The myth of Generation We

Are Millennials more self-sacrificing and community-minded than previous generations?

By Glenn T. Stanton | February 19, 2013

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 America.

Generation We.

It’s taken as a nearly uncontested reality.

Except it’s not true.

The best research on this subject, relying on nationally representative studies by the leading scholars on the issue, comes to essentially the opposite conclusion. Two of these scholars, Jean Twenge of San Diego State University and Christian Smith of the University of Notre Dame, 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. It’s the kind of compelling but incomplete study that catches the attention of journalists, thus giving rise to 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 give 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% versus 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 by Christian Smith. He 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 activists 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” storyline 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 of others are a markedly small percentage of their generation, less than 5%, according to Smith. 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.

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.

Adapted from “FactChecker: Are Millennials More Self-Sacrificing and Community-Minded Than Previous Generations?” Originally published on February 8, 2013, by The Gospel Coalition.

  • 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.

Glenn T. Stanton is the director for family formation studies at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs.


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