The Generation They Want to Be

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, March 19, 2012

The Generation They Want to Be

The latest study is out on what is now commonly known as the Millennial generation, and it’s not pretty.

Featured as front-page material in such publications USA Today, the study originally published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology finds Millennials (born 1982-2000) more “civically and politically disengaged, more focused on materialistic values and less concerned about helping the larger community” than either Generation X (born 1962-1981) or Baby Boomers (born 1946 to about 1961) when studied at the same age.

Yes, there is a rise in volunteering and a decline in prejudice, but as one of the study’s authors, Jean Twenge, notes, this is simply the result of their rampant individualism and “school requirements.” 

This mark is so pronounced it’s even produced a new word, “slacktivism,” a pejorative term for response and engagement that is nothing more than armchair activism, often online.  Think of the “work” involved in spreading Kony 2012.

Perhaps most telling was this comment from Twenge on the Millennial matter: “They reflect the culture, and young people show the changes in the culture the strongest.”

Yes, but they are not devoid of choice.

It is for this reason that studies attempting to forecast future behavior on current behavior or attitude are deeply flawed.  For example, let’s not forget that Hippies turned into Yuppies, and those at Woodstock ended up populating Wall Street. 

Not exactly in anyone’s forecast.

In truth, Millennials have gone through a roller-coaster ride of assessment.  The earliest studies predicted them to be the greatest generation to date.  Remember those?  Millennials were predicted to be more positive in outlook, more socially oriented, and maintain the strongest possible “can-do” spirit.  No Gen-X slackers here, much less the experience of a rebel phase such as Boomers went through in the sixties.  Projections mused 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.

Now, Twenge and others are finding them among the least.

I don’t know which will be proven true. 

I only know it’s up to them.

James Emery White



Millennials just might not be such a special bunch after all, Michelle Healy, USA Today, Weekend Edition, March 16-18, 2012, p. 1A. Read online.

For an example of the earlier, more positive assessments of the Millennial generation, see Neil Howe, William Strauss and R.J. Matson, Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation (2000).

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book is What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

The Generation They Want to Be