Still, these initial trends may not end up being the final words on the subject. Generational theorists indicate that the millennial generation is a “civic” generation. The last previous American civic generation was the G.I. or 'greatest generation." Like today’s millennials, that generation was forced by events—the Great Depression and World War II—to live with their parents and postpone marriage and family formation for a decade or more before eventually marrying in large numbers and parenting the baby boom generation, the largest cohort prior to the millennials. Nowhere were the hopes of this generation better stated than in the words of a demobilized G.I. in the 1947 Academy Award-winning film, The Best Years of Our Lives: “a good job, a mild future, and a little house big enough for me and my wife.”
In this, as in other aspects of life, millennials may turn out to be a lot like their G.I. generation great-grandparents. The Pew survey indicating that many millennials perceived marriage to be an institution of the past also found that 61 percent of all unmarried adults and nearly half of those believing marriage to be obsolete said they would like to wed.
Another Pew survey found that the three most important life priorities for millennials were being a good parent (52 percent), owing their own home (30 percent), and having a successful marriage (20 percent)—numbers almost identical to those of older generations.
This is not to say that, once they are formed, millennial families will be exactly like those of earlier generations. Millennials have the most gender-neutral attitudes of any generation. They are, perhaps, even the first female-driven cohort in U.S. history. Within millennial households, sex roles, financial contributions, and responsibility for household chores are likely to be more blurred than ever before.
But, as Paul Ryan should have learned, it is far too early to give up on the millennial generation and its chances of living the American Dream. History and the optimistic beliefs of millennials themselves tell a different story.
Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are coauthors of the newly published Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America and Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics and fellows of NDN and the New Policy Institute.