Will millennials be the generation that breaks the cycle of intergenerational warfare? This generation, whose oldest members are reaching the first years of their thirties and whose youngest members are still teens, has been examined and dissected thoroughly, and a picture of their “character” has come out. Conclusion: The kids are alright. As a group, millennials are more optimistic, kinder, team-oriented, more confident, and more responsible than their forebears. Even Joel Stein’s cover story for Time last week, which was supposed to paint a negative picture of millennials, ended up making them look pretty good, concluding that they’re “earnest and optimistic” and even “financially responsible.”
So why are millennials doing so well as people, even if the crappy economy is making it hard for them to get a good start in life? There are a lot of theories floating out there: That they benefit from the relative wealth of the technocratic society they grew up in, or that they grew up in a “trophy for every kid” environment that made them all feel special. But what these theories overlook is one of the biggest changes between millennials and the generations before. Their mothers are the first women to fully embrace the implications of the feminist revolution. When the millennials were born, the battles over reproductive rights, women in the workplace, and no-fault divorce had been won by feminists, and the kids that grew up in this feminist-friendly environment have reaped the rewards.
Everyone agrees that feminism radically altered women’s relationship to motherhood in the U.S. Access to contraception and abortion made it easier for women to delay marriage and motherhood until they were older, had more education, and were more ensconced in their careers. In 1970, the average age a woman had her first child was 21. It had crept up to nearly 23 by 1982, which is commonly understood as the first year that millennials were being born, and by the year 2000, the last birth year for this generation, it had gone all the way up to 25. As the average age of first mothers crept up, the fertility rate went down, as well. The result: women have fewer children at older ages.
Feminism, by encouraging women to delay marriage and motherhood until a little later in life, also ushered in the decline in the divorce rate. While Generation X was basically known as the “divorced kids” generation, millennials grew up in the 90s and 2000s, when the divorce rate was plummeting. Despite all the hand-wringing from the right about feminism’s supposedly negative impact on the family, the evidence suggests instead that liberalism and feminism actually inspire more, not less, family stability.
In other words, another term for millennials would be the Wanted Generation. Their births are more likely to be planned, and their mothers likelier to be older, more educated, and more stable than mothers of previous generations. They have fewer siblings to compete with for family resources. Their parents are frequently accused of “helicopter parenting,” but from another angle, one could just as easily characterize it as showering children with affection and care. No wonder they have high self-esteem! And while high self-esteem can lead to narcissism if taken too far, in most cases it simply leads to confidence, optimism and yes, even kindness. It’s easier to love others if you feel loved yourself.
Being the Wanted Generation certainly explains why millennials don’t have that rebellious streak that we associate with Generation X and the baby boomers. If your parents give you so much support, why would you rebel against them, after all? Of course, many of us see this nonrebellious streak in a less favorable light, but it’s hard to argue with the strain of easy-goingness that goes along with it.
More important, millennials seem to be incredibly responsible compared to their elders. As Stein admits in his otherwise less-than-favorable piece, millennials may have exploding student debt, but their personal debt from credit cards and the like is much smaller than that of older generations at their age. Even their high levels of student debt suggest a tendency to flight right and take responsibility: They were told that getting a college degree was the right thing to do, and even though the cost of doing so is exploding, they are on track to be the most educated generation in history.
Feminism clearly influenced this stampede of millennials into universities. Girls who were told that their futures, as women, depended on education, put special emphasis on education. That’s why a full 57 percent of college students are now female. They were raised with a feminist message about getting that degree before you slip on that wedding ring, and clearly they listened.
Growing up in a world that has rejected Father Knows Best, where women have more authority in the public sphere and at home than ever before, probably goes a long way towards explaining why millennials are so much more liberal than boomers or Xers. Women tend to be more liberal than men generally. They not only are more likely to vote Democratic, but they adhere much more closely to liberal values than men. Pew Research, for instance, finds that 64 percent of women, compared to 54 percent of men, believe the government should guarantee all citizens food and shelter. Growing up in a world where women had more power over public discourse had its impact on millennials. Millennials not only turned out in droves for Obama, but they are far more liberal on an entire range of issues than their elders, including the question of the government’s responsibility to take care of social problems. Growing up in a more female-friendly culture helped incline millennials toward a more collectivist, team-spirited way of thinking, and away from the hyper-individualism that we associate with conservatism and an older, more sexist way of thinking.
Millennials break with older generations in many ways, mostly very good and productive ways. And while they currently struggle with employment issues, due to the poor economy, they are set to take over the country. At 80 million strong, they are the largest generation, even bigger than the boomers currently hitting retirement ages. While many of them don’t openly identify as feminist, the more feminist society they grew up in has made its impact, instilling confidence, responsibility, and a more liberal outlook. Here’s hoping they pay those benefits forward as they quietly start to dominate the cultural landscape.