Jean M Twenge Ph.D.

The Narcissism Epidemic

What's Wrong With Youth Today?

Denying the problem is not going to change things

Posted Mar 26, 2012

Saying that today’s young generation—known as Millennials or Generation Me—is disengaged and less concerned about the environment was bound to create some controversy, and it did.

I wanted to do a large study of generational differences on these issues partially because I’d seen so many books and consultants make bold statements such as “People born between 1982 and 2000 are the most civic-minded since the generation of the 1930s and 1940s. Other generations were reared to be more individualistic. This civic generation has a willingness to put aside some of their own personal advancement to improve society.“ That’s a quote from Morley Winograd and Mike Hais, authors of Millennial Makeover.

So when analyses on nationally representative samples of 9 million young people since 1966 suggested the opposite was true—civic engagement is actually lower among the 1982-1999 born group they call Millennials—Winograd and Hais fired back

However, very little of what they said was true—I’ll get back to that in a moment.

Their blog links to a statement from a pro-environmental group saying “This study is appalling, and completely demeans the very real work that today’s young people are doing on the environment.” Since the results are based on two large datasets I didn’t administer, this seemed odd—would they say a Gallup Poll “demeans” people? Perhaps they should, because Gallup polls show the same decline in interest in environmental issues that we found.

They go on to note the many young people who participated in various action campaigns for the environment. But that does nothing to undermine the data, which is based on generational differences in young people’s average responses. These young people are clearly the exception—perhaps part of the 4% Christian Smith found in his survey who were truly civically engaged. In addition, they don’t mention the many young people who were involved in environmental action campaigns or who said it was an important issue in the 1970s and 1990s. You can’t make a generational comparison if you only have examples from one generation. And overall it makes no sense for a pro-environment group to criticize the study—why not instead use it as a rallying point, to show how much work needs to be done?

So: Why doesn’t Winograd and Hais’ critique hold water?

Their main argument is that we should look at behaviors instead of attitudes, but many of the items we analyzed—including the environmental items you focused on—are about behaviors: For example, saving energy, taking action to help the environment, writing to public officials, working for a political campaign, and donating to charity. Those items show the same declines, and often larger declines, than the items about attitudes.

They then mention the high voter turnout of Millennials. However, Millennial youth voter turnout isn’t much different than GenX voter turnout. For example, among those 18-29, voter turnout was 23% in 2002, 26% in 2006, and 24% in 2010. The Pew study found that the youth turnout in 2009 and 2010 was low not just in absolute terms but relative to older voters. Thus I did not make the mistake they said I did about comparing turnout in presidential vs. non-presidential years.

Their argument about regional differences in the validation study for the life goals items—which was not the generational comparison but done to discover the meaning of the items—is ridiculous. The questions weren't related to region, so there's no reason to believe that the responses would be any different on another campus. The vast majority of psychology studies are done on one campus.

More important: Validating the items against more established psychological scales using a sample of young people is infinitely better than not validating the items at all. They seem to be suggesting it would be better to not take this step and thus not have any mechanism for understanding what the items on the surveys mean. Under this theory, it would be better for everyone to guess what they mean, or interpret them in the way that best fits their biases. That is exactly what we wanted to avoid, which is why we collected data from young people to see which items correlated with scales known to be reliable and valid.

It’s even more ridiculous to title a post “Do You Think All Millennials Go To San Diego State?” when only the validation sample—done to help interpret the items and not the source of the generational data—went to SDSU. The generational findings were based on two nationally representative samples of young people: the Monitoring the Future study of high school students and the American Freshman study of entering college students. This adds up to 9 million young people over time, and, since SDSU does not participate in the American Freshman survey, exactly none of them went to San Diego State.

They are right that the number who say they expect to volunteer in college is up—we reported that. What's funny is that this is an attitude instead of a behavior—expecting to volunteer is not the same as actually volunteering. So when it suits them, Winograd and Hais are more than willing to rely on items about attitudes instead of behaviors. The statistic they mention on actual volunteering starts in 2002, so it can't compare Millennial volunteering to that of previous generations. Recent studies such as this one find an increase in college student volunteering, but primarily due to course requirements. Non-required volunteering rose just a tiny amount, from 36% in 1995-1996 to 38% in 2007-2008. The good news: There was a large increase (from 9% in 2000 to 25% in 2008) in one-time, non-required community service. It’s not the whole scale change many had hoped for, but it’s certainly a bright spot amid the general decline in civic engagement.

Winograd and Hais end by saying that there’s no reason to believe that extrinsic values are any less meaningful than intrinsic values. This is not true. Tim Kasser and others have published numerous papers showing that individuals who favor extrinsic values over intrinsic values are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depressive symptoms. I wouldn't go so far as to make a "moral" judgment of these values—and didn't do so in the paper as they imply—but it's clear from the research that these values have implications for mental health.

Overall, the data from these two big surveys mean we finally have a good consensus on the generational shift: Like the larger culture, generations have become progressively more individualistic—more focused on the self and less on the community. This has big upsides, like tolerance and equality. But it also means more disengagement and less interest in social and community issues. Now that the data provide a reasonably clear picture of generational change, it seems important get to the real work: How to teach, manage, and mentor this young generation who will inherit the world.