By Vivian Feng
On Friday afternoon, Brookings Institution demographer Bill Frey discussed his research on the American millennial generation. Frey said that the generation’s inclusivity-oriented political views, compared to prior cohorts, derives from its increased racial diversity.
“[There are] many global attributes to the millennial generation,” Frey said. “25 percent of millennials speak another language at home. First or second generation people make up 29 percent of millenials. 14 percent of millenials are in mixed race marriages. Many other attributes like these make the millennial generation much more global.”
Frey, an internationally-recognized scholar on urban populations, migration, immigration, race, aging, political demographics and the U.S. Census, spoke at the Stanford Institute of Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) at the invitation of the Stanford Center on Longevity. Frey’s talk emerged from his latest research report, “The Millennial Generation — A Demographic Bridge to America’s Diverse Future.”
Frey said that millennials’ attitudes towards race are more liberal than those of previous generations, as they have more experience working and living alongside those of other races. This, Frey asserted in his scholarship and in the talk, is caused partly by millennials’ tendency to migrate toward cities as opposed to suburbs, thereby exposing themselves to more ethnic diversity.
Frey used U.S. Census data — specifically, the declining percentage of white people in the U.S. — to illustrate increased racial diversity in younger American generations. In 2015, the U.S. Census reported that the population of people age 55 and over is 75 percent white, whereas the millennial generation is 56 percent white and 44 percent minority. The post-millennial generation is 52 percent white.
“The [growth of minority millennials] comes from ‘natural increase,’ the excess of births over deaths,” Frey said. “These are births to [minority] folks that are already in the United States. The idea that if we stop immigration, we’re going to change diversity in this nation — well we will to some degree — but it’s not going to stop this kind of pattern that we’re seeing here, complemented by the aging white population.”
Nonetheless, immigration has also increased from 5 percent in the 1950s to 14 percent currently.
“I remember when I was young, immigration was very low in the United States,” Frey said. “The only immigrants that I knew were grandparents of my friends. Most people that were white in the United States in the 1950s, they didn’t have much to do with racial minority. These are the people now in their 50s, 60s and 70s who are a little bit scared about what is going on in terms of the changing ethnicity.”
Frey partly attributes the 2016 election results to this sentiment of fear. However, he believes that future elections should see more millennial participation and support for inclusivity and equality in education, home ownership, the workplace and other settings.
“Back when I was going to school [at Stanford], it was very divisive. The blacks normally lived in very segregated areas and Hispanics were very small here,” said audience member and alumnus Oliver Wesson ’69. “We’re seeing a more open society. It looks like what I hope America will be.”
Frey is optimistic that, as millennials age and take on positions of power in the private sectors, they will take their experiences as young adults today and promote the benefits of a diverse population.
In addition to racial diversity, Frey mentioned that the other defining characteristics of the millennial generation are later marriages and home ownership, as well as a higher level of educational attainment across races.
Frey’s report said that these changes can in part be attributed to the lingering effects of the Great Recession and its resulting housing crash.
Following Frey’s talk, a panel of Stanford graduate students discussed the nature of demographic change in the U.S. The panel, led by sociology professor Aliya Saperstein, allowed students to discuss how the racial makeup of their childhood communities influenced their experiences.
“Looking into the future, I think it’s hard to know whether the categories we use right now to think about people will be the categories we use in 20, 30 years,” PhD student in Sociology Sasha Johnson-Freyd said. “We’ve seen this, for example, in the way that race has been measured, even on the [U.S.] Census, has changed so much. Every decade is slightly different, and it reflects the ways that people understand these categories. And we’ve seen the shift. We’re seeing that shift now, and I think we will continue to see that.”
Attending audience members expressed appreciation for the inclusion of millennial voices.
“I loved how they first talked about millenials, and then they had actual millennials speak on their behalf,” Menlo Park resident Allison Hale said.
Contact Vivian Feng at vivianfeng119 ‘at’ gmail.com.