Two Special Generations: The Millennials and the Boomers

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The Baby-Boomers and the Millennials are both worthy of special attention. They are large groups: there are 77 million Boomers and 82 million Millennials. Millennials are showing strong interest in civic participation and reversing some of the declines observed among youth since the 1970s. Meanwhile, the Boomers are reaching the period of life when typically we see the highest levels of civic engagement, thanks in part to resources such as savings, networks, community ties, and knowledge that accumulate over time. The two generations are linked in that most of the Millennials’ parents are Boomers.

The Millennials so far appear to be considerably more civically engaged than their immediate predecessors, “Generation X.” The voting turnout of young adults (ages 18-29) almost doubled in the 2008 primaries and caucuses compared to the most recent comparable year (2000).21 There were also substantial youth turnout increases in 2004 and 2006. Youth volunteering rates are higher in the 2000s than they were in the 1990s.

Compared to the Baby Boomers when they were young adults, Millennials are somewhat more likely to volunteer. They are less likely to vote and to participate in face- to-face civil society, as reflected by questions about attending meetings, belonging to groups, and attending religious services.22 Declines in face-to-face engagement occurred before the widespread use of the Internet; but clearly, today’s youth have new opportunities for online interaction. Overall, if we compare Millennials to previous generations when they were young, the Millennials appear more engaged than Generation X and engaged in different ways from the Boomers.

Comparing today’s levels of engagement for the Millennials and the Baby Boomer Generation reveals that more Boomers are engaged in demanding ways. Thirty-eight percent of the Boomers, versus 15% of the Millennials, are classified as “involved in several ways.” More Boomers are performing service activities, although the Millennials include more people who are only involved in service (“service specialists”). This may reflect the expansion of community service opportunities available to younger citizens through high school and college over the past decade, and the lack of connection between this service and other forms of engagement (such as voting or local problem solving).

This difference is consistent with other studies and with developmental theory, which presumes that people accumulate civic skills and connections as they grow older. But people develop more or fewer skills depending on how many opportunities they have to practice active citizenship. That is why it is crucial to provide opportunities for the Millennials today.

People who are now between the ages of 25 and 29 are not as involved as their younger peers are. Half as many of them are excited about the campaign (15% versus 29%), they are much less likely to report being contacted about voting (35% versus 62%), and they are less likely to attend meetings or work on community problems. They may not have any less interest in civic and political issues, but rather may temporarily lack networks and institutions in which to participate. Many have left school and college but have not yet started their own families. They are eligible for very few programs that involve civic experiences or civic education—a gap that deserves more attention.

Among Millennials, gaps in civic engagement by race and ethnicity are typically small. For instance, the volunteering rate is exactly the same for White and non-White Millennials, at 56%. There is only a three-point difference in rates of attending meetings between Whites and non-Whites. Recent Census surveys have found virtually equal voting rates between young Whites and young African Americans (although young Latinos lag behind).23 In contrast, there are rather substantial differences in civic engagement by race and ethnicity for older generations.

Democratic Millennials tend not to have any friends who are Republicans, whereas Republican Millennials often do have Democratic friends. In part, the reason may be a relative shortage of younger Republicans: they represented only 22% of the Millennials in our sample (including both strong Republicans and those who leaned to that party). Democratic Boomers were also unlikely to have Republican friends, even though Boomer Democrats outnumbered Boomer Republicans by only six points (34% to 28%).

On other measures, the Boomers’ attitudes, behaviors, and feelings almost always fall between those of the younger (Gen-X and Millennials) and the older (Seniors) generations. But Baby Boomers are a diverse or evenly divided group whose opinions, attitudes, and behaviors differ by background.

Gender:
Female Boomers and male Boomers were deeply divided in their support for various policies that are related to civic engagement. For example, 72% of female Boomers strongly supported a proposal for high school service-learning requirement, while only 47% of male Boomers showed the same level of support. Similarly, 60% of female Boomers strongly favored a proposal to require high school students to pass a new civic test, while 49% of male Boomers expressed this opinion. Seventy-three percent of female Boomers strongly supported National Deliberation while only 60% of male Boomers did. On other hand, Boomer males were slightly more likely to support the expansion of overseas programs; 32% of male Boomers and 25% of female Boomers expressed strong support for this proposal.

Race/Ethnicity:
Some of the deepest divides between racial groups were observed among the Boomers. For example, 64% of White Boomers reported volunteering while only 42% of non-White Boomers did. This finding is especially striking considering that there was no difference at all for Millennials (56% for both). Findings are similar for group membership. Seventy-seven percent of White Boomers and 48% of non-white Boomers reported belonging to some sort of volunteering or community group.

Finally, we want to emphasize that traditional polling techniques may misrepresent Millennials, especially when surveys are used to compare them to other generations. In the 2004 National Exit Polls, 20 percent of voters under the age of 30 said that they had cell phones only, compared to one percent of those aged 75 or older.24 People who only use mobile phones are virtually impossible to reach in telephone polls; but people who rarely or never use the Internet are hard to recruit for online panels.

Peter D. Hart and Associates conducted our 2008 survey using both methods. The online sample produced higher estimates of civic engagement for the Millennials and often put them ahead of other generations that they trailed in the phone survey. When we compared Millennials to other generations, discrepancies between the two samples were greater than in other aspects of this survey.

Volunteering and community projects:
In the telephone sample, 56% of Millennials reported volunteering in the past year—almost the same as the average (59%) for the whole sample. Nineteen percent had worked on a community project, less than the 33% rate in the whole population. In the online sample, however, the Millennials were, by a substantial margin, the most likely to volunteer and also ahead of the other generations in community projects. Presuming that they actually are more involved in these ways, part of the explanation may be opportunities provided by schools and colleges.

Local advocacy: 27% of Millennials had tried to change local policies, slightly more than the 24% for the population as a whole. In the online sample, they were by far most likely to change local policies than other generations.

Discussing the election: According to the telephone sample, rates of talking about the election were fairly even for all generations. According to the web sample, Millennials were more likely than any group except Seniors to talk about the election.
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