The Atlantic Monthly
May 2, 2012
Reading about today's young generation is enough to give you whiplash.
Many books and articles celebrate Millennials (born, roughly, 1982 to 1999) as helpful, civically oriented young people who want to save the planet. Others argue the polar opposite, that Millennials are entitled, self-centered, and uninterested in much outside their own Facebook page. Which view is right -- are Millennials Generation We or Generation Me?
The first books written about Millennials were not just positive but glowing. The best known of these, Millennials Rising , is subtitled The Next Great Generation . Authors Neil Howe and William Strauss predicted that Millennials would resemble the generation who fought World War II: conformist, socially conservative, and highly involved in the community and interested in government. "Once this new youth persona begins to focus on convention, community, and civic renewal, America will be on the brink of becoming someplace very new," they write.
Millennials Rising was published in 2000, when the oldest Millennials were just 18. Howe and Strauss pointed to increasing rates of volunteering among high school students and decreasing rates of teen pregnancy and crime. They also interviewed 660 teens in McLean, VA, but didn't compare these responses -- or measures of civic engagement in large national surveys of young people -- to those of previous generations. You can't really conclude anything about generational differences if you have data from only one generation.
In the years that followed, numerous books and news reports emphasized Millennials' desire to help others, become involved in politics and government, and work toward improving the environment. "People born between 1982 and 2000 are the most civic-minded since the generation of the 1930s and 1940s," claimed USA Today . "Generation We is noncynical and civic-minded. They believe in the value of political engagement and are convinced that government can be a powerful force for good," wrote Eric Greenberg and Karl Weber in their 2008 book Generation We . "By comparison with past generations, Generation We is highly politically engaged." Both of these sources mentioned the rise in volunteering and interviewed Millennials, but didn't compare those responses to data from previous generations.
In my 2006 book Generation Me , I presented data showing generational increases in self-esteem, assertiveness, self-importance, narcissism, and high expectations, based on surveys of 1.2 million young people, some dating back to the 1920s. These analyses indicated a clear cultural shift toward individualism and focusing on the self. But perhaps both views were correct -- maybe Millennials' greater self-importance found expression in helping others and caring about larger social causes.
My co-authors and I decided to find out. Two large datasets -- the Monitoring the Future survey of high school students and the American Freshman survey of entering college students -- had many questions on community feeling, concern for others, and civic engagement that had been asked since the Boomers were young in the 1960s and 1970s. Both datasets are nationally representative and both are huge -- half a million high school respondents and 9 million college respondents.
With representative samples comparing three generations at the same age, this was the best data available to settle the Me vs. We question - and these items had never been analyzed in their entirety before.
So we dug into the data. The results for civic engagement were clear: Millennials were less likely than Boomers and even GenXers to say they thought about social problems, to be interested in politics and government, to contact public officials, or to work for a political campaign. They were less likely to say they trusted the government to do what's right, and less likely to say they were interested in government and current events. It was a far cry from Howe and Strauss' prediction of Millennials as "The Next Great Generation" in civic involvement.
Millennials were also less likely to say they did things in their daily lives to conserve energy and help the environment, and less likely to agree that government should take action on environmental issues. With all of the talk about Millennials being "green," I expected these items to be the exception. Instead, they showed some of the largest declines. Three times as many Millennials as Boomers said they made no personal effort to help the environment.
Millennials were slightly less likely to say they wanted a job that was helpful to others or was worthwhile to society. This is directly counter to the Generation We view predicting that Millennials would be much more concerned for others. Volunteering rates did increase, the only item out of 30 measuring concern for others that did. However, this rise occurred at the same time that high schools increasingly required volunteer service to graduate.
So where did Howe and Strauss, and others who championed the "Generation We" view, go wrong? They developed an idea of the generation first and then went looking for data to support it. They found some -- increasing rates of volunteering, for example. But they didn't consider the whole picture by examining the large amount of data available on generational shifts in civic orientation, life goals, and concern for others.
Those who have done in-depth studies of today's young people, such as Christian Smith in Lost in Transition , have come to a similar conclusion. "The idea that today's emerging adults are as a generation leading a new wave of renewed civic-mindedness and political involvement is sheer fiction," Smith wrote. "The fact that anyone ever believed that idea simply tells us how flimsy the empirical evidence that so many journalistic media stories are based upon is and how unaccountable to empirical reality high-profile journalism can be." (p. 224)
Howe and Strauss were right about other trends -- rates of teen pregnancy, early sexual intercourse, alcohol abuse, and youth crime have continued to decline. However, these behaviors aren't related at all to civic orientation, and have a tangential relationship at best to the desire to help others or contribute to society. They are also determined by many factors beyond generational attitudes, such as demographics, drug wars, policing, birth control availability, and even -- as the authors of Freakonomics argued -- the legalization of abortion.
I'm sometimes asked why I have such a "negative" view of young people. I don't. The longest chapter in Generation Me was on the increase in equality and tolerance, clearly a positive development. In addition, these findings have nothing to do with my views. The survey data we analyzed captured what Millennials said about themselves , not what I or any other GenXer or Boomer says about them. If we're going to understand our culture and how it's changed, we need to listen to what young people say.