WASHINGTON — Young adults like to think of themselves as independent, but when it comes to politics, they're more likely than not to lean to the left.
Half of American adults ages 18 to 33 are self-described political independents, according to a survey out Friday, but at the same time half of these so-called millennials are Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party, the highest share for any age group over the last decade.
In addition, young adults tend to be single and churchless — turning away from their predecessors' proclivity for religion and marriage, according the Pew Research Center survey. Almost two-thirds don't classify themselves as ''a religious person.'' And when it comes to tying the knot: Only about 1 in 4 millennials is married. Almost half of baby boomers were married at that age.
The new survey shows how the millennial adults are ''forging a distinctive path into adulthood,'' said Paul Taylor, Pew's executive vice president and co-author of the report.
This can especially be seen when it comes to politics. Fifty percent of the millennials identify themselves as political independents, while only 27 percent said Democrat and 17 percent said Republican. The independent identification for millenials is an increase from 38 percent back in 2004.
''It's not that they don't have strong political opinions, they do,'' Taylor said. ''It's simply that they choose not to identify themselves with either political party.''
The number of self-described independents is lower among their predecessors. Only 39 percent of those in Generation X said they were independents, along with 37 percent of the boomers and 32 percent of the Silent Generation.
Pew describes Gen Xers as those from age 34-49, boomers as 50-68 and the Silent Generation as those 69-86.
When the self-identified Democratic millennials combined with the self-described independents who lean Democratic, half — 50 percent — of the millennials are Democrats or Democratic-leaning while 34 percent are Republicans or Republican-leaning.
''They don't choose to identify, but they have strong views and their views are views that most people conventionally associate with the Democratic Party,'' Taylor said. ''They believe in a big activist government on some of the social issues of the day — gay marriage, marijuana legalization, immigration. Their views are much more aligned with the Democratic Party.''
Taylor said they don't know whether millennial voting trends will stay the same as they get older.
''People can change over the course of their lifetimes,'' Taylor said. ''At the same time, the behaviors, attitudes, the voting patterns and experiences that generations sort of encounter as they come of age in their late teens and early 20s are important and this generation as political actors has come in three or four national elections in a row now as distinctively Democratic and liberal despite the fact they don't want to identify that way.''
Millennials also haven't bought into the idea that they should go to church or get married early.
Only 36 percent of the millennials said the phrase ''a religious person'' described them very well, compared with 52 percent of the Gen Xers, 55 percent of the baby boomers and 61 percent of the Silent Generation. And they're significantly less religious than their immediately predecessors, the Gen Xers. When they were the same age, almost half of the Gen Xers — 47 percent — identified themselves as religious.
The 64 percent of the millennials who say that they are not religious ''is the highest for any age group we've ever measured,'' Taylor said.
The millenials were far less inclined toward marriage than the groups that preceded them. Only 26 percent of the millennial adults are married. When they were the same age, 36 percent of the Gen Xers, 48 percent of baby boomers and 65 percent of the Silent Generation were married.
The Pew study was based on interviews with 1,821 adults by cellphone or landline from Feb. 14-23. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points
By Jesse J. Holland THE ASSOCIATED PRESS