In 2000, sociologists Neil Howe, William Strauss and R.J. Matson wrote a book titled Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. Contrary to their rather bleak portrait of Generation X (titled 13th Generation), the authors were optimistic about “Generation ‘Y’” – or the “millennial” generation (referring to those born since the early 1980s, generally between 1980-1994).
According to Howe and friends, this generation would be more positive in outlook, socially oriented, and “can-do” in spirit. No Gen-X slackers here, much less the experience of a rebel phase such as Boomers went through in the sixties. Howe and colleagues even projected that under millennial influence, music would become more melodic/singable, sitcoms more wholesome, culture more mannered, individualism more restrained, and…well, you get the picture. Welcome to the most heroic, wholesome generation since the G.I.’s returned from World War II.
That was the prediction in 2000.
Welcome to 2007.
In a spate of recent surveys, the millennial generation is being charted for what it really is: materialistic, liberal, socially isolated, and perhaps more captured by individualism than any previous generation in history.
More wholesome sitcoms? According to a Pew Research Center poll, 61% of incoming freshmen embraced same-sex marriage, 78.4% believe abortion should be legal, and one out of every five have no religious affiliation or are atheist or agnostic.
More socially conscious? According to a UCLA study of incoming college freshmen, 81% said getting rich is their most important life-goal. The second most popular answer, at 51%, was being famous. Just for fun, compare this to a 1967 study of college freshmen in which 85.8% said their most important life-goal was to develop “a meaningful philosophy of life,” while only 41.9% thought it essential to be “very well off financially.”
As for just being social, consider a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education which featured a summary of insights into the millennial generation as offered by Richard T. Sweeney of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, along with excerpts from a panel discussion of millennials from Nevada State College and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. When asked how many close friends they have, panelists were hard pressed to name more than two. When asked how they relate to those “close” friends, it was almost entirely through Facebook, MySpace, instant messaging, or text messaging.
And what of individualism? As a recent USA Today article insightfully noted, this is the generation that grew up “in the glow and glare of their parent’s omnipresent cameras.” They have never been anything but the center of the universe. And reality doesn’t have to bite – at least yet. They can pursue their individualism by “becoming celebrities in their own worlds by posting videos on YouTube, posing as a model on MySpace, or creating an online reality show featuring themselves.”
Little wonder that consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow of Golden Gate University in San Francisco fears a growing “sense of emptiness and depression” as millennials age. “They’re putting their resources and energy and validation and self-worth into what people who aren’t close to them think of them, which is fame.”
I’ve long been suspect of generational forecasts done at ridiculously early stages. When Howe, Strauss and Matson put forward their conclusions about the millennial generation, the oldest interview could have been no more than 19, and the youngest clocking in at the ripe old age of five. Please. Such forecasts began as a cottage industry with Boomers (and then, fairly late in the game when most were already in their thirties) as marketers realized that there was a huge demographic “bulge” in the American population, and it would be wise to chart their interests. But the rush to diagnose the next generation, and the next, at ever earlier stages has proven ludicrous. Who could have forecast Hippies becoming Yuppies - that those at Woodstock would populate Wall Street?
But there is a larger concern here than the erroneous nature of generational predictions. It’s not whether we got the millennials wrong – we did – but whether now that we have them “right,” we will consider what it will take to reach them. Because they will face emptiness and depression. And more.
Because millennials are anything but rising. They are falling.
James Emery White
Neil Howe, William Strauss and R.J. Matson, Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation (Vintage, 2000).
Neil Howe, William Strauss and R.J. Matson, 13th Generation (Vintage, 1993).
“Majority of freshmen view gay marriage as OK,” Francisco Vara-Orta, Los Angeles Times, posted on latimes.com, January 19, 2007.
“The goal: Wealth and fame,” Sharon Jayson, USA Today, Wednesday, January 10, 2007, 1D and 2D.
“How the New Generation of Well-Wired Multitaskers Is Changing Campus Culture,” Information Technology section, The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 5, 2007, pp. B10-B15.