Monday, November 17, 2014

The Next America - Millennials

In the decades since Boomers first came bounding onto the national stage, no generation of young adults had made nearly as loud an entrance—until now. Meet the Millennials: liberal, diverse, tolerant, narcissistic, coddled, respectful, confident, and broke.

If timing is everything, Millennials have known a mix of good and bad fortune. By lottery of birth timing, they’re the world’s first generation of digital natives. Adapting to new technology is hardwired into their generational DNA, and while it’s impossible to forecast where the digital and social media revolutions will take humankind, it seems safe to predict that Millennials will get there first. They are also the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in American history, a profile that should serve them (and the rest of the United States) well in a multicolored world engulfed by cultural, ethnic, and religious divisions. On the downside, they’re the first generation in American history in danger of having a lower standard of living than the one their parents enjoyed. On all these fronts, timing has played a central role.

The Millennials
Born after 1980.
Empowered by digital technology; coddled by parents; respectful of elders; slow to adulthood; conflict-averse; at ease with racial, ethnic, and sexual diversity; confident in their economic futures despite coming of age in bad times. 
Icons: Mark Zuckerberg, Lena Dunham, LeBron James, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Lawrence, Lady Gaga. 
Gen Xers
Born from 1965 to 1980.
Savvy, entrepreneurial loners. Distrustful of institutions, especially government. Children of the Reagan revolution—and the divorce revolution. More comfortable than their elders with an increasingly diverse America.
Icons: Quentin Tarantino, Will Smith, Adam Sandler, Tiger Woods, Robert Downey Jr.
Baby Boomers
Born from 1946 to 1964.
As exuberant youths, led the countercultural upheavals of the 1960s. But the iconic image of that era—longhaired hippie protesters—describes only a portion of the cohort. Now on the front stoop of old age, Boomers are gloomy about their lives, worried about retirement, and wondering why they aren’t young anymore.
Icons: Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, Tom Hanks.
Silent Generation
Born from 1928 to 1945.
Conservative and conformist, Silents are uneasy with the pace of demographic, cultural, and technological change—and with the growing size of government. But hands off their Social Security and Medicare!
Icons: Clint Eastwood, Neil Armstrong, Marilyn Monroe, Tom Brokaw, Hugh Hefner.’ political views have been forged by these distinctive identities and experiences. First, though, a few words about a debate among scholars over a related question: Are they on track to become America’s next great civic generation? That was the prediction advanced by generational scholars William Strauss and Neil Howe when they publishedMillennials Rising in 2000, just as the oldest of the Millennials were turning 18. Relying on interviews with teenagers and data about decreases in teen pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse, dropout rates, crime, and other antisocial behaviors, they posited that the new generation would resemble the Greatest Generation (born before 1928)—a pattern foreordained by the authors’ four-phase cycle of history. Millennials would be conformist, socially conservative, involved in their communities, and interested in government. Their book started a genre. Since then numerous journalists and authors have promoted this civic portrait of Millennials, exemplified by such books as Generation We by Eric Greenberg and Karl Weber.

But it hasn’t taken long for revisionism to set in. A Timemagazine cover in 2013 pegged Millennials as “The Me Me Me Generation”—“lazy, entitled narcissists still living with their parents.” (In classic newsmagazine style, the cover added a cheeky hedge: “Why they’ll save us all.”) The “me me me” meme isn’t new. It was first put forth nearly a decade ago by psychologist Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University psychology professor whose 2006 book, Generation Me, analyzed surveys of young people dating back to the 1920s and showed a long-term cultural shift toward high self-esteem, self-importance, and narcissism. In follow-up work, she found that Millennials are less likely than Boomers and Generation Xers had been as young adults to exhibit values such as social trust and civic engagement and behaviors such as contacting public officials or working on political, social, or environmental causes. She did find an overall increase in volunteerism, though she noted it has come at a time when more high schools are requiring their students to do some sort of community service to graduate. Twenge expanded her critique in a 2009 book, The Narcissism Epidemic, co-written with W. Keith Campbell. 

What Makes Your Generation Unique?
Technology use 24%
Music/Pop culture 11%
Liberal/Tolerant 7% 
Smarter 6%
Clothes 5%
Gen X
Technology use 12%
Work ethic 11%
Conservative/Traditional 7%
Smarter 6%
Respectful 5% 
Work ethic 17%
Respectful 14%
Values/Morals 8%
“Baby Boomers” 6%
Smarter 5%
WWII, Depression 14%
Smarter 13%
Honest 12%
Work ethic 10%
Values/Morals 10%
It cast a jaundiced eye across all precincts of the modern celebrity culture but reserved a particularly disapproving glare for the everyone-gets-a-trophy school of child rearing that has come into vogue in the modern era. Twenge’s research found that college students in 2009 were significantly more likely than their counterparts in 1966 to rate themselves above average in writing and math skills—despite the fact that SAT scores decreased slightly during that same period. As she and many others have noted, the parental coddling often persists beyond adolescence. College deans nowadays complain that the hardest part of freshman orientation week isn’t getting the new students to feel comfortable staying—it’s getting the “helicopter parents” to feel comfortable leaving. Some schools even provide separation-anxiety seminars for Mom and Dad, but that doesn’t keep some from calling professors during the academic year to complain about their child’s grades.

I’ll leave it to the experts to untangle the psychological roots of such behaviors. My own guess is that the mix of global terrorism, digital “stranger danger,” the Columbine school shooting, 9/11, Newtown, media hype, and fewer kids per family have thrust parents’ biologically normal protective instincts into overdrive. These same factors may also be responsible for the low levels of social trust among Millennials themselves. If you were born in 1984, you were in middle school when the Columbine massacre happened; in high school on 9/11/01; and perhaps just about to become a parent for the first time when the young children of Newtown were struck down. Evil of that magnitude leaves a mark.

Then there’s the Internet and social media—the first communication platform in human history that enables anyone to reach everyone. Suppose your buddy shot a video of you bouncing so high on your backyard trampoline that you got stuck briefly in a tree? Back in the dark ages (pre-2005 or so) you might have shown it to a few friends as you yukked it up over some beers. Now you post it on YouTube and Facebook and hope it goes viral. At which point hundreds may see it. Or thousands. Or tens of millions. This outlet for personal expression and empowerment may help to explain their look-at-me tendencies—which find an offline analog in their fondness for tattoos. Back in the day, tattoos were the body wear of sailors, hookers, and strippers. Today they’ve become a mainstream identity badge for Millennials. Nearly 4 in 10 (38 percent) have at least one. Gen Xers are not far behind; 32 percent say they have a tattoo. Only 15 percent of Baby Boomers and 6 percent of Silents wear body art. And by the way, for Millennials, one tattoo often isn’t enough. Half of all tattooed Millennials have 2 to 5, and 18 percent have 6 or more.

When it comes to civic engagement, the data on Millennials are mixed. They match their elders on some measures of volunteering and contacting public officials, but lag behind on voting. The voter turnout deficit is largely a life-stage phenomenon; previous generations of young adults also turned out at much lower rates than their elders. In 2008 and 2102, Millennials narrowed the turnout gap—a testament to Obama’s strong personal appeal to the young. But in the midterm election of 2010, with Obama not on the ballot, the young stayed home in droves.

As for volunteering, a 2010 Pew Research survey found that 57 percent of Millennials said they had done so in the past 12 months, compared with 54 percent of Gen Xers, 52 percent of Baby Boomers and 39 percent of Silents. Pew Research surveys also find that Millennials are about as likely as other generations to say they had signed some sort of petition in the past year, but are less likely than Boomers and Xers to say they’d contacted a government official. Once again, there’s a life-cycle effect; people start reaching out to their elected officials when they have families, children, jobs, and homes. Lots of Millennials aren’t there yet.

That’s true of nearly all aspects of this generation’s life story. It’s still a work in progress. The question is whether their futures will be enhanced or encumbered by choices their elders are making now.

The Next America is published by PublicAffairs, and a multimedia presentation on its findings is at

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