The power of the PA Millennial boom

Photo by Ohad Cadji
Photo by Ohad Cadji

This year, the Millennial generation will eclipse the Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living generation, totaling 75.3 million, according to U.S. Census data.

For our purposes, the Millennials are that broad group born between 1981 and 1997, making them between the ages of 18 and 34 in 2015, as defined by the Pew Research Center.

In Pennsylvania, there are more than 2.8 million of them. More than half a million of them are concentrated in Pennsylvania’s two largest cities, with more than 450,000 living in Philadelphia and more than 100,000 in Pittsburgh.

There is tremendous power in these numbers. The decisions Millennials make will have huge social, economic and political consequences. They are the current generation who are or will become leaders, parents, workers. What they buy, what they think, what they do will have an impact on everyone else.

We once thought the Baby Boomers would be unsurpassed in their influence. But some are leaving the workforce or slowing down. The Millennials are taking their place in numbers and in influence. (Even though Boomers still drive the majority of spending.)

Scott Keeter, the director of survey research for Pew, said the social and political viewpoints of Millennials in particular set them apart from previous generations.

“I think it’s likely that the social tolerance and liberalism of the Millennial generation is perhaps [their] most distinctive feature,” said Keeter. “It reflects the evolving nature of our social values and mores.”

Pew’s research shows that the trend toward voting for Democrats began in 2004, as many Millennials came of voting age. The analysis shows that Obama could’ve won without the Millennials’ vote in 2008, but Keeter said that may not have been the case in 2012.

At that time, Obama won four key battleground states — Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania — in part because he also won 60 percent or more of the votes of those between 18 and 29.

Natalie Moss, founder of Millennial Week, addressed an audience of young people during the Millennial Entrepreneur’s Forum at 1776 in Northwest. (Courtesy of Gee James of CMediaUSA)
Natalie Moss, founder of Millennial Week, addressed an audience of young people during the Millennial Entrepreneur’s Forum at 1776 in Northwest. (Courtesy of Gee James of CMediaUSA)

“When we look back over the history of the past 30 or 40 years, young people have not consistently been more liberal or democratic, but this generation is more liberal and democratic than older adults,” Keeter said. “For that reason they’ve been very politically consequential.”

Their liberal leaning politics are among the list of trends and characteristics that set them apart. Millennials:

  • Are driving less and would rather live in walkable, bikeable neighborhoods.
  • Are the first to qualify as “digital natives,” many of them born with tablets and  smartphones at their fingertips.
  • Have been disproportionately affected by the recession, facing unemployment and underemployment, yet they are optimistic about the future.
  • Are the most racially diverse generation yet.
  • Wait longer to get married than previous generations and are less likely to link marriage with parenthood.

Hadley Pratt, 24, of Pittsburgh, sees some of these trends reflected both in her personal and professional life.

Hadley Pratt, 24
Hadley Pratt, 25, calls herself an “accidental techie.” (Photo by Ohad Cadji)

“I remember a time before the Internet, but [younger people] don’t,” said Pratt. “We’re on the very vanguard — the cutoff point before and after the Internet.”

She said she became an “accidental techie” in the workplace.

“I’ve learned how to do so much of my job from literally Googling things,” she said.

Pratt was hired as nonprofit communications director right after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh. She said she’s one of the lucky ones; she knows she could’ve ended up unemployed or struggling for work.

She chose to live in Bloomfield, a neighborhood in the East End of Pittsburgh, because of its walkability and access to public transit.

“I take the bus every day,” she said. She takes it to get to the South Side where her parents are, to get downtown for work, to get to the East End for her social life.

So how are these attitudes, values and aspirations shaping America? And how do those trends impact Pennsylvania?

The Generations Defined

The Millennial Generation
Born: 1981 to 1997
Age of adults in 2015: 18 to 34*
Generation X
Born: 1965 to 1980
Age of adults in 2015: 35 to 50
The Baby Boom Generation
Born: 1946 to 1964
Age of adults in 2015: 51 to 69
The Silent Generation
Born: 1928 to 1945
Age of adults in 2015: 70 to 87
The Greatest Generation
Born: Before 1928
Age of adults in 2015: 88 to 100

*No chronological end point has been set for this group. For the purpose of following a cleanly defined group, Millennials are defined as those ages 18 to 34 in 2015.
Source: Pew Research Center
Upon surveying the research, we found that the start and endpoints for Millennials depend on the research groups looking at them. Most agree on starting somewhere between 1980 and 1982. The endpoints vary. For their recent study, the Pew Research Center set the endpoint at 1997, although their official definition of the generation leaves the endpoint undetermined.

Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center, said sociologists had it easy when it came to defining the start of the Baby Boomer generation, but that the practice of defining generations since has been an inexact science.

“Alas, the whole business of picking breaking points for generations is pretty arbitrary,” he said in an email to PublicSource. Pew’s official starting point for the Millennial generation is 1981.

As for the endpoint: “My personal opinion is that we may not know if a generation exists until we can view it from some distance,” he said. For the purpose of our series, we’ll define Millennials as those ages 18 to 34, born between 1981 and 1997. In cases where we use research that uses another range, we’ll let you know.

 City living

National studies show Millennials prefer to live in cities, with 62 percent stating that they want to live in mixed‐use urban communities close to shops, restaurants and offices, according to a 2014 Nielsen consumer report.

Striking a balance between an affordable cost of living and job opportunities has proven difficult. Some of the cities where young people have found the right combination of the two are Denver, Portland and Austin.

A Census data analysis by the Brookings Institution showed these cities ranked in the top five for a net gain of young people between 25 and 34 when looking at numbers during the recession (2006‐2009) and post‐recession (2009‐2012).

Washington, D.C. was the city with the highest net gain of Millennials, with 12,583 young people between the ages 24 and 34 moving in each year between 2010 and 2012, mostly attributed to the area’s strong economy and wealth of job opportunities.

Southwestern Pennsylvania, including Pittsburgh, is one of the oldest metropolitan areas. But the region’s population of 20- to 34-year-olds has grown by 7 percent from 2009 to 2013. This demographic is expected to grow an additional 8 percent by 2020, according to researchers at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research.

The population of 20 to 34 year olds in Philadelphia increased by 100,000 between 2006 and 2012, according to census data. In their report on Millennials in the city, Pew called this influx “as fragile as it is promising.” Respondents to their surveys said they definitely or probably would not be living in the city five to 10 years from now. They cited a lack of job and career opportunities, crime and public safety as the primary reasons for their probable departures.

Life after college

Millennials are by far the most educated generation, with 34 percent graduating with a college degree, yet they are also the generation with the highest student debt.

Government and private student debt levels in the U.S. quadrupled from $250 billion in 2003 to $1.1 trillion in 2013. About 69 percent of college seniors graduated with student debt in 2013, with the average borrower owing about $28,400, according to The Project on Student Debt.

Pennsylvania ranked third highest in the nation for average student debt, with 71 percent of graduates in debt and the average debt per student at $32,528, according to the project.

Yet the value of a college degree is at an all-time high. The Economic Policy Institute in Washington D.C., using statistics from the Labor Department, found that Americans with four‐year college degrees made 98 percent more an hour on average than people without a degree.

After college, Millennials are not only looking for a job to pay the bills, but one that provides purpose, meaning and fulfillment. According to The Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults, 79 percent of Millennials agreed: “It is more important to enjoy my job than to make a lot of money.”

Jake Ward, 28, of Pittsburgh, left a salaried job working for a corporate utility company making $61,000 a year to work for a green energy company. He’s making about half his former pay, but said it was worth it to him to work for an organization whose values align with his own.

Jake Ward, 28
Jake Ward, 28, took a big pay cut, but is happier with his job now. (Photo by Ohad Cadji)

“I am struggling financially, but much happier with the life I’m living,” he said.

Jeffrey Arnett, research professor of psychology at Clark University and author of the study, said Millennials inherited this attitude from their parents.

“I do think they have high expectations for work and I think their parents did, too,” he said.

While some Millennials do buckle down and take whatever job comes along, many would rather go home to live with their parents to keep looking for something they find fulfilling.

“When you’re responsible only for yourself and you can still rely on your parents for support, then it’s possible to look for a job that’s just what you want,” Arnett said.

We’ll report on what Millennials are doing for work in Pennsylvania, if they’re satisfied with their jobs, and we’ll hear from those who haven’t quite found what they’re looking for.

The unmarried generation?

The pressure to finish an education, pay off student loans, move to a city with opportunities and launch a career leaves little time to consider one of the most traditional markers of adulthood: Marriage.

Just 26 percent of this generation is married. When they were between 18 and 32, 36 percent of Generation X and 48 percent of Boomers were married. Research from Pew finds that of unmarried Millennials, 69 percent want to get married, but are holding off until they can become financially stable.

Alex Caffee, 25, of Pittsburgh, said she questions the institution of marriage. “Why do we do this? Why is this something I want? Why has this become a part of our culture?” she asked.

Alex Caffee, 25
Alex Caffee, 25, questions marriage as an institution. (Photo by Ohad Cadji)

She’s not alone in her doubts. Twenty-five percent of Millennial respondents aren’t sure they want to get married at all, according to data from Pew. So what is the trend? And are marriage numbers influenced by trends in same-sex marriage, cohabitation and how gender roles are established within Millennials’ partnerships?

Tied to technology

More than any other generation, Millennials have been shaped by the ability to share their lives online, through social media and platforms that allow them to text, talk and receive news from people all over the world.

It’s clear these forms of communication will continue to proliferate and evolve as this generation moves into adulthood, though researchers say Millennials are split roughly 50‐50 on whether or not this hyperconnected existence will benefit or hinder them.

Julie Sokolow, 27, of Pittsburgh, wonders if she’s too connected to her devices. “I don’t want to be plugged in the moment I leave the office … instead of just experiencing the world firsthand,” she said. “That unmediated experience is getting more and more scarce, which frightens me.”

Julie Sokolow, 27
Julie Sokolow, 27, says, “I’m a filmmaker largely because the digital technology has made this an option for me.” (Photo by Ohad Cadji)

At the same time, she said if it wasn’t for digital technology, she might not have made a career as a filmmaker. “I could have been a lot of things: a writer, a psychologist, a struggling singer-songwriter. I’m a filmmaker largely because the digital technology has made this an option for me.”

Reach Weenta Girmay at

Eric Holmberg of PublicSource also contributed to this report. Reach him at


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