtle differences between cultures and nationalities. But not all of his peers share this multicultural perspective.
"Overt racism really isn't that much of a problem. More of a problem now is 'hipster racism,' when people say something ironically but they really mean it, or they say insensitive things because they think it's funny to be racist," says Guess, who is multiracial but identifies primarily as Black.
He recalls stories from his mother regarding the racial powder keg that was school integration and bussing, and stories from his biracial father about being disowned by racist family members. "It's a lot more subtle," Guess said. "When I went to college I met a lot of people who had never been out of their small hometowns, and they will be offensive without even knowing it. It's a matter of living in your own world, and being really segregated. Like in Louisville, I notice a lot of 'us versus them' mentality."
Keith Jones, 33, was born in the gray area between Gen X and Gen Y, and believes racism has changed. "I'd say it's worse for me [than my parents] in the sense that … back with Brown v. Board of Ed and those laws, people were forced to be together. The difference today is that things are still segregated, but now it's by choice," he said. "Racism is still there. A lot of racist people still exist and many are young."
A racial rift also emerges on the subject of government and politics. Fully half of all Millennials identify as political independents. However, a curious shift occurs among those who have chosen sides. Among White Millennials, 24 percent say they are Democrats and another 19 percent are Republicans; among Millennials of color, 37 percent identify as Democrats and 9 percent as Republicans.
The report explains that White Millennials are more liberal than their older counterparts, but less liberal than their non-White peers. And on the subject of Obama, their views are not much different from those of older White Americans.
Outside the sticky subjects of race and politics, Millennials represent a significant break from older generations, particularly with the trappings of adulthood and success (namely, education, marriage, and economic stability).
While Millennials took their parents' and grandparents' advice and became the most educated generation the country has ever seen, the advice might not have served them well. According to the report, they are the first generation in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations had at the same age. With the convergence of the Great Recession, globalization, and a rapidly changing job market, the financial risk Millennials took in pursuing increasingly expensive educations is not paying off as quickly, if at all.
"From a Black perspective, most of us went to college on Pell Grants or student loans. Some of us got scholarships, but mostly they weren't full scholarships," says Jones, adding that knowing how to matriculate with minimal debt and in the least time is harder for first-generation college students.
Jones holds two degrees and works for the Detroit city government. Though he feels comfortable with his life circumstances now, he has felt the crunch. "I never thought about the accumulation of debt I was putting on myself. When you graduate you are working poor – I was making about $32,000 out of college, and I had more student debt than that. Then I had the nerve to go back and get a master's [degree]. [Student debt] is a great hindrance on allowing the American workforce to attain the American Dream."
Some speculate that this overwhelming debt is resulting in delayed adulthood. In 2012, 36 percent of Millennials were still living in their parents' home, a historic high. Just 26 percent are married; by this age, 36 percent of Generation X, 48 percent of Baby Boomers, and 65 percent of the Silent Generation had tied the knot. And according to Census data, the birth rate among women in their 20s declined to an all-time low in 2011 and 2012. Birth rates among the youngest Millennials (today's teenagers) are also falling steadily.
So is this generation simply uninterested in settling down?
"Most unmarried Millennials (69 percent) say they would like to marry, but many, especially those with lower levels of income and education, lack what they deem to be a necessary prerequisite – a solid economic foundation," the report states.
Despite being a newlywed Takara Slaninka, 31, agrees with this explanation, but also adds that her cohorts also suffer from the youthful sense of invincibility – that there is lots of time for these life events to occur, eventually.
"Our priorities are different. Marriage is still important, but not as important as being financially stable, being able to travel, and being well educated. If I had gotten married or had kids sooner, I wouldn't have been able to see most of the continents like I have," she explained. "When I met my husband, I was 27 or 28 and marriage was not on my mind at all. It was definitely on my mom's mind. She was like, 'Oh, you'll be engaged by March,' and I'm sitting there like, 'But I'm still dating!'"
There is also evidence to suggest that while marriage continues to hold value among Millennials and the public at large, the fine points of family life might be changing.
A 2010 Pew report on marriage states that, "More than six-in-ten (62 percent) survey respondents endorse the modern marriage in which the husband and wife both work and both take care of the household and children. … By emphatic margins, the public does not see marriage as the only path to family formation."
The same report finds overall American support for various definitions of family, including single parent and children, cohabitating couples with children, same-sex couples with children, and childless married couples.
"My personal marriage … is not normal," says Slaninka. She and her husband, who is 36 years old, live states apart and are putting off joining households until after she completes her post-graduate medical school program this summer. "My grandmother thinks it's impossible for me to be a wife. But this is how our whole relationship has been, me in Milwaukee and him in New York, so it's become our standard of normal."
Tiffany Browne, 34, a Washington, D.C.-native freelance journalist and communications professional, and mom, also believes that Millennials have their reasons for not rushing to the altar. "People get married when they're ready," she says, adding that she's especially tired of the "single Black woman with a slim dating pool" narrative. "For some, marriage is high on the agenda, but some want to be established in their own right first. Millennials are really just trying to enjoy life and get as much fulfillment …. They're trying to figure out where marriage fits in, if it fits in at all. And when we're ready, we'll be lucky enough to be with someone wants to go for ours together."