WASHINGTON -- Members of the huge millennial generation are less religious, less likely to call themselves "patriotic" and significantly more liberal than older generations, new research shows.
Although adults aged 18-33 are much more likely to call themselves political independents than their elders are, they are also far more likely to vote Democratic. Their views favoring activist government, as well as their stands on social issues such as gay rights, reinforce that voting behavior, an extensive study by the Pew Research Center shows.
The youngest generation of adults, born after 1980, has the most optimism about the country. That comes despite the economic difficulties that a large share of them have experienced since entering the workforce. And it stands in contrast with some previous generations: Baby boomers, for example, born between 1946 and 1964, were less optimistic than their elders at this stage of their lives.
The millennials are also the only generation of adults with more people who identify themselves as liberals than as conservatives. Just less than one-third of millennials call themselves liberals while about one-quarter identify as conservative. And nearly half say they have become more liberal as they have aged, with 57% saying their views on social issues have become more liberal over time.
By contrast, among members of the baby boom generation, 41% call themselves conservative and only 21% identify as liberals. And baby boomers are more likely to say that growing older has made them more conservative. On this and most other issues, the views of Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980) fall between those of the baby boom and millennial generations, and the views of those born before the baby boom are more conservative.
The liberal views of the youngest adult generation show up on a range of issues. Nearly seven in 10 say they support same-sex marriage, for example, just more than half identify themselves as "supporters of gay rights" and they are twice as likely to see gay and lesbian couples raising children as a good thing for the country than as a negative, which puts them at odds with older generations. They are also far more likely to favor legalization of marijuana. Opinions on abortion and gun control, by contrast, show little generational difference.
Just more than half of millennials say they favor a "bigger government providing more services" rather than a smaller government – a polling question used for years as an index of people's attitudes toward government's role.
On the question of the role of government, the much greater racial diversity of the millennial generation plays a key role. About four-in-10 members of the millennial generation are non-white – a much larger percentage than in older age groups. Their generally liberal views shape the generation's outlook although whites in the millennial generation also hold somewhat more liberal views on government than white members of older generations.
Racial diversity may play a role in another distinctive feature of the generation's members: Although they are optimistic about the country, they are significantly less likely than older generations to say that "most people can be trusted." Sociologists who have looked at other studies over the years have suggested that people who see themselves as part of a vulnerable minority group are less likely to feel trust toward other members of society.
A significantly smaller share of millennials have married than among older generations at this stage of their lives. Only about one in four millennials have wed, compared with more than one-third of Generation X when they were in their 20s and 30s, and nearly half of the baby boomers.
That decline in marriage rates may reflect the lessened attachment that members of the generation have to other institutions, such as organized religion or nationalism. Almost three in 10 say they are religiously unaffiliated, nearly twice the share among baby boomers. Just less than half of millennials say that "patriotic" describes them well, in comparison with two-thirds to three-quarters of older generations.
But the reluctance to marry also reflects the tough economic circumstances that millennials have faced. Members of the generation are the best educated in U.S. history, but also have the most student-loan debt. Their unemployment rate, 13% as of January, is significantly higher than that of older workers. And an overwhelming majority of them believe that young adults today face more economic challenges than did previous generations – a view with which older generations concur.
Yet despite those economic difficulties, millennials have a positive view about their economic futures, the survey showed. A majority believe that they eventually will have "enough to lead the kind of life I want."
The Pew report on millennials is based largely on a new survey conducted Feb. 14-23 among 1,821 adults nationwide, including 617 members of the millennial generation. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.