bill frey is a senior fellow at both the Milken Institute and the Brookings Institution, and the author of “Diversity Explosion.” Adapted with permission from William H. Frey, “The Millennial Generation: A Demographic Bridge to America's Diverse Future.” Copyright 2018. The Brookings Institution.
Published October 29, 2018
The millennials, at over 75 million strong, constitute America’s largest generation, eclipsing the postwar baby boomers. Now all over 20, millennials make up nearly a quarter of the total population, 30 percent of the voting-age population, and almost two-fifths of the working-age population. While much attention has been given to this generation’s attributes — its technological savvy, tolerance and independence, and its skeptical view of established institutions — I would argue the one characteristic of millennials that matters most is their racial and ethnic diversity.
Indeed, this generation is poised to be the demographic bridge to the nation’s diverse future. By the mid-2040s, racial and ethnic minorities are projected to make up about half of all Americans, but the 2020 census will show that the post-millennial generation — people who are younger than millennials — will already be minority white. This means that millennials, now 44 percent minority, will pave the way for the generations behind them as workers, consumers and leaders in business and government in their acceptance of a racially diverse America.
Not all is wine and roses. Racial and ethnic disparities in education, family formation, income and housing persist among millennials, potentially undermining their impact as the vanguard of a colorblind nation. Adding to the complexity of analysis, the national picture of a population that is diversifying in its younger ages while its white population is rapidly aging oversimplifies the story because it does not account for variation among states and metropolitan areas. What’s more, while media attention tends to focus on millennials in high-visibility metros, including New York, Washington and San Francisco, social and economic opportunities available to millennials differ widely across the country.
For example, in Bakersfield, Calif., the millennial population is 59 percent Hispanic and 30 percent white. And among those ages 25-34, 29 percent are in poverty and only 14 percent graduated from college. By contrast, in Minneapolis-St. Paul, 71 percent of millennials are white, while among those ages 25-34, 47 percent are college graduates and just 10 percent are poor.
This article breaks down the demographic makeup of millennials for the 100 largest metropolitan areas, all 50 states and, of course, for the nation as a whole. It compares the millennials with earlier generations at the same stage of life, suggesting how they will drive critical changes in American culture and perhaps healing the conflicts between the red and blue Americas.
Who are Millennials and How Distinct Are They?
I define a “millennial” as a person born 1981-97, a period of surging fertility that followed the “birth dearth” of Generation X (born 1965-80), which was preceded by the baby boom generation (born 1946-64). The choice of dates bracketing the millennials varies among researchers. However, as with the baby boomers, the millennials’ distinction is associated not just with their large numbers but also with their unique attributes in terms of demographics, tastes and lifestyles. As their name implies, they are the first generation to reach adulthood in the new millennium.
Size and diversity
Despite their numbers, millennials are not as dominant a share of the U.S. population today as the baby boomers were when they were young adults because the country’s population is so much larger now. In 1980, baby boomers, then ages 16-34, represented 33 percent of the population and vastly outnumbered the generations that were their seniors. Their demographic imprint alone shows why, at the time, baby boomers held such power in the workplace and marketplace. In contrast, millennial young adults represent 23 percent of the population and must contend with the competing demands of sizable older generations by gaining clout socially, economically and politically.
Millennials are truly distinct from earlier young adult generations in one critical important demographic respect: their diversity. Overall, millennials are just 56 percent white and nearly 30 percent “new minorities” — Hispanic, Asian and those identifying as two or more races. In 2000, when millennials were just beginning to turn 18, young adults were 63 percent white. In 1980, by contrast, young adults were 78 percent white.
Thanks to the large waves of immigration to the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s, especially from Latin America and Asia, there is a clear shift in racial and ethnic makeup between millennials and prior generations. In 2015, the 55-and-older population, including most baby boomers and those born before them, were whiter than the country as a whole (75 percent versus 62 percent), and among them, blacks were the largest racial minority. Those in the 35-54 age group, including Generation X and the tail end of the baby boomers, were roughly representative of the nation’s current racial and ethnic composition at 61.5 percent white, 17.6 percent Hispanic and 12.5 percent black.
Tomorrow’s diversity is foreshadowed by the post-millennial generation — persons under age 18. While whites make up just over half of this generation, the latest census numbers show that children under age 10 are minority-white. Over one-third of this latter group consists of new minorities, and almost a quarter is Hispanic.
Plainly, the millennials are ushering in an era of broad racial diversity. This is illustrated by the growth of racial and ethnic minorities among young adults at the metaphoric expense of whites. Between 2000 and 2015, one quarter-million more whites aged out of the 18-34-year-old age bracket than aged into it. Over the same period, as millennials entered this bracket, the numbers of Hispanics rose by 4.3 million while the numbers of Asians and blacks in the age range each rose by more than 1.5 million.
The impact of the aging of the white population on younger generations cannot be overemphasized. Census Bureau projections indicate that, for the foreseeable future, post-millennial young adult populations will continue to show declines in whites, implying that racial and ethnic minorities will be responsible for all future gains.
The Anatomy of Differences
Millennials are distinct from earlier generations in a number of ways. However, the common view of millennials as a well-educated, tech-savvy generation that happened to come of age in a rough economic time must be seen in the context of the generation’s diversity. Because minorities comprise a larger slice of the millennial generation than any prior young adult cohort, it is important to examine how sub-groups contribute to attributes associated with the millennials.
Language, immigration status and interracial marriage
In keeping with their diversity and association with immigration, young adult millennials are more likely than their earlier counterparts to hold what I call “global” attributes. Spanish is spoken at home by 16 percent of millennials. Overall, a quarter speak a foreign language at home, compared with 23 percent of young adults in 2000 and just 11 percent in 1980.
Another cosmopolitan attribute of millennials is their immigration status. Well over half of Asian millennials are foreign born, as are 36 percent of Hispanics. By contrast, just 4 percent of whites were born elsewhere. Although immigrants compose a smaller share of Asian and Hispanic young adults than in 2000 (75 percent and 52 percent, respectively), both groups are still largely composed of first- and second-generation Americans.
A third global attribute of millennials is interracial marriage, which has been on the rise, especially over the past three decades. Nearly one in seven millennial marriages is interracial — almost three times the share of such marriages among baby boomers at the same age. The impact of the rise of new minorities on these statistics is apparent; nearly 6 in 10 of millennials’ interracial marriages are between whites and either Hispanic or Asian partners. Among married millennials involving Hispanics, 35 percent are interracial. Of marriages involving Asians or blacks, about 3 in 10 are interracial.
Marital status and household relationships
While the portion of marriages between races is on the rise, millennials remain slower than earlier generations to get married, have children or leave their parents’ homes. The median age of marriage was lowest during the family-friendly 1950s — age 20 for women and 22 for men. Longer periods for higher education and rising women’s labor force participation have pushed up the ages of marriage and childbearing over the decades. By 2015, these rose to ages 27 and 29, respectively. What’s more, the delaying effects of the housing crash and the uncertainties created by the Great Recession are still working through the system.
The millennials’ trend toward later marriage covers the racial-ethnic spectrum. They are marrying later than young adults did in 2000 and 1980, and they are less likely to be household heads or spouses, as they live in their parents’ homes or in multifamily groups in disproportionately high numbers. Still, the majority of older millennials (ages 25-34) in each racial-ethnic group are either household heads (including persons living alone) or spouses. White millennials exhibit the largest combined shares of household heads and spouses. Fewer blacks are married compared to other race and ethnic groups, and more (21 percent) are residing with parents than any other sub-group. Hispanic millennials are most likely to have an “other” relationship to the household head, meaning they could be living with roommates or adult relatives.
One of the long-term trends that continued with millennials is the increase in educational attainment, which, for their generation more than others, is tied to higher future earnings and a sense of well-being. More than a third of all millennials ages 25-34 had college degrees by 2015, up from less than 30 percent for comparably aged young adults in 2000 and not quite a quarter of young adults in 1980. The rise was especially notable among women, who are more likely to have earned bachelor’s degrees than their male counterparts.
Post-secondary educational attainment, it’s worth noting, has risen for all racial and ethnic young adult groups. The percentage of people ages 25-34 who received bachelor’s degrees or higher rose for blacks, Hispanics and Asians as well as whites between 1980 and 2015. There have also been positive changes in related measures, such as declines in high school dropout rates and increased college enrollment, for all major ethnic groups.
But the good news is not unalloyed. There are still growing disparities in educational attainment among millennial sub-groups, with Hispanics and blacks falling further behind their Asian and white counterparts. The lower level of achievement arises, in part, from poorer preparation in underfunded, segregated school systems along with inadequate advice and career counseling. Note, too, that blacks and Hispanics have been more likely to enroll in two-year and less selective four-year colleges, and have lower rates of completion. These two groups are also disproportionately represented among the nation’s “disconnected youth” — young adults who are neither working nor going to school.
Finally, post-secondary education for this generation has come at the price of a lot of debt. The Great Recession, which began in 2008 as the first millennials turned 27, led many of them to attend school as an alternative to labor force participation. Tuition costs drove huge numbers into debt, while the job market they returned to was only inching back to normal.
Even as the recession and its aftermath have given millennials a late start on careers and family, the housing bust has undermined their short-term (and perhaps long-term) ability to buy homes. Nationally, homeownership rates have not budged much since the 1960s, except during the housing boom from the late 1990s through 2006. The subsequent bust occurred just before most millennials entered the market. This tamped down their homeownership rate compared with young adults of earlier generations, as banks’ new reluctance to bear risk and the millennials’ student debts prompted many to continue to rent or to live with relatives. This delay in homeownership may be robbing millennials of an early start toward a traditional (and relatively painless) form of forced savings in mortgage amortization and housing appreciation.
All racial groups among millennials registered housing-bust-related declines in homeownership, but this was especially the case for blacks who, along with many Hispanics, bore the brunt of tighter mortgage-lending standards. Both groups have lower homeownership rates than whites and Asians, but the divide for blacks especially has widened. Thus, for older millennials in 2015, there were still sharp disparities in homeownership rates across racial groups, ranging from 56 percent for whites to 33 percent for blacks — with Asians, at 43 percent, and Hispanics, at 37 percent, in the middle.
Both post-secondary education and homeownership are important markers of financial security. The former is a pathway to higher lifetime earnings, while the latter has been a key component of wealth accumulation. Yet each has been more difficult to attain for blacks and Hispanics — as was the case before the recession.
One impediment for both blacks and Hispanics is a lack of savings and low credit scores. Moreover, both groups are less likely to obtain financial support from their families than whites and, in fact, are often relied upon to send money to their parents. In part, that’s because the loss of wealth resulting from the foreclosure crisis between 2007 and 2009 disproportionately affected black and Hispanic families, making them less able to support their children’s educations and home purchases.
Where are Millennials Living?
The size and growth of millennial populations vary widely. Here, I profile a sampling of the largest metros and states. I also compare the millennial populations residing in urban core and suburban counties.
Growth and share of millennials in metros and states
The national young adult population (ages 18-34) grew 4.7 percent from 2010 to 2015. This largely follows from immigration and the aging of younger millennials into young adults during that period. However, this pattern varies across metros and states for a number of reasons, among them the extent to which: (1) they attract immigrants; (2) young millennials age into the 18-34 age bracket; and (3) these areas gain or lose domestic migrants with other parts of the U.S.
Each of the 10 fastest-growing metro populations of millennials between 2010 and 2015, with growth rates exceeding 10 percent, was located in the South or West. Only one metropolitan area — Birmingham, Ala. — suffered a decline in young adults. Most of the other areas with the lowest young adult growth are in the industrial north and Midwest.
States also vary in their rates of growth of the young adult population. The state with the fastest growth was North Dakota, which experienced an oil-and-gas-driven boom in the first half of the decade. Others in the more rapidly growing group are mostly in the South or West.
Two states, West Virginia and Illinois, registered losses of young adults from 2010 to 2015, and seven others, mostly in the middle of the country, showed growth of less than 2 percent.
Millennials as a share of metro populations range from 30.4 percent in Provo, Utah, to just 15.9 percent in North Port-Sarasota, Fla. Metros with the lowest millennial shares tend to be in Florida (where they are sometimes crowded out by retirees) and in the Northeast and Midwest. The District of Columbia, an attractive city for young adults that is shown here along with the 50 states, is a whopping 34.8 percent millennial. North Dakota and Alaska lead all states with high millennial shares of 27.5 and 27.2 percent, respectively. States with lowest shares are mostly in the Northeast and Midwest.
Racial and ethnic diversity among metros and states
The racial and ethnic diversity that is a hallmark of the millennial generation varies widely across the nation’s metros and states. Among the 100 largest metros, McAllen, Texas, is the most diverse. Thirty of the top 100 metros’ millennial populations are “minority white,” including Miami at 25 percent white and Houston at 32 percent. Several California areas (Los Angeles, Riverside, San Jose, Stockton, Fresno and Bakersfield) are less than one-third white.
The mix of racial and ethnic minorities among millennials also varies widely across metropolitan areas. In Los Angeles, Hispanics compose nearly half of the millennial population, with Asians making up 15 percent and blacks only 7 percent. Among New York and Chicago millennials, the combined black and Asian populations approximately equal the number of Hispanics. In Atlanta, Charlotte and Detroit, blacks are still the largest minority among millennials.
The largest white millennial settlements are in the biggest metros — New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, Dallas and Washington, D.C. However, when it comes to recent gains in the young adult population, whites seem to prefer the South and West. The largest black millennial settlements, along with areas that have seen the largest gains in young adult blacks, have a distinctly Southern bent. In keeping with its role as a top destination in the black reverse migration back to the South over the past several decades, Atlanta ranks first in black young adult gains and second in the size of black millennial settlement.
Both Hispanic and Asian millennials share New York and Los Angeles as major settlement areas. Beyond that they differ, with Hispanic millennials being more numerous in Southern areas — Houston, Miami and Dallas — while three of the top-seven settlements for Asian millennials include San Francisco, San Jose and Seattle.
Quite a few states exhibit more diversity in their millennial populations than the national numbers. In California, less than one-third of millennials are white and more than 60 percent are new minorities. Racial and ethnic minorities make up more than half of the millennial populations in 10 states, while only 9 states are home to over 80 percent white millennial populations.
More states will become more diverse when the post-millennial population replaces millennials. Fourteen states are now home to majority non-white under-18 populations. In California, nearly three-quarters of post-millennials are minorities; in Texas it is two-thirds. Overall, nearly half the states are home to post-millennial populations that are more than 40 percent minority, and in only four is this generation largely white.
Millennials in urban cores, suburbs, and exurbs
There is much discussion of millennials being attracted to cities as a reflection of both generational preferences and the lack of suburban housing. While not all cities have benefited from renewed growth, this phenomenon clearly came to light during the first part of this decade. It is therefore useful to examine the racial-ethnic aspects of millennial presence in both urban cores and the outer parts of large metropolitan areas.
Millennials living in urban cores are decidedly more diverse, at just 41.8 percent white, than those in each suburban category. More than a quarter of urban core millennials are Hispanics, and nearly another third are from other minorities.
Millennial settlement in suburbs gets less diverse as distance from the core urban area increases. Mature, largely inner-suburb millennials are only slightly less white — 51.9 percent — than the national millennial population. But in emerging suburbs and exurbs, whites are far more prevalent at 61.7 percent and 72.3 percent, respectively.
The growth of young adult residents, ages 18-34, is somewhat faster in each of the suburban categories than the urban core. Not all of this growth is due to migration; especially in the suburbs, it is in part due to younger millennials aging into the young adult category over the 2010-15 period. Nonetheless, these rates show that the young adult population has been growing in all parts of metro areas.
To the extent that young adult populations — millennials or post-millennials — continue to grow in urban cores, the cores will become increasingly diverse. Fully 87 percent of millennial urban core growth in the 2010-15 period is attributable to racial and ethnic minorities, compared with their contributions of 78, 67 and 66 percent, respectively, to the millennial growth rates of mature suburbs, emerging suburbs and exurbs. This suggests that the even more racially diverse post-millennial generation may accelerate the diversity trend among young adult populations in each part of the metros — especially in urban cores.
Millennials as the Bridge
Much has been written about the differences between millennials and older generations by a variety of attitudinal and demographic measures. They are the first generation to fully embrace social media; they are more socially liberal, favoring abortion rights, same-sex marriage, interracial marriage and marijuana legalization. They are also more likely than older generations to disdain traditional institutions of government, politics and religion.
These distinctions harken back to the generation gap of the 1960s, which was associated with the alienation of politically active and/or socially rebellious baby boomers who resisted the traditions of their World War II-era parents. Yet beyond these generational differences on social conventions and attitudes is a more fundamental cultural gap between millennials and the generations before them. It is related to their distinctly different racial and ethnic makeup.
As I’ve emphasized, millennials are the most racially and ethnically diverse generation to pass through these young adult ages and will be followed by an even more diverse generation. Thus, millennials are ushering in a very different America from the one in which older Americans grew up.
Most white baby boomers, who constitute a large share of today’s seniors, were born in an era in which immigration was at a historic low point and when the immigrants who did arrive were mostly white Europeans. Then, the nation’s much smaller minority population was composed mostly of black Americans residing in highly segregated cities, leading to little day-to-day contact between most white and minority families.
The rapid demographic shifts over the past three decades, led by immigrants and other minorities as the white population aged, has created a cultural generation gap. Many older whites are fearful of what the changing racial and ethnic demography means for the nation’s future — and possibly for their own safety. By the same token, many resent that government programs they believe are funded with their taxes will disproportionately benefit members of a younger generation who are not “their” children and grandchildren.
An analysis of Pew Research Center surveys from as early as 2012 supports this interpretation. More than half of white baby boomers and seniors believed that increasing numbers of newcomers from other countries represented a threat to traditional American values. And they were less likely than minorities or younger whites to hold a positive opinion of the growing numbers of Hispanics and Asians in the United States. A more recent survey shows that, compared with younger generations, whites over age 50 are decidedly unsupportive of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Disparate generational views are also apparent from a 2015 survey, which included a question on whether America’s culture and way of life since the 1950s have mostly changed for the better or worse. Among all respondents, only the youngest group, millennials, show more than half answering “changed for the better.”
The fear of the unknown associated with the nation’s changing demographics and what it implies for immigration policy, affirmative action and related issues was front and center in the 2016 presidential election. Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” theme harked back to a time in which older white Americans felt themselves to be in charge. Indeed, the popular votes of the past three presidential elections were decided along widening age divides, with Democrats winning the increasingly minority young population and Republicans winning those over age 40.
Among all respondents to a 2015 survey, only the youngest group, millennials, show more than half answering “changed for the better.”
Yet the generational divide is not totally due to racial and ethnic differences. Support for a more diverse America and for politicians who embrace it comes from (some) whites as well as minorities among the millennial generation. In other questions from the aforementioned survey, young whites are shown to be more likely than older ones to agree that immigrants strengthen our country and that America’s best days are ahead. Moreover, the 2016 Pew survey showed that, in contrast to their elders, a majority (60 percent) of white millennials support the Black Lives Matter movement. The 2016 presidential election also showed that white support for Donald Trump was not uniformly strong across age groups. White margins for Trump (percent voting for Trump minus percent voting for Hillary Clinton) were high for the age groups 65 and over (19 percentage points), 45-64 (28 percentage points) and 30-44 (7 percentage points) — but only 4 percentage points for the 18-29 age group. The relatively low white millennial support for Trump, coupled with the strong minority millennial support for Clinton, allowed her to win young millennials overall by a margin of 19 percentage points. Clearly, there is still a racial-ethnic divide on attitudes and voting patterns within the millennial generation, but it is less marked than among the older generations.
The Geography of the Cultural Generation Gap
Since the millennial generation represents a bridge between an older, largely white America and a much more diverse post-millennial America, it is informative to look at the current geography of this “cultural generation gap” by a simple measure: percent white among pre-millennials (age 35+) minus percent white among post-millennials (under age 18). Because the U.S. over-35 population is 68 percent white, and its under-18 population is 52 percent white, the national cultural generation gap is 16.
Although the cultural generation gap is forming throughout the nation, it is occurring at different speeds in different regions. The most youthful and racially diverse populations are in the Southeast, Southwest and urban centers, where immigrant minorities have had an established presence. Arizona leads all states with a gap of 27. This is because its pre-millennial population is 67 percent white and its post-millennial population is only 40 percent white. Nevada and New Mexico have the next largest gaps at 23.
However, not all states with large gaps have “minority white” post-millennial populations. For example, Rhode Island, with a gap of 22, has a post-millennial population that is 60 percent white, while its pre-millennial population is 82 percent white. California has minority white populations among its pre-millennials (46 percent white) and post-millennials (26 percent white) for a sizable gap of 20.
Large metros with the greatest cultural generation gaps tend to be in Southern and Western states including retirement areas as well as Northern metros that have attracted younger minorities. At the other end of the spectrum, areas with the smallest gaps are largely white areas in New England, the non-coastal North and selected parts of the West. These areas have yet to experience a great deal of youthful diversity and are home to large numbers of baby boomers and seniors.
It is worth noting that places where the cultural generation gap has yielded the most heated conflict are where youthful minority growth has been large. Arizona is a good example. Its minority population increased by two-thirds between 2000 and 2015, during which time the state became a flashpoint for harsh immigration measures. Although the most draconian law, which subjected individuals who did not carry citizenship papers to arrest, detention and possible deportation, was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, it proved a bellwether for big trouble ahead nationwide.
As young new minorities continue to spread out from immigrant gateways, the cultural generation gap is emerging in both public and private arenas. The gap will be widest in places where the racial and ethnic profile of the younger generation differs most from pre-millennials.
The Millennials’ Legacy
Although the millennials are now young adults, they will continue to play a pivotal role as a bridge to a more diverse America even as they advance into middle age. This is made plain by comparing the age structure of the U.S. population in 2015 with those projected for 2025 and 2035.
The footprint of the millennial population is pronounced in each of these years as the generation progresses from ages 18-34 in 2015 to ages 28-44 in 2025 and to ages 38-54 in 2035. For example, in 2015, over half of the U.S. population was older than millennials, and less than a quarter were younger. But in 2035, less than a third of Americans will be older and 46 percent of the population will be their junior. By then, millennials will presumably have come to dominate as leaders in business, politics and the cultural life of the nation.
What is especially noteworthy, though, is that they will continue to be the bridge between those older, whiter generations and increasingly diverse younger generations. This is because the size of the white population in the post-millennial generation will continue to shrink in the 20 years beyond 2015. At the same time, the combined racial and ethnic minority populations will account for all of the gains in post-millennial populations.
Of course, the pre-millennial populations will remain whiter than either the millennial or post-millennial populations as the large, mostly white baby boomer generation grows old. In 2035, the pre-millennial population — then ages 55 and older — will be almost two-thirds white. Even then, the millennial population will represent a bridge population to younger generations as racial and ethnic diversity becomes more pervasive among professionals, managers and influence-makers. In that year, whites will comprise slightly more than half of millennials and less than half of the population under age 38, while Hispanics will constitute about 28 percent of the latter population and blacks, Asians and other nonwhite groups will make up 26 percent of the young adult and child populations.
As discussed earlier, this dynamic will play out differently across metros. As an illustration, consider the projected 2025 populations for Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul, showing the racial-ethnic makeups of pre-millennials, then 45 and older; millennials, 28 to 44; and post-millennials, younger than 28.
In highly diverse Los Angeles, minorities will dominate the 2025 populations of pre-millennials, millennials and post-millennials. The Hispanic population share increases from 39 to 58 percent from the oldest to the youngest generation, just as the white share declines from 32 to 19 percent. Los Angeles millennials will advance into young middle age as the first generation that is nearly half-Hispanic, paving the way for more Hispanic-dominant generations to follow.
In Atlanta, young middle-age blacks will likely outnumber whites for the first time in 2025. Hispanics will comprise 16 percent of Atlanta’s young adults and youth.
The projected 2025 young middle-age population in metro Chicago suggests whites will be a minority. Chicago’s largest racial minority is Hispanics, who will expand to comprise one-third of the area’s post-millennial population, compared with blacks, who would make up less than one-fifth.
Minneapolis-St. Paul stands in contrast to the first three areas because of the dominance of whites in each generation. Still, there is a big difference between its pre-millennial generation, which is 82 percent white, and the millennial and post-millennial generations at 67 percent and 63 percent white, respectively. As young middle-age adults, Minneapolis-St. Paul’s millennials will be ushering in larger shares of blacks, Hispanics and Asians.
The Great Non-White Hope
Millennials are already making an indelible imprint on the nation as evident from the sheer size of the group, the social trends they drive and the consumer base they represent. Yet their most enduring legacy is yet to be determined. Much will turn on how successfully they ease the social, economic and political transition to a far more racially diverse generation.
Racial minorities make up well over two-fifths of the millennial population nationally, and more than half the population in 10 states and 30 of the largest metropolitan areas. They follow whiter pre-millennial generations — Gen-Xers, baby boomers and their seniors. In so doing, they face challenges of acceptance into America’s mainstream and to serve as role models for later generations.
Millennials have already made an impressive start, as reflected in their more racially tolerant attitudes and the unprecedented numbers of young adults marrying outside their race. As a generation, they are also the most educated ever, which should bode well for their success and for that of the nation.
Yet beyond the good news is an ongoing racial socioeconomic divide that puts some millennial groups behind others. Black and Hispanic millennials are faring decidedly worse on education, homeownership and income than whites and many Asian millennials — a divide that is particularly wide in several large metros. This is especially problematic, given that black and Hispanic families possess fewer resources to draw from to give their children mobility. Racial and ethnic poverty disparities are even wider among children than for millennials or the population as a whole.
These racial and ethnic divisions were compounded by the one-two punch — the housing finance crash and the Great Recession — that hit millennials and their parents. Long-term societal trends toward later marriage, childbearing and homeownership were accelerated as young people saddled with high student debt, faced with poor job prospects and frozen out of the mortgage market were stalled in their climb up the socioeconomic ladder. However, this barrier was even more daunting for racial and ethnic minorities, whose parents took disproportionately large hits to wealth tied to homeownership. This is especially troubling because millennials and post-millennials from these minority groups will make up ever-increasing shares of future student, homebuying and workforce populations.
Despite this late start and the predictions that future generations will earn less than their parents, millennials seem inclined toward optimism. A majority say that they want to get married, have children and purchase a home. Most members of each major racial and ethnic sub-group are optimistic about their future, too. Indeed, Hispanic, Asian and black millennials are more likely than whites to say both that they personally will do better financially than their parents, and that the life of their generation will be better than that of their parents.
There are reasons for optimism as the employment situation is improving; there are even signs that housing is becoming more affordable in some regions. These patterns may be especially favorable to younger millennials and post-millennials when they enter improving labor and housing markets with less competition from their smaller-cohort peers.
One big challenge to the bridge generation is to narrow the cultural gap that dominates today’s politics. By example and as advocates, millennials of all backgrounds can make the case that investing in a more inclusive America is essential to the nation’s economic success — and will benefit seniors, too, since somebody has to pay their bills as they age. In this regard, the sheer size of the millennial population is important, as the group already comprises the largest generation of eligible voters. Beyond that, as they move into middle age, millennials will represent the new face of America in politics, business, and popular culture, and as the nation’s image to the rest of the world.