News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

May 3, 2014

THOMAS L. STEIGER: Perhaps Millenials are the true Americans

TERRE HAUTE — I recently took an online fun quiz that tells you such things as what kind of flower you are or which character you are from “Seinfeld”; there are many, and they’re fun. This one was sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trust called, “How Millennial Are You?” (www.pewresearch.org/quiz/how-millennial-are-you/). Lately it seems I see a lot of material focusing on what is wrong with this generation of students who fill my classes. Both of my daughters are “Millennials,” too.  

Millennials are born after 1980. They are reaching their mid-30s. They have never known a time without computers, and they have grown up with the Internet. Millennials are the first digital generation.

I took the quiz. I’m a Baby Boomer, and there seems to be much tension between the supposedly “work” and “youth” obsessed Boomers and the “entitled,” “Peter Pan,” Millennial generation. So, I was surprised when I scored 95 out of 100. Boomers average 11 on the test. I’ve always felt like a square peg in a round hole, maybe I’m just someone very ahead of my time.

Recently, I heard about a webinar that will teach me about this generation of students. I’m guessing there must be a market for such things. I found a how-to guide on Amazon, “What’s Wrong With Millennials: 50 Things you Need to Know about the Entitled Generation.” It details all the problems with Millennials in the workplace. Topics include the source of Millennial entitlement, how to talk to Millennials, what parents need to know about Millennials and drugs, the Millennial “reality gap,” and why their inflated opinions of themselves make them “lousy” leaders. I scored a 95 on the test, the average score for Millennials was 73. I’m more Millennial than they are!

I’m a sociologist and skeptical of such overblown claims, especially so when those making the claims have something to sell you (book, webinar, workshop). So I turned to the Internet to find some data. Thanks to Pew Research, I found some.  

Millennials are socially liberal. Two-thirds support legalization of marijuana; 70 percent favor marriage equality. Too bad Pew didn’t ask about abortion, but in other research conducted by Public Religion Research Institute, they found that Millennials are mostly supportive of abortion rights (60 percent) but conflicted about its morality.

To me, this suggests that Millennials trust people to make good decisions for themselves instead of government or other institutions. Yet Millennials are the least trustful of the past four generations. Only 19 percent indicated that “most people can be trusted,” over “you can’t be too careful.” This says more about how Millennials’ view social life than whether people can be trusted to make their own decisions. Millennials also lack faith in some of our major institutions; 50 percent are political independents, continuing a trend toward less affiliation with the two major parties. They are also religiously unaffiliated, with three in 10 indicating no religious affiliation, the highest of any of the previous living generations. And only 58 percent indicate they believe in God, the lowest of the previous living generations. They are also not rushing to the altar: Only 26 percent of them aged 18-32 are currently married, compared to 66 percent of the Silent generation (those born before 1945) at the same age.

However, using the Internet and social media, they create their own informal communities. Using Facebook friends as a measure, Millennials average 250 friends, while my generation, the Boomers, average only 50 (here I am true Boomer).

The Pew study didn’t address the claim that Millennials feel entitled. However, to me it seems that Millennials are demanding some accountability from the culture on its promises like “work hard and get ahead.” That expectation is taken by many to be “entitlement.” Most of the students I see have done that; they are academic superstars. They expect their effort to pay off and are less likely to accept that they are not good enough. While they do not seem to be politically organizing to change some things, they respond individualistically and grow suspicious of others’ claims. They are disengaging from society’s mainline institutions because of it. They expect to be treated as individuals, not categories, and thus reject judging people on religion, race, social class.

In many ways, Millennials seem to be exactly what we Americans claim to be (but fall well short of it).

After researching for this essay, I am pleased to score so highly on the Millennial quiz. Now, where is my prize?

Thomas L. Steiger is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email thomas.steiger@ indstate.edu.

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