Young adults consider their use of technology to be the distinguishing feature of their generation, according to a report the Pew Research Center released on Wednesday.
In its most ambitious study of 18-to-29-year-olds to date, Pew hosted a conference at the Newseum to share results of the report, based primarily on telephone survey results conducted in January. The study explores how American teens and twentysomethings, known as the Millennial generation, are making their passage into adulthood in a host of realms: use of technology, sense of identity, priorities, political beliefs and religious practices, among other topics.
"Millennials are at the leading edge of [technology]," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism and moderator of a panel on media and information.
Some 24 percent of Millennials say technology use makes their generation unique, far more than the 11 percent who identified music and pop culture. By comparison, a 12 percent plurality of Generation X chose technology use.
The Internet rivals TV as the primary source for news consumption among 18-to-29-year-olds: The study found that 59 percent of Millennials consume most of their news via the Internet, trailing television by 6 percentage points. Gen Xers, ages 30 to 45, are close behind: 53 percent get most of their news from the Internet, compared to 61 percent from television.
Rosenstiel characterized Millennials as "on-demand grazers" in their digital news habits. The survey showed that young adults prefer news aggregators over particular publications: 20 percent mentioned Yahoo as the site they visit most often for news and information, followed by CNN at 18 percent and Google with 10 percent. This contrasts with Gen Xers, who made CNN their most popular source for news on the Internet.
Over the last five years, Millennials' use of social networking sites exploded compared to older generations. In 2005, only 7 percent of Millennials used social networking sites; now 75 percent do. In that time frame, Gen Xers' use of social networking sites grew by 43 percentage points, Boomers' (ages 46-64) use increased by 25 percent points, and the Silent Generation, seniors over 65, only increased their use by 4 points. The rapid rise of social networking use has vast implications.
We're moving to an era of "public by default, private by effort," said Danah Boyd, a social media researcher. "This is an inversion of the past." Boyd and others at the conference stressed that the rise of social networking sites does not mean that young people do not care about privacy. "The key thing to understand about social networking sites is that they are first and foremost about connecting with people you already know," she said.
Among Millennials, the survey data revealed some interesting differences about their use of technology. Millennials with a college degree are much more likely to have a social networking profile than those with no college experience, 86 percent to 59 percent.
When it comes to Internet use, Hispanics lag behind blacks, who are behind whites. Ninety-five percent of white Millennials use the Internet, compared to 91 percent of blacks and 73 percent of Hispanics. That breakdown holds for the use of social networking sites, as well. As for connecting to the Internet wirelessly -- through a laptop or handheld device away from work or home -- 66 percent of black Millennials do, compared to 64 percent of whites and 47 percent of Hispanics.
Apart from technology, the study revealed some surprising attitudes about young adults. Despite a bigger dip in employment over the last four years than older workers (50 percent in 2006 to 41 percent in 2010), their outlook is cheery. Nearly 9 in 10 expect to earn enough down the road to live the good life. "From knee-high to grasshopper, [Millennials] have been told the world is their oyster," said David Campbell, a political science professor at Notre Dame.
Based on previous Pew research, Millennials are actually slightly more optimistic about their future earning potential than they were in 2006, before the recession. What's more, the portion of young people who are satisfied with the way things are going in this country increased from 30 percent in 2008 to 41 percent in 2010. In the aggregate, Pew concluded that Millennials are "confident, connected and open to change."