The young are the restless
The surge of generational change continues in this country, altering the cultural landscape with a speed and intensity that has rarely — if ever — been seen before.
The latest remarkable change concerns the decriminalization of the use of marijuana. A poll released Thursday by the Pew Research Center found that for the first time more Americans support legalizing marijuana than oppose it.
It was rather unsurprising that more young people would support the move, but it was striking how quickly they adopted a more liberal position. About seven years ago, millennials (defined by Pew as people born in 1981 or later), Generation Xers (those born between 1965 and 1980) and baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) shared the same view on marijuana: Only about a third thought it should be legalized. Since then, the share of millennials supporting its legalization has risen more than 90 percent. Meanwhile, the number of legalization supporters in Generation X and among the baby boomers has risen by no more than 60 percent.
The millennial generation is the generation of change. Their views on a broad range of policy issues are so different from older Americans’ perspectives that they are likely to reshape the political dialogue faster than the political class can catch up.
I surveyed the past six months of Pew and Gallup polls, to better understand the portrait of a generation bent on rapid change — even if that means standing alone.
On gay marriage: Much has been made of the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage in this country, but a Pew poll last month found that the change is driven mainly by millennials. Theirs was the only generation in which a majority (70 percent) supported same-sex marriage, and theirs was the only generation even more likely to be in favor of it in 2013 than in 2012. For comparison, support for same-sex marriage among Generation X is the same in 2013 as it was in 2001 (49 percent). Among millennials, however, support for gay marriage is up 40 percent since 2003, the first year they were included in the survey.
Some of this no doubt is the result of younger adults having more exposure to people who openly identify as LGBT. According to an October Gallup poll, young adults between 18 and 30 were at least twice as likely to identify as LGBT than any other age group.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that millennials overwhelmingly agree, on a moral level, with same-sex relationships. In fact a survey released last year by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University in conjunction with the Public Religion Research Institute found that “Millennials are nearly evenly divided over whether sex between two adults of the same gender is morally acceptable.”
On gun control: According to a February Gallup report, Americans ages 18 to 29 are the least likely to own guns, with just 20 percent saying that they do. That is well under the national average of 30 percent of Americans who own guns.
And in a Pew poll taken shortly after the Newtown shootings, younger Americans were the most likely to say that gun control was a bigger concern in this country than protecting the right to own a gun. (Younger respondents barely edged out seniors with this sentiment.)
In fact, a Gallup poll found that the percentage of those 18 to 34 years old saying they want the nation’s gun laws and policies to be stricter doubled from January 2012 to 2013. No other age group saw such a large increase.
It is remarkable that young people’s opinions shifted so dramatically, especially since a December Pew poll found that young adults under 30 were the least likely to believe that the recent shootings in Newtown, Conn., reflect broader problems in American society. This age group was, in fact, the most likely to believe that such shootings are simply the isolated acts of troubled individuals.
Young people also are the least religious (more than a quarter specify no religion when asked), and they are an increasingly diverse group of voters. Fifty-eight percent of voters under 30 were white non-Hispanic in 2012, down from 74 percent in 2000. Like it or not, younger Americans are thirsty for change that lines up with their more liberal cultural worldview.
Charles M. Blow is a columnist for The New York Times.