They're young. They like things their way. They don't like stereotypes and steer clear of conformity.
Because young people ages 34 and younger are legions larger than the dominant-until-now-Baby Boom generation, their likes and dislikes command lots of attention. High on their list is gender identity — a concept they're increasingly resisting.
"Gender stereotypes are conformity," says Jamie Gutfreund, chief strategy officer of The Intelligence Group, a consumer insights and strategy group based in Los Angeles whose summer/fall 2013 report about gender paints a vivid portrait of younger generations' attitudes.
The survey reveals that "gender is less of a definer of identity today than it was for prior generations. Rather than adhering to traditional gender roles, young people are interpreting what gender means to them personally."
As a result, gender rules and traditional stereotypes are fading. From college housing to clothing, language and parenting, gender-neutral increasingly is the preferred position.Generation Y alone is estimated at 80-90 million in the USA (compared with 75 million Baby Boomers) and 2 billion worldwide. It's growing because of immigration. And because they think and behave the same globally, experts say these young people will change society in profound ways.
The online survey measured opinions of a nationally representative sample of 900 people ages 14-34, two-thirds of them 18-24 (termed Generation Y or Millennials), and the remainder 14-17 (often termed Generation Z).
Among the findings:
• More than two-thirds agree that gender does not define a person the way it once did.
• 60% think that gender lines have been blurred;
• Nearly two-thirds say their generation is pushing the boundaries of what it means to be feminine and masculine. As a result, 42% feel that gender roles today are confusing.
"You can be one thing one day and another the next," Gutfreund says. "In previous generations, there was no going back and forth. Now, there's incredible fluidity to everything."
"Fluidity" is exactly how generational expert Bruce Tulgan, founder of a management, research and training company in New Haven, Conn., describes what he's observed.
"They would say not just men and women; it's everyone along the spectrum. Everybody has his or her own gender story," he says.
"There is no question that some stereotypes that may have been held by previous generations have faded," says Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, a conservative policy group that defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman. "For example, no one today disputes that women can be successful doctors, lawyers, business leaders, or public officials. Such a trend is far different from asserting that differences between the sexes do not exist, or that such differences are entirely a social construct rather than the result of innate biological factors.
The evolving role of gender prompted Re:Gender, a network of organizations and individuals based in New York City, to rebrand itself last year, following talks with Millennials. Since its founding 1982, it had been known as the National Council for Research on Women.
"They (Millennials) want to talk about gender in terms of race, class, in terms of immigration. It's a more nuanced conversation about gender," says Áine Duggan, Re:Gender's president. "Very often, people use the word 'gender' when they mean biological sex. What we're seeing now is that people's sense of gender identity is not the same as their biological sex. People want to feel free and open to have whatever mix of masculinity and femininity seems right for them."
Gabrielle Kratsas, 22, of Pace, Fla., agrees. A 2014 graduate of the University of Maryland-College Park, she spent all four years competing for the school's boxing club, which ranges from 20-30 members.
"When I first joined, there were only two or three girls on the team, so it was heavily male, but by the time I left, it was at least a third if not half female," she says.
But that doesn't mean she doesn't have a more feminine side.
"I love doing things like sewing and cooking," Kratsas says. "My boyfriend will tease me 'You're so domestic.' "
If you haven't paid close attention, the rise of gender-neutrality has been inching its way into the culture.
• College campuses have been at the forefront, creating gender-neutral bathrooms and gender-neutral housing, which allows students to live with any roommate, regardless of their sex or the gender with which they identify. Although this move began in response to a rise in activism in support of transgender students well over a decade ago, such changes have been adopted at many campuses. Sprigg of the Family Research Council urges caution. "Some of the trends hold the potential to be dangerous," he says. "I would urge colleges that have adopted 'gender neutral' housing options to take a deep and honest look at the question of whether such policies may result in higher rates of sexual harassment or sexual assault."
• In state government, gender-neutral language is becoming the norm. According to Kae Warnock, a policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, at least 30 states have addressed the gender-neutral issue. Many have language in statutes providing that sentences using masculine gender also include the feminine. Some statutes require that new laws and those that amend existing law be drafted in gender-neutral terms. A few states have amended all statutes with gender-neutral language.
• As the oldest American Millennials begin their early years as parents, they are adopting this genderless approach. Gender-neutrality is evident, from decorating babies' rooms in neutral colors rather than the more traditional pink and blue to selecting more gender-neutral toys to the baby names they're choosing. WhitePages.com, a provider of contact information for people and businesses, earlier this year declared 2013 the Year of Unisex Names, noting a rise in such names and an almost even split between males and females with the names Riley, Peyton and Rowan.
• The 2013 debut novel Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie was a winner of a science fiction award and got attention for its non-gendered language; the narrator doesn't use gender-specific pronouns to describe the characters, whether they're biologically male or female.
• Boston's Museum of Fine Arts last month concluded an eight-month exhibition called Think Pink about the history and meanings of the color, noting that both sexes wore pink until the 1920s.
• In February, Facebook announced that users could display more than 50 new gender categories beyond "male" and "female" to use in their profiles.
At Maryland, Kratsas says training for an outdoor adventure program on campus specifically discussed how to be conscious of avoiding gendered pronouns when addressing peers.
"I've met so many people who switch pronouns," she says. "I've met people within the gay community on campus sometimes who tell people they want to be addressed as male or female on a daily basis. It's the way they're feeling that day. I agree. I don't believe there is a hard line between genders."
Richard Honack, a professor of education who focuses on generations at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., says the androgynous approach favored by young people is due, in part, to the Internet.
"What we're seeing here is the Internet making people neutral," he says. "If I'm playing a game with somebody in Africa or Japan or Europe, I don't know if they're male or female or what they look like. I'm playing with them. Is it an avatar or real? It doesn't matter."
Brian Etheridge, 16, of Oakland, N.J., a high school junior in the fall, uses many game platforms and changes the gender of the characters he creates.
"Personally, I like to mix it up," Etheridge says. "In one game I play, I'm a girl. In another game I play, I'm a male. It just pops up in my mind when the character creation comes up. I'll do this."