Are Millennials "Generation Nice"?

What data comparing the generations actually conclude

Posted Aug 20, 2014

The New York Times has declared that Millennials (those born after 1980) are “Generation Nice.”

Millennials (also known as Gen Y or Generation Me) are highly empathic, the article states, and more focused on social change than materialism. They are highly communal and care foremost about others.

As proof for these sweeping conclusions about generational differences, the article cites ... virtually nothing.

That’s unfortunate, because even a cursory look at the research on generational differences would have disproven these conclusions. It doesn't make much sense, but writers often describe generations without citing any studies actually comparing the generations. This would be unthinkable when examining any other group. Can you imagine an article describing women that does not cite a single academic study comparing women and men? Or shall we describe cross-cultural differences without actually comparing cultures?

Most people would agree that the best way to find out what distinguishes a generation is to ask young people themselves, and then compare those responses to what young people from other generations said when they were the same age.

Those data almost completely contradict the conclusions of the New York Times article. For example, researcher Sara Konrath and her colleagues found that today’s college students are substantially less empathic than Boomers and GenX’ers were in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. My colleagues and I found similar results in nationally representative samples of high school and college students. Millennials were significantly less concerned for others and significantly less civically and politically engaged than Boomers and GenX’ers were at the same age in two nationally representative samples. Compared to Boomers and GenX'ers, Millennials are actually slightly less likely to say they want jobs "directly helpful to others" or that "make a contribution to society."

As I describe in more detail in Generation Me, these were surveys of young people collected over time, so the differences were not due to age. And since they captured what young people said about themselves, they cannot be distorted by the perceptions of older people. (Making, for example, the argument that older generations have “always” complained about the younger generation completely irrelevant – maybe, but these studies focus on young people’s views, not older people’s complaints).

The one piece of data that might support the NYT article’s conclusions is that (among entering college students) the importance of “helping others in difficulty” increased from 70% in 1966 to 72% in 2013. But compared to the jump from 42% to 82% in the importance of “being very well-off financially,” that’s peanuts.

This record high level of materialism also contradicts the article's conclusion that Millennials value intrinsic values at work over extrinsic ones. The large over-time surveys again suggest otherwise, showing that Millennials value interesting work a little less, and money and status at work a little more, than Boomers did at the same age. True, these findings look at average differences and cannot tell us the tendencies of any one individual of a particular generation. But that's true of any study looking at group differences.

The NYT article cites a few other non-academic sources that are problematic upon further examination. One poll says Millennials are more likely to be vegetarians. But, because this study was done at one time, this could be due to their age as young adults rather than their generation. Data collected over time paints a different picture. When asked, as 12th graders, if they would be willing to “eat differently if it would help starving people,” 65% of GenX’ers agreed in the 1980s and 1990s, compared to 60% of Millennials in the 2000s and 2010s.

Early on, the article mentions a Pew Research Center report from 2010, but that report did not conclude that Millennials were communal. It concluded that they were optimistic and confident -- traits linked to individualism, not communalism. In addition, almost all Pew Center polls are taken at one time and thus can’t separate age and generation. The article also mentions that applications to Teach for America and the Peace Corps are up recently, but doesn’t compare those application numbers to those for Boomers and GenX at the same age. When one does, the results are different. In 1966, 22% of Boomer college students said they were interested in the Peace Corps, compared to 11% of Millennials interested in the Peace Corps/AmeriCorps in 2006 (the last time the question was asked).

Now that so many studies have examined generational differences with large samples collected over time, there is no longer any reason to rely on one-time polls and anecdotal observations. Sure, the article was in the Style section, but if you’re going to say Millennials are higher in empathy, at least do a Google search for empathy and generations.

Then there's the matter of what we would prefer to be true. Would I like to believe that young Millennials are more concerned for others and empathic than previous generations? Yes – that would be great. I would also like to believe I will win the lottery. In both cases, however, the statistics suggest otherwise.