Portrait of Millennials: Call them Generation Unaffiliated

Millennials, a.k.a. Generation Y, are more disassociated from mainstream institutions – political parties, organized religion, marriage – than are older Americans. In fact, they're the most politically unaffiliated group the Pew poll has ever seen.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
New York University (NYU) holds its 180th commencement ceremony in Yankee Stadium in New York, New York in 2012.

Millennials tend to tilt politically left of center, but that doesn’t mean they’re Democrats.

Also called Generation Y, this group of much-worried-about, mostly 20-somethings is decidedly less tapped into political parties, organized religion, marriage, and other traditional institutions than are their older counterparts, according to a new poll from the Pew Research Center. They are also less engaged with such institutions than were earlier generations of young people.

The poll – which is consistent with prior research on what Millennials think, do, want, and feel – portrays an American generation that adopts issues, not institutions.

Its members, the poll found, are much more likely to cross partisan lines, voting for candidates who promise progressive action on causes they care about, like allowing gay marriage and legalizing marijuana. They also, by and large, believe in God, but are less likely than older people to feel that they must sit in the pews to do so.

“The Millennial generation is forging a distinctive path into adulthood,” as the Pew report puts it.

The findings are based on a February Pew survey of about 1,800 adults, including 617 adult Millennials (people between the ages of 18 and 33). Pew also divided the results into Gen Xers, ages 34 to 49; baby boomers, ages 50 to 68; and the so-colled Silent Generation, ages 69 to 86.

Fully half of Millennials describe themselves as political independents, the highest level of political disaffiliation Pew has seen in 25 years of polling on the issue. Among Gen-Xers, 39 percent say they’re not tethered to a political party, as do about 32 percent of Silents.

In another tell-off to political parties, just 31 percent of Millennials say there is a significant difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. Fifty-eight percent of the Silents, by contrast, report that the two parties are very distinct.

But if Millennials have no fealty to parties, they do have political opinions. About 68 percent of Millennials support same-sex marriage, compared with about 55 percent of Gen Xers and about 48 percent of boomers.

Plus, almost 70 percent of Millennials support pot legalization, and more than half support bigger government, both of which older generations are less likely to get behind, the poll found.

So far, Millennials’ support for these issues means they’re more likely to vote Democratic than Republican: About 27 percent of Millennials reported a Democratic affiliation, and 17 percent identified as Republican, the poll found.

“Their views are much more aligned with the Democratic Party,” Paul Taylor, Pew’s executive vice president and co-author of the report, told the Associated Press.

Millennials’ “don’t join ‘em” attitude extends somewhat to their views on organized religion, with almost 30 percent saying they are unaffiliated with any religion. That’s in contrast to 21 percent of Gen Xers, 16 percent of boomers, and 9 percent of Silents who report no religious affiliation.

But that doesn’t mean Millennials aren’t interested in religious matters. In fact, 86 percent of Millennials say they believe in God, and about 58 percent say they’re “absolutely certain” that God exists, according to a 2012 survey by Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.

The poll’s findings also show that 20-somethings are much less likely to be married than were older generations when they were young adults. Still, though just one-quarter of Millennials are married – versus about two-thirds of Silents when they were that young – almost 70 percent of single Millennials say they would like to be married eventually.

The poll also found that Generation Y, often stereotyped as snubbing sincerity for satire and irony, and as bemoaning the cruelties of a world that doesn’t stroke their egos as much as they would like, is fairly upbeat about the US. Almost half of Millennials say they’re optimistic that America’s best days are ahead, but just 42 percent of Gen Xers think so, and just 39 percent of Silents are feeling cheery about the nation’s future.

Plus, that optimism isn’t necessarily because Millennials, often maligned as a naïve lot, have yet to experience life's disappointments. About 70 percent of Americans say today's young adults face greater economic challenges than did older people when they first started out, the poll found.

The poll cited several reasons for the relative optimism of Millennials, including that it might in part “simply reflect the timeless confidence of youth.”

The poll’s overall findings were tempered by an understanding that Millenials are a difficult group to assess and sum up, the report noted. US census data show they are America's most racially diverse generation ever.

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