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.
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