Millennials and American Families

What will American families be like in the Millennial era? 

Millennials (young Americans born from 1982-2003) are now beginning to marry and form their own families—or at least thinking about it. What will American families be like in the Millennial era? If history and generational theory provide any guide, Millennial families will be very different from the Baby Boomer and Generation X-parented families of the past four or five decades.

Social scientists define a generation as the aggregate of all people born over about a twenty-year period in a demographic group. Together those who comprise a generation share a common location in history, and, according to survey research, common beliefs, behaviors, and perceived membership in their generation. Today, another new generation—the Millennial Generation —is emerging into young adulthood.

Similar to other generational cohorts before them, Millennials were shaped by both the distinctive pattern of child rearing and the societal events they experienced during maturation. In their case, child rearing emphasized sheltered and supportive treatment, coupled with pressure to achieve and follow well-defined rules. Like their GI or Greatest Generation great grandparents of the 1930s and 1940s, Millennials emerged into a social environment that featured both a sharp economic decline and major international threats that tested their confidence and optimism. All of this is in sharp contrast to the “hands-off” approach that the parents of Generation X (born 1965-1981) took with their offspring or the “permissive, find your own values” methods that the parents of Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) employed with their children. As a result of what Millennials experienced as they matured, we can already identify some characteristics of the Millennial families that are just beginning to emerge. 

Millennial families will be increasingly diverse in their ethnicity, religious affiliation and practices, and the sexual orientation and lifestyles of partners and those raising children. In fact, Millennial era families will be so varied that it will almost not be meaningful to refer to a “typical” American family. At 95 million, the Millennial Generation is the largest in American history. It is also the most ethnically and religiously diverse. Forty-percent of all Millennials, and about half of those still in high school and middle school, are non-white. Only two-thirds (68%) are Christian, compared with about 80 percent of older Americans, and fewer than half (43%) are Protestant, in contrast to 53 percent of all older generations. About a quarter of Millennials are unaffiliated with any particular religious denomination. The generation’s attitudes on matters relating to family and marriage clearly indicate that Millennial families will reflect their ethnic and religious diversity. Only a scant five percent of Millennials disapprove of interracial marriage and fewer than one in four believe it is important to marry within one’s denomination. Moreover, less than a quarter of Millennials disapprove of couples living together without marriage (22%) or of mothers of young children working outside the home (23%). Even on the currently most controversial matter, two-thirds of Millennials (64%) believe that gay marriage should be legal, while only a third (32%) disapproves of gay couples raising children. These diverse family arrangements are already reflected on TV sitcoms like Modern Family and Parenthood. In the decades ahead they will be equally common across all of American society.

Millennials will marry at a later age than previous generations. Today, the median age for a first marriage among men is 27.7 and among women, 26. This is about five years older than it was in the 1950s and 1960s for Silent Generation and Boomer men (22.8) and women (20.3). To some degree, this reflects a long-term societal trend of elongating the passage of American youth into adulthood. As far back as the early twentieth century, psychologist G. Stanley Hall coined the term “adolescence” to describe this new life phase. Present-day psychologist, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, suggests the presence of an additional extension of youth into the early twenties which he labels, “young adulthood.” But, later marriages also are a characteristic of “civic generations,” the archetype of both Millennials and the GI Generation. In part this occurs because of the stressful times in which civic generations emerge into adulthood and in part because of the cautious upbringing they received from their parents. Regardless of the reasons, most Millennials will not be bothered by charges or complaints about their generation’s “failure to launch.” They will simply do what comes naturally to a civic generation in an era of societal and economic trauma by taking the time to get marriage and childrearing right.

Sex role differentiation will be minimal, if not nonexistent, and the distinctions between career and family activities blurred in most Millennial families. The Cosby Show and Family Ties, the 1980s TV sitcoms that were the first to depict the rearing of Millennial children, were also among the first in the genre to show families in which the roles of the father and mother were blurred. Unlike the Boomer era sitcoms in which dad went to the office and mom stayed at home to cook and take care of the kids, both parents in the Huxtable and Keaton families were busy and highly successful professionals away from the house and equally successful, busy, hands-on parents within it. The Millennial Generation is the most gender neutral in American history. A Pew survey indicates that 84 percent of Millennials disagree that women should return to their traditional roles in society. One example of how these beliefs translate into significant shifts in society is the ratio of women to men in higher education. By 2016 women are projected to earn 64 percent of Associate’s Degrees, 60 percent of Bachelor’s Degrees, 63 percent of Master’s Degrees, and 56% of Doctorates awarded in the United States. With both parents in most households being equally involved in their careers and families, employers who want to attract capable Millennial workers will have to accommodate the generation’s demand for jobs that offer the possibility of telecommuting, flexible hours, child care, and round-the-clock access to technology, something that will provide a seamless blend between working and raising a family regardless of where an employee may be at any particular time.

It is clear that Millennials will have an impact on American family life as profound as did their GI Generation great grandparents six decades ago. The challenge is for American institutions, both governmental and in the private sector, to accommodate these changes so that Millennial families will have the support they need to be successful.