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What Is Your Generation Like?

How civically involved are today's young people?

They are shaping a new world, but no one knows what to call them.

Americans born between 1982 and 1999 (now ages 13 to 30) have been called Millennials, GenY, NetGen, Generation Me, and iGen. Not only is their name in dispute, but there's disagreement about how they differ from previous generations.

Wild disagreement: Some authors say they are the most selfless and civically involved generation in seventy years, while others say they are more focused on themselves than any previous set of youth. It's led some to throw up their hands and conclude we know nothing about generations—for example, this 2009 Chronicle of Higher Education article.

In the past, part of the problem was a lack of good data. Many books and consultants described generations by conjecture—say, concluding that GenMe/Millennials were more optimistic because the culture became more child-friendly when they were born in the 1980s. But they didn't actually have any data showing that they were more optimistic. When Neil Howe and William Strauss' book Millennials Rising was published in 2000, the oldest members of the generation were just 18—so there was not yet enough data to compare them to previous generations.

But that didn't stop Howe and Strauss from making lots of confident conclusions. Based on their theory that generations cycle through four different types, they predicted that Millennials would be, as their subtitle put it, "The Next Great Generation"—conformist rule-followers who would lead a new civic engagement, similar to those who fought World War II.

At first, they looked like prophets: More high school students in the 2000s did volunteer community service, youth voting ticked up, and the percentage who said helping others was important was at the highest level in 20 years. By 2005, though, there were grumblings that these young people had unrealistic expectations and a smug sense of entitlement. My bookGeneration Me was published the next year, reporting my research and others' showing higher levels of self-importance and even narcissism among this generation compared to Boomers and GenX'ers at the same age.

So which view was right? I thought it was possible that both could be—perhaps young people were channeling their self-confidence into good causes. Alternatively, the view of GenMe/Millennials as civically oriented was wrong, and their self-focus was accompanied by a lack of interest in larger issues. In other words, were Millennials "Generation We" or "Generation Me"?

Fortunately, this was a question that could be answered with solid empirical data—two large (9 million), nationally representative surveys of high school and college students collected over time were now publicly available, and they had many questions on these issues. So in the summer of 2009, my colleagues and I started to analyze the data.

The answer became clear very quickly: GenMe/Millennials were not more civically or politically involved than GenX'ers, and in most cases were less involved. They were less likely to say they cared about social problems, to be interested in government, to participate in political affairs, to have empathy for others, or to donate to charity. Even helping the environment declined in importance across items on everything from saving energy to group actions. Yes, the importance of helping others had risen since the GenX era, but only from 64% to 65%. As for volunteering, it was the only item out of 30 on concern for others that rose—probably because high schools increasingly required community service for graduation over this same time.

The decline in community involvement was paired with an increase in the importance of earning lots of money, being well-off financially, and being in a position of authority—all indications of greater individualism.

There were some exceptions to the general trends. The importance of making a contribution to society rose a little. The importance of helping others reached 70% by 2011—though the importance of being very well-off financially also reached an all-time high of 80% that year.

Given that these results come from two very large publicly available datasets—the best data we have comparing generations on these issues—this really should put an end to the idea of GenMe/Millennials as more civically and politically engaged.