Tag Archives: millennial

Fertility trends and the myth of Millennials

The other day I showed trends in employment and marriage rates, and made the argument that the generational term “Millennial” and others are not useful: they are imposed before analyzing data and then trends are shoe-horned into the categories. When you look closely you see that the delineation of “generations” is arbitrary and usually wrong.

Here’s another example: fertility patterns. By the definition of “Millennial” used by Pew and others, the generation is supposed to have begun with those born after 1980. When you look at birth rates, however,  you see a dramatic disruption within that group, possibly triggered by the timing of the 2009 recession in their formative years.

I do this by using the American Community Survey, conducted annually from 2001 to 2015, which asks women if they have had a birth in the previous year. The samples are very large, with all the data points shown including at least 8,000 women and most including more than 60,000.

The figure below shows the birth rates by age for women across six five-year birth cohorts. The dots on each line mark the age at which the midpoint of each cohort reached 2009. The oldest three groups are supposed to be “Generation X.” The three youngest groups shown in yellow, blue, and green — those born 1980-84, 1985-89, and 1990-94 — are all Millennials according to the common myth. But look how their experience differs!

cohort birth rates ACS.xlsx

Most of the fertility effect on the recession was felt at young ages, as women postponed births. The oldest Millennial group was in their late twenties when the recession hit, and it appears their fertility was not dramatically affected. The 1985-89 group clearly took a big hit before rebounding. And the youngest group started their childbearing years under the burden of the economic crisis, and if that curve at 25 holds they will not recover. Within this arbitrarily-constructed “generation” is a great divergence of experience driven by the timing of the great recession within their early childbearing years.

You could collapse these these six arbitrary birth cohorts into two arbitrary “generations,” and you would see some of the difference I describe. I did that for you in the next figure, which is made from the same data. And you could make up some story about the character and personality of Millennials versus previous generations to fit that data, but you would be losing a lot of information to do that.

cohort birth rates ACS.xlsx

Of course, any categories reduce information — even single years of age — so that’s OK. The problem is when you treat the boundaries between categories as meaningful before you look at the data — in the absence of evidence that they are real with regard to the question at hand.

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Selfie culture, tourism, and the challenge of the authentic self

Just kidding — who would give a blog post a title like that?

The author on vacation.

The author on vacation.

Our family vacation this summer, to London and Paris, was my first since the Year of the Selfie Stick (which is this year). This is also the year in which 59% of “millennials” (only 40% of whom understand that they are millennials) answered “yes” when asked whether the phrase “self-absorbed” describes “people in your generation overall”?


At Admiralty Arch, London

I can’t add much nuance to the theory of selfie culture, which has already taught me a lot. For example, I learned on NPR that vanity isn’t vanity if it’s part of constructing your “personal brand” — so it’s OK to edit your selfies:

“I think that while a lot of people find it easy to say, ‘Well, you’re taking a photo of yourself, and you’re posting it online for people to sort of rate.’ I could see how that superficially looks like vanity,” she says. “At the same time, I think that it really gives a lot of the younger generation a platform to express themselves without being incredibly harshly judged — because the selfie is such a casual form of expression, no one is going to expect you to look absolutely perfect.”

What interested me is the intersection of artificiality and authenticity that the selfie brings to the experience of tourism. Taking 1,000 pictures of yourself in order to post just the right spontaneous look is the normal business of personal brand construction. It creates a presentation version of yourself. It’s an expected form of inauthenticity, just like most people expect you won’t post pictures of your kid crying at her birthday party.

But when you’re a tourist, selfies are about authenticity. They’re the picture that proves you were really there — and really in that mood at that moment that you were there. As the culture studies journal Forbes Leadership put it:

In the age of social media, authenticity for Postmoderns is characterized by a consistency and continuity between their online personas and their lives in the real world. The more congruence there is between the two, the more authentic the Postmodern appears to be.

You can’t have that unless the famous thing is clearly visible behind you. Which produces the endlessly entertaining spectacle of tourists taking and retaking selfies with every different expression and pose in front of popular monuments and attractions.


At Buckingham Palace.

Social media is social. We share pictures and updates with real people. Even when you’re alone, you’re not alone on social media. Which I think is great. But like the person staring at his phone through dinner, it seems antisocial when you do it publicly. The selfie-takers are alone in their Instagram bubbles in the middle of a sea of other people.


At Buckingham Palace.

And when you’re going in for the money shot — say, the Eiffel Tower at sunset — you can’t afford to mess around. It seemed like these people were oblivious to me setting up for a shot of them from 10 feet away. (Also, like driving, it seems that operating the selfie stick in different-sex couples is the man’s job.)

At the Eiffel Tower.

At the Eiffel Tower.

Or, in this case, the daughter totally not noticing that her parents are collapsing from boredom while she works up her umpteenth Buckingham Palace selfie.


I have nothing against all this. (Our story is that every moment of the vacation was deliriously fun, and we have the pictures to prove it.) Having a good time seeing new people and things without hurting anyone is what I love about tourism.


Still, it’s funny that people go to such trouble to get the perfect picture of themselves — creating at least a moment that is artificial — in their quest for an image of authenticity. What would this picture mean if I weren’t really in Paris, contemplating all there is to contemplate in exactly that spot?


As affirmed by the behavior of thousands of people crowding around to take pictures of famous paintings, perfect reproductions of which are available online for free, it has to be real or it’s nothing. A lie.


The fake-smile selfie is a lie, too. I guess it’s just not a very important one.

One disappointing thing, though, is that suddenly the ritual of strangers asking each other to take their pictures is disappearing. That was a nice part of tourism, because it involved strangers smiling at each other.

Note: Help yourself to these photos, which are in this Flickr folder.


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Millennial, save thyself

When you see a tweet like this, you have to think, “What could go wrong?”


Ironically, the National Review blog post in question, by Brad Wilcox, was called, “What Could Go Wrong? Millennials are underemployed, unhitched, and unchurched at record rates.” In it he riffs off of the new Pew Research Center report, “Millennials in Adulthood.” His thesis is this:

Millennial ties to the core human institutions that have sustained the American experiment — work, marriage, and civil society — are worryingly weak.

Just a couple of completely wrong things about this. Apart from the marriage issue, about which we’ve long since learned Wilcox does not know what he’s talking, look at what he says about work:

 In fact, full-time employment for young men remains at or near record lows. This matters because full-time work remains the best way to avoid poverty and to chart a path into the middle class for ordinary Americans. Work also affords most Americans an important sense of dignity and meaning — the psychological boost provided by what American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks calls a sense of “earned success.”

After that big setup to a link to his boss at AEI, Wilcox shows this figure, the source for which is not revealed, but it’s presumably drawn from the Current Population Survey (though I didn’t realized CPS already goes three clicks beyond 2013):


Anyway, the scary line downward there is for 20-24 year-olds. How awful that they are so disconnected from the labor force these days, not developing their sense of “earned success.” I attempted to recreate that trend here, using the IPUMS extractor:

20-24-lfThat’s some drop in labor force participation since the peak at 77% in 2001, all the way down to 69% in 2013. So, what are they doing instead? Oh, right:

20-24-lf-educThe percentage of 20-24 year-olds attending school increased from 29% in 1990 to 41% in 2013. Altogether, the percentage in either school or the labor force (and some are doing both) has increased slightly. How bad is that? (I suspect this pattern would hold for the other age groups in Wilcox’s figure as well, but the CPS question on school enrollment was only asked of people under age 25. Note also the CPS excludes incarcerated people, which includes a lot of young people.)

So, unless you think education is bad for ties to “core human institutions,” that’s just wrong.

Happy yet?

After marriage, Wilcox moves to civil society, “measured here by religion” (don’t get me started). Obviously, religion is down. And then his conclusion about work, marriage and religion together:

Why does this matter? Historically, these core institutions have furnished meaning, money, and social support to generation after generation of Americans. Even today, data from the 2006–2012 General Social Survey suggest that, taken together, these institutions remain strongly linked to a sense of happiness among today’s Millennials. For instance, 58 percent of Millennial men who were married, employed full-time, and regular religious attendees reported that they are very happy in life; by contrast, only 25 percent of Millennial men who were unmarried, not working full-time, and religiously disengaged reported that they are very happy in life.

What is this, “taken together”? What if I told you that people who millionaires, love hot dogs, and have blue eyes are much richer than people who are not millionaires, hate hot dogs, and have brown eyes? Would that mean that, “taken together,” these factors “remain strongly linked”?

This is easily tested with the publicly available GSS data. I used Pew’s definition of Mellennial (age 18-33 in 2014, so born in the years 1981-1995) and found 676 men in the pooled sample for 2006-2012. There is a strong relationship with “happiness” here, but it is not with all three of these American-dream elements, it’s just with marriage.

I used ordinary least squares regression to predict being “very happy” according to whether the men report attending religious services twice per month or more, being employed full-time, and being married (logistic regression gives the same pattern but is harder to interpret). Then, for the “strongly linked” concept, I created a dummy variable indicating those men who had the Wilcox trifecta — all three good things (there were all of 34 such men in the sample). Wilcox’s claim is that these elements are “strongly linked,” implying all three is greater than the sum of the three separately.

Here are the results:

Predicting “Very Happy” among Mellennial men: General Social Survey

2006-2012 (OLS; N=676)

Coef P>|t| Coef P>|t| Coef P>|t|
Religious service at 2x+/month .07 .08 .02 .61 .03 .46
Employed full-time .06 .08 .01 .69 .02 .62
Married .29 <.001 .28 <.001 .30 <.001
Wilcox trifecta (all three)  —  — -.07 .48

However you slice it, married men born between 1981 and 1995 are more likely to say they are “very happy” than those who aren’t married. Cheerful bastards. On the other hand, going to church and having a full-time job aren’t significantly associated with very happiness. And the greater-than-the-sum hypothesis fails.

It’s also the case that having a full-time job, being married, and going to church aren’t highly correlated — especially work and church, which aren’t correlated at all (.001). I don’t think you can say these three elements are “strongly linked” to very happiness, or to each other.

Kids these days

But the details don’t matter when the kids-these-days, moral-sky-is-falling story is so firmly dug in. This is his final point:

Perhaps more worrisome, however, is the erosion of trust documented among the Millennial generation in the new Pew report. Only 19 percent of Millennials say that “most people can be trusted” — a response rate that marks them as much less trusting of their fellow citizens than were earlier generations of Americans, as the figure below shows.

But that’s actually not what the figure shows:


The Gen X folks in the Pew survey are ages 34-49, the Millennials are 18-33, or 16 years younger. So in fact the figure shows that Millennials are almost exactly where Gen X was when they were 18-33, in the mid-1990s — about 20% trusting. No (recent) generational change.

So, back to the Charles Murray tweet. Isn’t it shocking that when someone agrees with him in the conclusions, he thinks they’re brilliant in the analysis?


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