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Millennials Are No More Tolerant—or Broke—Than Earlier Generations

A big new report debunks a number of generational clichés about Millennials—but emphasizes the economic struggles they still face.
Avocado toast millennials

"The big news is that if you don't go to college, you're likely to do worse than ever."

Millennials, according to the cliché, are both woke and broke. Woke in the sense that, having grown up in an increasingly multicultural society, they're less racist and sexist than previous generations; broke in that, having entered the workforce during the Great Recession, they have yet to catch up to the economic achievements of their parents.

A new report from the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, which analyzes data from a variety of sources, largely debunks both of those notions.

It reports that today's young adults are just as likely to endorse traditional racial and gender stereotypes as members of previous generations. And by age 30, those who have earned college degrees enjoy incomes comparable to those of their predecessors.

That said, the study also found a gender gap, as women's earnings continue to increase even as men's have stalled out, as well as a dramatic and widening gulf between the more-educated and less-educated.

"Millennials are the first generation to experience in a full-throttled way the social and economic problems of our time," Stanford University sociologist David Grusky, one of the report's primary authors, said in announcing the findings. As such, their early adulthood experiences reflect some unique outcomes, but fewer than one might expect.

Comparing Millennials to members of previous generations when they were in their 20s and early 30s reveals several significant shifts. Mortality rates are up, mainly owing to the opioid epidemic. But health insurance coverage is up as well, thanks to the Affordable Care Act. Home ownership rates are lower, in part owing to high levels of student debt, and to the exorbitant cost of housing in the booming cities where good jobs tend to be located.

But in two key areas—race and gender, and income and earnings—Millennials' attitudes and economic outcomes reflect longstanding societal divisions.

"Little generational change has occurred on gender and racial attitudes since the Baby Boomers came of age," sociologists Sasha Shen Johfre and Aliya Saperstein write in the section of the Stanford report concerning gender and racial bias.

"More Millennials endorse strongly egalitarian views than previous generations," they write. "However, this trend is offset by the many Millennials who maintain ambivalent or traditional views."

"The slow pace in gender ideology can be seen in how people answer such survey questions as whether it is 'much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home, and the woman takes care of the home and family.' One-fifth of Millennials hold traditional, inegalitarian views on this issue—nearly the same as the rates among Gen X'ers and Boomers."

The same pattern emerges on matters of race. While more than 25 percent of Millennials are aware that they have ancestors of different races, between 20 and 30 percent of Millennials believe blacks are lazier than whites. That's roughly the same percentage as among Baby Boomers and Gen X'ers, but significantly lower than that of earlier generations.

When it comes to race and gender, the more liberal attitudes adopted by young people in the late 1960s and '70s have largely stuck. But right up through the Millennial generation, a large (and largely unchanging) percentage of Americans continue to reject them.

Turning to education and income, the report confirms that Millennials have come of age in a society divided into haves and have-nots.

"Millennials with a college degree or more are doing as well as comparable college-educated young adults in the past," write sociologists Florencia Torche and Amy L. Johnson. "In contrast, their peers with a high-school diploma or less are doing worse than their counterparts [from past generations]."

"It's not that going to college amounts to striking gold for most people," Grusky said in announcing the findings. "The big news is that if you don't go to college, you're likely to do worse than ever."

Speaking of higher education, the stereotype of recent college graduates living in their parents' basements has some basis in reality. "Both low-education and high-education Millennials are more likely to be unemployed at age 25 than any prior cohorts," Torche and Johnson write.

But thankfully, this seems to be a temporary phenomenon: "By age 30," they add, "unemployment declines among Millennials, and reaches levels comparable to those prevailing in generations that preceded them."

Finally, the report debunks widespread fears that Millennials are abandoning face-to-face interactions in favor of phones and computers.

"Millennials spend as much time with relatives or friends, and hanging out at bars, as 20- to 35-year-olds have been doing since at least the 1970s," write sociologists Mario Small and Maleah Fekete. "More than 47 percent socialized with relatives at least several times a week. More than 30 percent did so with friends.

"Millennials would seem to have ample social resources at their disposal to manage uncertainty," the researchers conclude. Given the unforeseeable changes that are sure to come over the next few decades, that's a very good thing.