The Real Truth About Generational Differences
Millennials are not a myth. Get over it.
Posted May 12, 2017
Every so often, an article will declare that generations don’t exist and that they are a myth perpetuated by the media. The most recent example just appeared in USA Today. However, it failed to mention a single peer-reviewed research article on generational differences or cultural change, even though there are many—from my work to Sara Konrath’s to evidence in medical journals to the long tradition in sociology of examining change over time in attitudes.
Instead, the article featured quotes from academics who are no doubt experts in their own fields, but who are clearly completely unaware of the extensive research evidence for generational differences and cultural change.
The article is an intriguing mix of good points and false ones, so let's tackle each point in turn.
1. The very existence of generations. “I don’t think generations exist," said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia. "They are at best the equivalent of astrology and at worst a source of bigotry. Most of the references to generations that we see are based on muddy categories created by marketers who have zero social science credibility.”
Literally hundreds of social science articles document generational differences in attitudes, behaviors, values, and traits, many based on nationally representative samples and/or comparing the generations at the same age (here is just one, on work attitudes). Or play around with the data in the General Social Survey online yourself to explore the many ways Americans' attitudes have changed over the years, or see the Monitoring the Future data on drug and alcohol use among teens.Yes, there is a lot of misinformation out there from marketers and consultants who base their statements on conjecture or a few one-time polls. On that we can agree. But don't say something has "zero social science credibility" if you haven't even looked.
2. The birth year cutoffs. “Some generational experts say Millennials—which some refer to as Generation Y—are anyone born between 1980 and 1995 while others say it is between 1982 and 2000,” writes the USA Today article’s author, William Cummings.
True, the birth year cutoffs are debated, and are somewhat arbitrary (as I’ve noted before). Sometimes the cutoffs change—but that’s because new data tells us they should. For example, I used to think Millennials would end with those born in 1999. Now, based on data from large surveys I analyzed for my upcoming book iGen, the end year appears to be 1994, with iGen beginning in 1995. I put iGen’s end point at 2012, but that could change when there is more data available on these very young individuals.
In addition, changing the cutoffs, or having different cutoffs, has no impact on the basic fact behind generational differences: When you were born affects your attitudes, values, and behaviors. That is true no matter where the cutoffs are placed.
3. Contradictory evidence. According to the article, Jessica Kriegel, author of Unfairly Labeled: How Your Workplace Can Benefit from Ditching Generational Stereotypes, “found that [books and articles on generations] frequently contradict each other.”
Here we agree somewhat. Most of these books and articles are not based on empirical data, and those that are rely on one-time polls that cannot separate age and generation. Some are pure conjecture. That's probably why they contradict each other.
But when we look at the best data—from large surveys of people at the same age—the results are very consistent: Millennials (and modern American culture) are more individualistic (thus the title of my book on Millennials, Generation Me). As a result, Millennials are optimistic, self-confident, have high expectations for themselves, and value equality and tolerance (the result of treating people as individuals). There are also consistent trends for iGen, the post-Millennial generation born after 1995 who are the first to grow up with smartphones.
4. Generational differences can’t possibly exist because of class differences. Kriegel says, "You really can’t put them all in a box. And what we do is, we put them all in a box, and that box is really based on a middle-income, white, American person and then we just say that’s the only kind of Millennial that exists right now. “
This is completely untrue. The vast majority of the work on generational differences, especially in the last ten years, has relied on nationally representative samples. That means people of all classes and socioeconomic statuses are included. In addition, most generational trends appear across all SES levels. Here are four published examples: Materialism, religious commitment, depression, and sexual frequency.
Todd Gitlin, a journalism professor at Columbia, says in the article, "The notion that an 18-year-old in East Kentucky growing up in a coal-mining hollow has a great deal in common with somebody growing up on the Upper East Side of New York, enrolling in an Ivy League school is ridiculous."
I agree with Gitlin that class differences exist. But so do generational differences. Both the Kentucky kid and the one in Manhattan live very different lives now in the 2010s than kids in Kentucky or Manhattan in 1970. (Smartphones are only the most obvious example). Just because one type of difference exists doesn’t mean the other does not. People differ based on many characteristics—class, race, gender, region, and generation.
Kriegel goes on to say, "Tech savviness is much more related to socioeconomic status than it is to generation."
Also untrue, at least in the last ten years. Smartphones have completely collapsed the previous tech gap by socioeconomic status (SES). In data I’m analyzing on high school students, SES was unrelated to the amount of time students spent online.
5. Generational differences are stereotyping. "The problem is that too often we identify trends and then apply those trends to the people that we work with, either our employees or our colleagues. And that’s when we start to make assumptions about people that may or may not be true,” says Kriegel. I agree. That is not a problem with the data on generational differences—it’s a problem with people who leap to conclusions, who generalize from an average to an individual. That does not mean we shouldn't understand the average differences.
6. Time period vs. generation/cohort. Cummings notes that the differences found in, for example, the polls done by the Pew Research Center may be due to age. “Pew acknowledges that the differences can be born out of an individual's place 'in the life cycle—whether a young adult, middle-aged parent or retiree' rather than anything unique about that person's generation," he writes. "Take, for example, studies saying Millennials dine out more than non-Millennials. Some leap to the conclusion that this is the result of the latest foodie apps or the popularity of social media 'food porn.' But young people have typically eaten out more than their older counterparts (especially when you count carry out) because they are less likely to have family constraints on their free time and finances.”
Here, we again agree. One-time polls, such as some done by the Pew Center and many done by generational consultants, cannot separate the effects of age and generation. That’s why the studies I and many others do on generational differences compare young people at different points in time, taking age out of the equation and comparing the generations when they were the same age.
The article also notes that some effects are “period effects,” meaning cultural events that influence all generations equally. In other words, some cultural changes affect everyone. Again, I agree: My co-authors and I have taken this into account in many papers (here is one), using a statistical technique that can separate the effects of age, period, and cohort (the technical term for generations). Sometimes the period effect is stronger, and sometimes the cohort effect is stronger. I’m not sure it matters that much—both period and cohort effects capture cultural change.
7. There’s a larger problem here—this is a news story that reads like an opinion piece, because the writer either ignored or did not bother to search for the vast literature on generational differences in peer-reviewed journals, which are not difficult to find. He does quote one generational consultant, but apparently did not do a Google search, much less a Google Scholar search or one in PsycInfo or Sociological Abstracts. Here’s the irony: Three weeks ago, the same reporter published an article in USA Today titled “Millennials differ from other generations in almost every regard.”
That article was based on Census data, showing that Millennials have more student loan debt, are more likely to live with their parents, and are more likely to work if female. These are probably just some of the reasons their attitudes and values differ as well—but there was no effort to find the facts on generational differences. I thought mainstream journalism was fighting the fact-free era—and I hope they will next time they cover generations.
Now that there is so much good evidence for generational differences, it’s time to move away from these false narratives. Instead, we should be asking how cultural changes affect us, and how all generations can work together to understand them—and each other.
Konrath, S. H., O’Brien, E. H., & Hsing, C. (2011). Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15, 180-198.
Konrath, S. H., Chopik, W. J., Hsing, C. K., & O'Brien, E. (2014). Changes in adult attachment styles in american college students over time: A meta-analysis. Personality And Social Psychology Review, 18, 326-348.
Twenge, J. M., Sherman, R. A., & Wells, B. E. (in press). Declines in sexual frequency among American adults, 1989-2014. Archives of Sexual Behavior.
Campbell, W. K., Twenge, J. M., & Carter, N. (2017). Support for marijuana (cannabis) legalization: Untangling age, period, and cohort effects. Collabra.
Twenge, J. M., Sherman, R. A., & Wells, B. E. (2017). Sexual inactivity during young adulthood is more common among U.S. Millennials and iGen: Age, period, and cohort effects on having no sexual partners after age 18. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46, 433-440.
Twenge, J.M., Honeycutt, N., Prislin, R., & Sherman, R. A. (2016). More polarized but more Independent: Political party identification and ideological self-categorization among U.S. adults, college students, and late adolescents, 1970-2015. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42, 1364-1383.
Twenge, J. M., Sherman, R. A., & Wells, B. E. (2016). Changes in American adults’ reported same-sex sexual experiences and attitudes. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45, 1713-1730.
Twenge, J. M., Sherman, R. A., & Wells, B. E. (2015). Changes in American adults’ sexual behavior and attitudes. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44, 2273-2285.
Twenge, J.M., Carter, N. T., & Campbell, W. K. (2015). Time period, generational, and age differences in tolerance for controversial beliefs and lifestyles in the U.S., 1972-2012. Social Forces, 94, 379-399.
Twenge, J. M., Sherman, R. A., Exline, J. J., & Grubbs, J. B. (2016). Declines in American adults’ religious participation and beliefs, 1972-2014. Sage Open, 1-13.
Twenge, J.M., Campbell, W.K., & Freeman, E. C. (2012). Generational differences in young adults’ life goals, concern for others, and civic orientation, 1966-2009. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 1045-1062.
Twenge, J. M., Campbell, S. M., Hoffman, B. R., & Lance, C. E. (2010). Generational differences in work values: Leisure and extrinsic values increasing, social and intrinsic values decreasing. Journal of Management, 36, 1117-1142.