Millennials are on the frontlines of political and cultural change in America

Editor's note:

Leah Korn contributed to this post

On January 30, the Metropolitan Policy Program hosted William H. Frey, Brookings senior fellow and “Diversity Explosion” author, who presented the findings from his new report, “The millennial generation: A demographic bridge to America’s diverse future.” As Frey explained, the millennial generation has the critical role of bridging the gap between the baby boomers and the younger generations to lead the nation to a more diverse and accepting future.

The millennial generation is America’s largest generation, making up nearly 25 percent of the total U.S. population. As seen in Figure 1, millennials are also America’s most diverse adult generation: 44 percent of them are minorities.


Frey kicked off the event by having millennials in the audience raise their hands; more than half of the room did. He then spoke directly to older audience members who did not raise their hands, explaining the program would be just as valuable for them because it would teach non-millennials how to best appreciate the diverse and sometimes mysterious millennial generation.

Frey remarked, “How the millennials fare in terms of their accomplishments, the examples and role models they provide for the later generations, and how they are overcome barriers in terms of race, ethnicity and other things … is going to … determine how we fare, in this new century.”

Frey explained how his interest in the millennial generation commenced after looking through the 2010 Census and noticing how the country’s diversity was nothing like he had ever seen before. Frey emphasized that millennials are on the frontlines of change in America both politically and culturally. He noted the intense electoral power millennials have had in recent elections, and will continue to have in future elections.

Throughout the presentation, Frey discussed four main questions about millennials:

1. Who are millennials and how distinct are they?

Millennials are currently America’s most diverse generation. Frey identified the median age for whites in the United States as 43, while the median age for Hispanics is 29, and the median age of people of multiple races is 19. Frey also described how the 2008 recession has caused millennials to get married and have children later in life. Decades ago, when baby boomers were aged 25-34, 70 percent of whites, 47 percent of blacks, 70 percent of Hispanics, and 70 percent of Asians were married. With the millennial generation, 48 percent of whites, 23 percent of blacks, 44 percent of Hispanics, and 51 percent of Asians aged 25-34 are married. This data is represented in Figure 4. Millennials also have more college degrees than any other generation.


Frey noted, “That’s the good news. There’s improvement in educational attainment for millennials of all groups. The not so good news is this inequality that we still see between whites and Asians on the one hand, and Hispanics and African-Americans on the other hand.

2. Where are millennials living?

Frey identified cities such as Austin, Seattle, Denver, and Colorado Springs as huge draws for millennial populations. The only metro area among the top 100 in the country with a declining millennial population is Birmingham, Alabama. Different metropolitan areas attract millennials of different races, noted Frey. Whites are attracted to cities such as Dallas, Denver, Houston, San Francisco, and Seattle. African-Americans are drawn to Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, New York, and Washington D.C. Hispanic millennials are most commonly found in cities such as Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Riverside, and San Antonio. And Asian millennials s tend to go to Los Angeles, Houston, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle.

Frey recognized California, Nevada, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and New Jersey which are among the 10 states with majority-minority millennial populations, meaning less than half of millennials in those states are white. These states are represented in the map below.

3. How do their socioeconomic statuses differ?

To answer this question, Frey dove deeper into the topic of education. Overall, 36 percent of millennials have a college education, but this varies widely across metropolitan areas. For example, in Boston, 58 percent of millennials have college educations. Bakersfield, California has the lowest millennial college education rate in the country, with only 14 percent of millennials holding a college degree.

“There’s quite a disparity, and I think this is important for communities when they think about millennials. How they’re to be integrated into the labor force, how they’re going to serve to bridges to young generations in those places as well,” Frey said.

BAH34. How will they serve as a “bridge” across generations?

Frey described a generation gap between millennials and baby boomers, and credited some of the gap to social issues such as the legalization of marijuana and millennials’ higher approval of same-sex marriage. However, he explained that the biggest gap comes from race and culture. He explained that baby boomers grew up in a time when immigration was at an all-time low, meaning that many white baby boomers do not to have frequent contact with racial minorities that America sees today.

Baby boomers, Frey remarked, “are sometimes a little uncomfortable with some of the demographic changes that are going on. We can see in lots of different surveys. They’re afraid of what it will do for the country, they’re afraid of what it might do for their own safety.”

Frey wrapped up his presentation by encouraging more businesses and politicians to invest in millennials. Frey noted that he is optimistic about the future because millennials are optimistic about the future.

“Among millennials, the American Dream is still alive,” Frey said.

Frey’s presentation was followed by a panel of women moderated by Sabrina Siddiqui, a national political reporter at The Guardian. The panel included Dr. Mildred Garcia, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities; Jasmine Hicks, national field director at Young Invincibles; and The Honorary Ilhan Omar, a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives.

Throughout the discussion, Siddiqui asked the panelists about the role millennials have in creating a more diverse America, and the challenges millennials of different races will continue to face.

“We’re seeing our generation not waiting for permission to be invited to the table, but taking initiative in representing the communities that we live in,” Omar, the first Somali-American Muslim to be elected to U.S. office, said.

The panel discussed different challenges millennials face compared to their parents and grandparents.

“We’re living in these high-cost cities where the jobs are, but we also have to pay our student loan debt. As a result, we’re pushing back homeownership, we’re pushing back marriages, we’re pushing back families because we can’t afford it,” explained Hicks.

Dr. Garcia discussed the importance of education and how valuable millennials are in educating older generations on how to engage with their own communities and to understand the “rapidly changing world that’s happening with technology, with internet. Many of us hire millennials to help us with this organization.”

You can watch Frey’s presentation here.

You can watch the panel discussion here.

You can read Bill Frey’s report, “The Millennial Generation: A demographic bridge to America’s diverse future” here.