FactChecker: Are Millennials More Self-Sacrificing and Community-Minded Than Previous Generations?

For those who pay attention to the different opinions and declarations on how the various generations are different than the ones that came before, you have no doubt heard that while Generation X was the slacker generation, Gen Y, or the Millennials, are very different, the most community service-minded, action-oriented, let’s change-the-world-generation alive today, perhaps in the history of our nation. Generation We.

It’s taken as a nearly uncontested reality.

Except it’s not true.

The best research on this topic, relying on nationally representative research by the leading scholars on the issue comes to essentially the very opposite conclusion. Two of these scholars are Professors Jean Twenge (San Diego State) and Christian Smith (Notre Dame). They find that Generation We is more like Generation Me.

They explain that the “Generation We” understanding of Millennials comes from surveys that examined relatively small, non-representative population samples and did not compare them with previous generations, the kind of compelling but incomplete study that catches the attention of journalists. And thus, the myriad of newspaper and magazine stories contributing to the myth.

Jean Twenge’s Findings

As Twenge explains in a May 2012 Atlantic article, “You can’t really conclude anything about generational difference if you have data from only one generation.” Twenge’s work does not have this limitation: She uses two massive, nationally representative samples—one million high-schoolers and nine million college respondents—comparing Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials at the same age. Her data draw from what respondents said about themselves.

Her 2012 article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that, “For the most part, Millennials continued the downward trend in concern for others begun by Gen X. In sum, Millennials generally score lower than previous generations in concern for others . . .” (1)

Twenge explains that most of the items on the social/community concern measures she examined declined “faster or just as fast” for Millennials compared to Gen Xers, than between Boomers and Gen Xers.

Millennials were less likely to think about social problems, make efforts to conserve natural resources, be interested in or participate in government, voting, contacting their representatives, participate in demonstrations or boycotts or giving money to political causes. The decline in environmental concern and action are markedly steep. Remarkably, three times as many Millennials said they “made no personal effort at all to help the environment” compared to Gen Xers, (15% vs. 5%). (2)

Millennials did show increased levels of community volunteering. However, Twenge explains that this most likely resulted from high schools being much more likely to encourage community volunteerism through school-organized programs. Only 9% of schools did so in 1984, while 46% did in 1999.

Twenge concludes,

In sum, these results primarily support the “Generation Me” view, with linear downward trends in civic engagement and community feeling. . . . The data analyzed here suggests that the popular view of Millennials as more caring, community oriented, and politically involved than previous generations is largely incorrect. (3)

Christian Smith’s Findings

The other large population-based study is Professor Christian Smith’s who has been studying emerging American adults through the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) since 2001, following a large cohort of young Americans from ages 13 to 17 and into their twenties, considering them in contrast with previous generations. Smith’s findings are similar to Twenge’s.

Based on interviews with hundreds of emerging adults in national samples, Smith reports these youngest adults possess an “extremely low estimation of anyone’s ability to make a positive impact on the world. . . . Very few are idealistic activist when it comes to their making a mark on the world.” Just as few “are bothered by their disconnection and low expectations.” (4)

The “slacker” descriptor seems to apply to Gen Y as much, if not more, than it does to Gen X.

Smith addresses the phenomenon of so many journalists adopting and spreading the “Generation We” story line of Millennials in stark language.

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. 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. (5)

The young adults who are indeed hopeful about meaningful change and involved in efforts on behalf others are a markedly small percentage of their generation, less than 5 percent Smith finds. However, these few are notable, striving for the educational and economic opportunity of others, involved in urban renewal, promoting racial justice and ending human trafficking through communication, organizing, and social-movement activism. These young adults “view anything less as selfish indifference that is morally intolerable.” (6)

These few seem to have a strong and admirable vision of their place and responsibility in the world, followed up by action. But they are unfortunately very few.

The Millennials are a generation that need the direction, encouragement and applied discipline that every generation of young people needed to help them become the adults a good, thriving, civil society needs them to be. In previous decades, community functions such as military service provided that experience and education. But even though they are the 9/11 Generation—dramatically and indelibly shaped by this attack on our country and its people—Millennials military participation is dramatically lower than any other previous generation of Americans, the first to decrease overall military participation by more than a third, as this graph shows.

Millennials are not fated to be the next Generation Me. They simply need the encouragement, support, wisdom, and challenge that older generations can offer in helping them achieve their full potential. And there is no better place than the Church for them to find the guidance they need.

1. Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell and Elise C. Freeman, “Generational Differences in Young Adults’ Life Goals, Concern for Others and Civic Orientation, 1966-2009,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (March 2012), p. 11.

2. Twenge, Campbell, Freeman, 2012, p. 12.

3.  Twenge, Campbell, Freeman, 2012, p. 13, 16.

4. Christian Smith, et al., Lost in Translation: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 211.

5. Smith, et al., 2011, p. 224.

6. Smith, et al., 2011, p. 270.

  • Dean P

    Thanks for this. I’ve known about this for the last six years, but have had nothing real concrete and substantial to back it up (not that this is air tight by any stretch) but this helps my case with millenials who repeat the same old tired response to this kind of information. “Oh yeah every generation thinks that each age is more terrible than the previous one and that this next generation is the worst of all.” In which I say yes: exactly. The long reprecussions of post Christian modernity doesn’t just happen all of a sudden but it is a subtle and gradual process that is progressing gradually from one generations to the next, until eventually we will eventually come resemble pre-Christian Rome but just with gadgets and skyscapers.

  • http://markblock.wordpress.com/ Mark B.

    That sounds about right from what I have read in sociological journals and gathered from other research. All one has to do is look around to see this confirmed.

    Generation Me would be a good name for people my age as it sums up the majority of attitudes in my age group.

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  • Matthew

    I don’t doubt the conclusions of this article, but what does political activism and military participation have to do with being self-sacrificing and community-minded?

    Maybe that’s the problem with every American generation. We mistakenly associate loving one’s neighbor with violence.

    • http://textsincontext.wordpress.com/ Michael Snow

      That’s what struck me, also. That the major point was made with a graph on military service tells us more about the old generations of Christians than the new.

  • Ryan

    I object to the claim that the Generation We narrative is “taken as a nearly uncontested reality.” I actually feel that there are two loud, competing narratives: one which says Millennials are “adults” who are prolonged adolescents, unmarried, un- or under-employed, and living in their parents’ basements. And the other narrative is the contrarian Generation We. Without any statistics to back my claim, I feel like I read claims of both narratives an equal amount in the media.

  • JohnM

    I find this kind of subject interesting, but apparently I haven’t been paying close enough attention to have heard millenials were “the most community service-minded, action-oriented, let’s change-the-world-generation alive today, perhaps in the history of our nation”. Guess I haven’t missed anything after all.

    Before we decide millenials come of looking too bad, are we comparing different generations in terms of their voting, volunteerism, etc. right now, or how each is/was at a given age? The former might not be a very fair comparison. As for military participation, take into consideration the fact that for millenials, Xers (sorry anybody got stuck with that one), and about half of boomers there has never been a draft, and the fact that the military now is about half as big as it was in the 50’s and 60’s. No, I’m not a defensive millenial, I’m a boomer myself.

    • Caleb W

      I find it interesting that military service (America’s enormous standing army has not existed all that long) is some kind of metric for the social ethics of an entire generation. This post acts like 9/11 is the only relevant context for declining military “service”! As if to say, “can you believe it – we were attacked and the younger generation isn’t lined up around the block to enlist. They are such narcissists!”

      There are many factors at play here. One might be what I would see as a very ethical anti-imperialism in this generation. Or the fact that they have more realistic idea of war than, say, the Lost Generation. We valorize their ‘sacrifice for our freedom’ in what was really a pointless war between imperial powers.

      Christian America really needs to rethink its commitment to (or apathy about) militarism.

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  • http://www.churchfurniturepartner.com Church Chair Guy

    I have been waiting for an article such as this to at least provide some balance between the assertions I hear about millennials at various conferences, versus the observations that I see weekly. I appreciate the effort put into this one.

  • Brian

    As a millennial, I observe an increased state of meaninglessness among people my age. Let me give you two prevalent examples.

    Promise one: “Go to school, get an education, get a good job.” That didn’t work out for most people I know. The years lost and debt accumulated are high price to pay for listening to teachers and parents.

    Promise two: “Find someone you love, sleep with them, move in with them, and maybe marry them someday.” This also failed, for obvious reasons. Many young people have lived with several partners. Generations ago this would have been the equivalent of several divorces. The baggage is heavy.

    I will say this about why some millennials are generation “We.” It’s because they are looking for something meaningful to be a part of. They are looking for a cause greater than themselves, something to make sense of their debunked worldview and lots of views are there to fill in the gaps. Many of them quite sub-Christian.

    Some millennials are part of generation “Me” because they’ve lost faith in anything except themselves. So they work to maximize the kingdom of “Me” with jobs, competitive drive, etc.

    Obviously the Gospel provides a beautiful solution to the problem! Keep up the Gospel work everyone.

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  • Jason Cunningham

    I was going to forward this to some GenMe friends but figured it wouldn’t make a difference anyway…

  • http://textsincontext.wordpress.com/ Michael Snow

    “Millennials military participation is dramatically lower than any other previous generation of Americans…”

    This is certainly encouraging news regarding Christians and consistent with what I have seen this week in the chance encounters with the writing of three different young Christians, all in their 20s and all ardent pacifists.
    We need a generation of Christians who will listen to ALL of Spurgeon.

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  • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/about Lawrence W. Wilson

    I’m not sure that Millennials are LESS civic minded than previous generations, but my experience as both a pastor and employer would bear out the research that they are not more so. Is self-centerdness a generational characteristic, or a human trait?

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  • Larry Catlett

    This article should be a heads-up to our churches and our little denomination. We cannot assume the newest generation is going to “win the world” without the encouragement and mentoring of older folks. (See the last paragraph in the article). All of us over 50 should take up the challenge in this thoughtful perspective of discipleship.

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