Study: Millennials Deeply Confused About Their Politics, Finances, and Culture

Or at least deeply contradictory: They're always connected but distrustful. They're selfish yet accepting of minorities. They're "independents" who mostly vote Democratic and love Obama while hating Obamacare.

Millennials—or Generation Y, which, by varying definitions, includes you if you're somewhere between 14-34—are the subject of constant obsession and worrying from the managers trying to hire them, the marketers trying to sell to them, and the parents and grandparents trying desperately to get them to call once in a while using the "phone" feature on their smartphones.

So what can we possibly learn that's new from Pew's massive survey released this morning? Many things, actually—and mostly contradictions. Which is about right when you're trying to sum up 85+ million people in a handful of adjectives.

This generation is getting totally screwed by the economy ... but we're the most optimistic generation in the country.

Another report that came out this morning, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, found that unemployment rate for young people is still elevated: 13.5 percent for people between 15 and 24 and 12 percent between ages 20 to 24. Just awful. So how come young people are so stubbornly optimistic? About their finances of all things?

One good explanation is that they're young. Gen-Xers were just as sanguine about their future portfolios at this age, and many of them were stung by the nearly-as-bad 1980s recession.

This is the most technologically connected generation in modern history ... but also the least trusting.

This just barely makes any sense. Here is a generation that trusts peers enough to meet random strangers in bars on Tinder, ride in cars with strangers on Uber X and Lyft, visit strangers' apartments through Craigslist, sleep on their beds through Airbnb, and we're also the least likely to say "most people can be trusted"? Put your theories in the comment section; I don't know what to believe anymore.

This generation has record numbers of single parents ... but it also has the most negative attitudes toward single parents.

The American institution of marriage is changing as more women go to school and out-earn their partners, and as couples get married later or don't get married at all. Millennials have historically high numbers of out-of-wedlock births: 47 percent of newborns to Gen-Y women came outside of marriage, more than double the rate for older adults. But even though Millennials are twice as likely to be single parents, they're just as likely to disapprove of single parenthood. One possible explanation is that, as Richard Reeves wrote in The Atlantic, young married couples are just as conservative on the institution of marriage and child-rearing as generations before them. They're just rarer, since more of their peers aren't getting hitched.


Millennials are famously "the most diverse generation ever" ... but we don't even deserve the label

About 43 percent of Millennials are non-white, higher than any American generation on record. But since the slim majority of newborns in America are non-white too, it's much more fair to say that Millennials are the most diverse generation of adults. We're only the most diverse generation in the country if you decide not to consider people under 14 a generation.

This is the most educated generation ever ... and the deepest in student loan debt.

This one isn't a contradiction so much as a qualifier—a reminder that this generation's achievements have already come at a cost. One third of Millennials over 25 have a four-year college degree or better, which makes us the best-educated group in the history of the country. It's a proud superlative to hold, since education tends to correlate with (if not lead to) all sorts of things like happier marriages, more fulfilling jobs, better earnings, and a better life for our children. This superlative, however, comes a price. "Two-thirds of recent bachelor’s degree recipients have outstanding student loans," Pew reports, with an average debt of about $27,000 and median debt of about $13,000. 

The U.S. economy has never been bigger ... but it's never been harder to live better than our parents did.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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