Economics

'Girls' Gave Us the Wrong Ideas About Millennials

Educated young adults are mostly doing OK. But those without college degrees are struggling.

Fun while it lasted.

Photographer: Steve Zak photography/filmmagic/getty images

I have to make a confession: I haven’t watched more than a single episode of “Girls.” The reason is because I lived in Brooklyn, which is like being in “Girls,” except that fewer of the people are white. But I did read this interesting article by Ross Douthat, in which he asserts that the elite millennial generation “Girls” depicts -- secular, liberal, egalitarian -- hasn’t figured out a healthy alternative to traditional values. He writes:

[T]he striking thing about “Girls” is how the mess it portrayed made a mockery of the official narrative of social liberalism, in which prophylactics and graduate degrees and gender equality are supposed to lead smoothly to health, wealth and high-functioning relationships.

I can personally attest that Brooklyn youth culture is, indeed, far from a paradise of healthy, stable relationships. But also, having lived in places like Texas, Michigan and California, I can vouch that Brooklyn youth culture is far from representative of educated secular millennial lifestyles. If we look at the data rather than relying on scripted television shows, a picture emerges that is far closer to the “official narrative” that Douthat rejects.

The “secular” part is certainly accurate. Millennials attend church much less than previous generations, and they’re less likely to say religion is important to their lives:

The Young Lose Old-Time Religion

Percent saying religion is very important to them

Source: Pew Research Center

They are also less religiously observant and more likely to identify as “no religion.” They also tend to be more liberal than their elders, though it remains to be seen if that will persist as they age. And they are far more likely to be college-educated than previous generations, even though some aren’t even old enough to have completed college yet.

But the lifestyles of these educated, secular young Americans are a far cry from the hedonistic, dissipated existence that Douthat envisions. Increasingly, it’s the educated who are getting married, staying married and raising children in two-parent households. Richard Reeves, a researcher at the Brookings Institution who studies marriage and family, writes:

There was a time when college-educated women were the least likely to be married. Today, they are the most important drivers of the new marriage model. …College graduates in the United States are reinventing marriage as a child-rearing machine for a post-feminist society and a knowledge economy. It’s working, too: Their marriages offer more satisfaction, last longer, and produce more successful children.

Reeves finds that since 1990, marriage rates have been constant for college graduates, but have fallen for those without a degree. Meanwhile, the National Center for Health Statistics, extrapolating from recent trends, predicts that college-educated people are far less likely to have marriages that end early:

Educated Types Stay Married

Estimated chance a woman's first marriage lasts 20 years or more

Source: Pew Research Center

Also, despite the much-ballyhooed “hookup culture” supposedly sweeping the nation’s youth, Millennials of all education levels tend to have fewer sex partners than previous generations. This may be because of increased fear of pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, or because young people are spending more time on the internet. Educated millennials are also healthier, relative to previous generations and their less-educated peers. Economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton recently found that mortality rates for black, Hispanic and educated white Americans have fallen, while rates for non-college-educated whites have stagnated or even risen. Many of those deaths are from drug overdoses. The coke-snorting, molly-popping Brooklyn hipster is an entertaining stereotype, but the real face of American drug abuse is a working-class middle-aged white man shooting heroin in a suburb or small town.

So although the foibles and follies of young upper-class urbanites might make for more entertaining TV, the numbers tell us that the educated kids are all right. It’s the non-college young people who are in trouble. Despite being more likely to profess traditional values, they are less likely to live by them.

I believe that we should spend less time obsessing about the educated youth, and more time focused on the majority of young Americans who don’t get TV shows made about them. The true voice of the millennial generation isn’t “Girls,” it’s “Breaking Bad” and “The Biggest Loser.” Or else it’s something that’s not on TV at all. Maybe we need to turn off the tube and get out into the country, and see the real problems that disadvantaged young Americans are struggling with. The Brooklyn hipsters can take care of themselves.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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