WASHINGTON — The "generation gap" endures as a staple of American political and social analysis. The notion that the special circumstances and experiences of each succeeding cohort imbue it 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, contributes to 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 now do.
Between then and now, of course, generations have shifted. Then, it was baby boomers (those now 46-64) 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 older Americans. The precise generational boundaries are somewhat arbitrary, and other individual differences (income, religion, education, geography) usually count for more. Still, generational contrasts help plot change and continuity in America.
Consider a study of the 50 million millennials 18 and over by the Pew Research Center. The report found some surprising and some not-so-surprising developments. Surprising (to me): Almost two-fifths of millennials have tattoos, up from a third among Gen Xers and from 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.
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 younger 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, compared with 26 percent among those 65 and over.
What's also striking are the vast areas of continuity. Pew asked about having a successful marriage. More than four-fifths of all age groups rate it highly important. Homeownership? About 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 over. There's consensus on many values, even if ideals are often violated.
Generation doesn't matter. There's a tendency to overdo the generalizations, minimize national culture and ignore individual differences. The 1960s' stereotype of most baby boomers — to take an obvious example — as pot-smoking, sex-obsessed, authority-challenging, anticapitalist libertines was overdrawn. But for today's young, generational placement 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 over 30 (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.
The adverse effects could linger. An oft-quoted study by Yale University economist Lisa Kahn found that college graduates entering a labor market with high unemployment receive lower pay and that the pay penalty can last two decades. 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." They lack the persistence and imagination to cope well. That indictment may be unfair. My own experience is that millennial co-workers are diligent, disciplined and determined in the face of frustration.
Regardless, more bad news may lie ahead. As baby boomers retire, higher federal spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid may boost millennials' taxes and squeeze other government programs. It will be harder to start and raise families.
Millennials could become the chump generation. They could suffer 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 2-1 for Barack Obama; in surveys, they say they're more disposed than older Americans to big and activist government. Their ardor for Obama is already cooling. Will higher taxes dim their enthusiasm for government?
© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group