In our research on younger generations, particularly Millennials, we continue to see a theme of disconnection that is worth paying attention to. Young adults are waiting longer to get married, delaying children, switching jobs more often (and, with that, often where they live). They are often less trusting of government, of church and even of colleges and universities than their older counterparts. In other words, there are very few institutions—either social or economic—binding Millennials.
This disenfranchisement also holds true in their relative reluctance to claim any external factors as part of their identity. When it comes to identifying as an American, for example, there is nearly a 50-point drop between the oldest generation—Elders—and the youngest. Four out of five Elders say that being an American makes up a lot of their personal identity, but only one-third of Millennials say the same (34%). But Millennials aren’t only distancing themselves from country, they are less likely than older generations to claim any of the surveyed factors make up a lot of their personal identity. From family to faith to ethnicity, Millennials see themselves as separated. The one exception is career, which Elders are less likely to identify with, undoubtedly a result of being primarily retired from the workforce.
In a similar survey in 2012, the only factor a majority of Millennials claimed to be central to their identity was family (62%). Less than half of Millennials pointed to any other factor as a central part of who they are: career (31%), friends (37%), faith (37%), personal interests (48%). It is perhaps significant that such a high number did indicate personal interests as a defining part of their identity—again, revealing a stronger draw toward individual pursuits than institutional ones.
Younger generations historically have a tendency to want to break away from traditional cultural narratives and to resist being “boxed in” by what they perceive as limiting expectations. It will be interesting to see if, as they age, Millennials like generations before them begin to gravitate toward their own institutions and grounding narratives.
The present opportunity, then, for those who hope to reach these younger generations, is to ask where these groups are finding their sense of identity. If these traditional institutions and relationships are not as defining for them, what most impacts their identity? Their friendships? Their lifestyle? Technology or entertainment? The media they consume? While Gen-Xers and Millennials might resist being defined by anything, their identities are certainly impacted and shaped by external forces. Recognizing those forces and the impact they have—for better and worse—on their identity will help young adults make decisions about what and where they want to give allegiance.
n=1,000 | February 2015