Moral Relativism and Extreme Individualism: A Cautionary Tale from the US
Some scholars believe US Millennials are narcissistic and politically apathetic while others defend them as highly motivated to do good. We’ll start with the pessimists. Two huge yearly surveys of high school seniors (463,753 gathered from 1976 to 2008) and college freshman (8.7 million, gathered from 1966 to 2009) compared Millennials born after 1982 with Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. Authors Twenge, Campbell, and Freeman’s findings back up the authors of Lost in Transition charge (to be discussed later) that money and image is more important to Millennials than affiliation and community, continuing the trends started by Gen X.[i] When asked about the importance of having lots of money, 26% of Millennials said it was extremely important, compared to 16% of Boomers. These critics charge that Millennials are less interested in “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” and “finding meaning and purpose in my life,” than Baby Boomers. However, more Millennials still rate finding meaning as more important than having lots of money. Regarding Millennials’ goal to be well-off, Winograd and Hais comment, “Where we differ from Twenge is in placing moral value on these values or goals….The implication that the core values of one generation are ‘better’ than those of another, may, in the end, be the greatest flaw in Professor Twenge’s writing.”
Narcissism vs. Altruism
Lead researcher Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, maintains that her earlier conclusion that this generation is more narcissistic holds based on an increase of one in four in 2006, up from one in seven in 1982.[ii] That means 75% aren’t narcissistic even using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Some say the NPI just measures confidence, as in the question “I’m a good leader;” does a yes answer signify egoism or a statement of fact? You can take the NPI online: I scored one point lower than being defined as a narcissist and I’m not at all self-centered, just confident and at times—like when teaching, extroverted.[iii] In the same article, Twenge says for the first time I’ve read this kind of caution from her: “Most young people are, even now, not very narcissistic, but there are now more individuals who reach a very high level of narcissism.” She adds that women, Latinos and Asian Americans have lower narcissism rates than men and Anglos.
According to Twenge, Millennials’ concern for others declined slightly in comparison to previous generations and their “civic orientation” (interest in social problems, political participation, and environmental action) also declined, especially in taking action to help the environment. Millennials only outscored Gen X on civic awareness in talking about politics, but most of the differences between generations were small and Millennials have lower crime rates than Gen X did when they were young. Twenge, et al., acknowledge that, “In most cases, Millennials slowed, though did not reverse, trends toward reduced community feeling begun by Gen X,” and that the declines were slight.[iv] Twenge includes herself in Generation Me, although she was born in 1971, mixing very different Gen X with Gen Y, and calls the combined group Gen Me. In a 2012 article she defines them as roughly born from 1982 to 1999. She attributes general trends for all ages, such as Americans of all ages feeling more stressed over time, not just a characteristic of young people. Among the various scholars who report civic-mindedness, Twenge chose only to criticize the positive findings of Neil Howe and Willaim Strauss (Millennials Rising) and Eric Greenbergy and Karl Weber (Generation We) only because they didn’t include comparative data from previous generations.[v]
She states that narcissists lack empathy for others, but clearly Millennials are liberal about social issues like national health care, same-sex marriage, and expanding college scholarships for low-income families, which seems like concern for others. Twenge herself notes in Generation Me the increase in equality and tolerance. Generational expert Neil Howe says, “Today’s youth want government to participate actively in building communities and helping those in need,” nearly two to one of people aged 18 to 29 take this stance, in comparison to older Gen Xers who are about evenly split on the issue.[vi] A report called “New Progressive America: The Millennial Generation,” confirms that youth are liberal in their political views, as does a Pew Research Institute report.[vii]
The Millennials—women more than men, are more liberal than their elders on every social issue (with majority support for gay marriage, affirmative action, national health care, unions, and government providing more services) except abortion. They’re evenly divided on whether it should be legal in all or most cases.[viii] In the 2011 college freshmen survey, the belief that abortion should be legal increased to 61% in support.[ix] Millennials expect government to provide services. They are drawn to collective action including openness, cooperation, group decision-making, and individual responsibility within the collective action. Zoe, 17, reports,
I do feel this change in my generation; it’s more socially accepting on social issues like legalizing marijuana. We’re looking at the debate over contraception and wondering, “Is this 1973? Do they want to want to overturn Roe v. Wade?” We have to stall their efforts so they die before our generation can take over in office. The median age of the Supreme Court is like 150. It’s going to be really interesting when this generation starts moving into office.
A Pew Research Institute report also found that Millennials are more liberal than older Americans about social issues like homosexuality, abortion, and belief in evolution, and large numbers (67%) say they would prefer a bigger government that provides more services.[x] This generation is “more inclusive and more tolerant of group differences than any previous generation,” has more global awareness, and is more likely to volunteer in high school, college, and afterwards in organizations like Americorps.[xi] Regarding volunteerism, which Twenge ascribed to high school students wanting to beef up college application, Wonograd and Hais point to a 20% increase in college student volunteering between 2002 and 2005. There’s even a service webpage for young tweens.[xii] The Corporation for National and Community Service reported that 26% of college students volunteered in 2005 down from 31% in 2004, perhaps because tuition is rising and they have to spend more time earning money.[xiii] The authors of Lost in Transition charge, “They are so focused on their own personal lives, especially on trying to stand on their own two feet, that they seem incapable of thinking more broadly about community involvement, good citizenship, or even very modest levels of charitable giving.” [xiv]
Millennial comments responding to a 2012 Twenge article in The Atlantic explained that if they were uninterested in social issues it’s because they’re overwhelmed and disgusted: “Millennials are steadily being crapped on by a bad economy and political policies that redistribute wealth to the old and very old. With a 54% unemployment rate for those under 24, is it any wonder young people feel disconnected?” Tim S
There is a trend for my generation to find less interest in the news, less interest in going “green” and less interest in religion because of over- population, conflicting information, marketing that appeals to emotion (like the marketing used for “green” products) and our vast ability to communicate with others in the world and the relations we establish with them.[xv] Nicholas Yount
As part of the generation in question, the government isn’t going to help us, it doesn’t matter who is in “power.” It’s a stalemate. Nothing productive gets done–and if something is going to be done the politicians have to be bribed with earmarks or support for pet projects. So why would we care about politics? Politics and reality television are similar–a waste of time and money, made to cater to anyone who will listen, loud, obnoxious, over-the-top targeting only their demographic and annoying everyone else.
I used to care. But the more I cared, the more obvious it was that it doesn’t matter. If we’re going to change the world, we have to do it ourselves–by making our own businesses and working through those channels, by vetting and policing every organization that we volunteer for or donate to or better yet–just doing it ourselves. We get blasted every day with stories of government corruption, corporate corruption, police corruption, media bias and lies, non-profit organizations squandering money. Is it really surprising that we’re a self-centered generation? All we hear about is how often society–the government, corporations, organizations, ect. has failed us. Ashrak
Wonograd and Hais report that all generations value being a good parent and having a successful marriage, but Millennials are much more likely to value doing work that benefits society as well as having a high-paying job.[xvi] This is especially true for the younger Millennials age 18 to 24: more than three-quarters of them said both goals are very important. Despite the apparent contradiction of a well-paid “philiantrocapitalist” job, almost two-thirds of 18 to 34-year-old are confident they will achieve their goals. The data is from the yearly survey of college freshman by the Higher Education Research Institute. Examples of altruistic young social entrepreneurial business leaders such a co-founder of Kiva are featured in Shake the World by James Marshall Reilly (2011).
I asked statistics expert David Philhour to look at Twenge’s data:
I looked at the full study in order to assess how much “practical significance” there is in these studies. Given that the numbers are HUGE, it is not surprising that they got lots of p values of less than .01, but the effect size for these differences is VERY SMALL. Other problems I see relate to claims about representing Boomer (1946-1961) whereas they present only data for folks born 1958-1961 for the Monitor the Future survey (graduating high schoolers).
Professor Kali Trzesniewski and colleagues reviewed 410,527 high school students responses and 26,867 college students’ scores over 30 years, reporting they found no evidence for increase in narcissism, self-esteem, egotism, political activity, the importance of religion, etc.).[xvii] The few differences are youth today are more cynical and less trusting and have “higher educational expectations” than previous generations. Similar to Wonograd and Hais, the authors “emphasize the need for care when psychological scientists offer broad and often moralistic pronouncements about entire generations of young people.”
Twenge responded to Trzesniewski and colleagues’ criticism in an article by criticizing their methodology, saying they ignored many variables in the survey of high school students, and that her conclusions stand that youth are less interested in civic matters, more materialistic, and more self-satisfied.[xviii] A Pew Research Center report names Millennials the “Look at Me” generation because they post photos and activities on social networking sites.[xix] In the Pew survey, when respondents were asked about the life goals of others in their age group they said fortune and fame, but that didn’t mean individuals personally agreed with the goals.
Other scholars join in criticizing Twenge, reporting when recent data is included there is no increase in narcissism in college students and being self-centered is part of youth: “Every generation is Generation Me.”[xx] Professor Jeffrey Arnett points to the new life stage of “emerging adulthood” leading some older adults to judge young people as selfish because they delay stepping into adult roles. He observes that “youth bashing” is common and problematic although older Millennials follow through with their simple dreams of finding a love partner and the right job as they approach 30.[xxi] Emerging adulthood is a new life stage postponing commitments as young adults must spend more time in education, delay marriage, and perhaps return home to live with their parents as they struggle to find a good job. It will continue so it’s not a uniquely Millennial phenomenon.
The Higher Education Research Institute summary of freshmen survey trends from 1966 to 2006 reported in response to a question about your most important beliefs, “The importance of helping others” was the highest it has been in 20 years at 67%.[xxii] It was third on the priority list, with raising a family at the top (75.5%) and being well-off financially (73%) in second place. Current freshmen come from more wealthy families than in the past, 60% higher than the national average income, which may be a factor in students’ emphasis on money to sustain their parents’ lifestyle, faced with rising tuition fees and the average $25,000 student debt. The Institute summary stated that becoming a community leader gained in importance (35%) and the number of students who said they would participate in community service in college increased from 17% in 1990 to 27% in 2006, with women twice as likely as men to be interested in service. (Women are 55% of the freshmen.)
In a generational survey of insurance employees by Howe and Nadler, nearly two-thirds of Millennials and Gen X wanted their employer “to contribute to social and ethical causes.’”[xxiii] The authors point to other studies confirming this social conscience and attraction to “helping” professions like teaching or nonprofits. Because of their open-mindedness, their lack of doctrinaire religiosity, because 40% of this generation is people of color, their acceptance of gender equality, and because they’re a Civic generation in Howe’s scheme, they are in line to end the culture wars, the bitter debates between religious right and secular left. If Millennials were narcissistic they wouldn’t be concerned about equality for others.
Rebuttals to the narcissism charge include: every generation of young people is more self-centered than adults—especially until they become parents. The NPI is flawed. Others, such as authors Jeffrey Arnett and co-authors Morley Winograd and Michael Hais, question Twenge’s methodology; the latter state on their blog that she relies too much on just 182 San Diego State student survey responses.[xxiv] I agree with Arnett maintain that Twenge makes too much out of small percentage changes.
Other Mental Health Problems
Twenge and co-authors maintain that compared with other generations Millennials suffer from increased anxiety, depression, and poor mental health. The 2010 and 2011 national survey of college freshmen found the numbers who felt overwhelmed in high school increased to 28.5%. Their self-rating of emotional health was at an all-time low although the majority (53%) said their emotional health compared to peers was high or average. Despite this, Twenge states that these surveys of freshmen and high school seniors report “large generational increases in psychopathology,” a sharp rise with a five-fold increase.[xxv] Yet the majority feels fine about their mental health. Worry over getting into college or paying for it doesn’t count as mental illness but seems very in touch with reality.
Professor Arnett arrives at a different conclusion than Twenge after looking at survey data: “In fact, the evidence shows emerging adults overall to be highly contented with themselves and their lives, and remarkable optimistic.”[xxvi] Arnett adds that many studies in the US and Canada show rising well-being from the late teens through the mid-20s, with high levels of optimism, rather than Twenge’s assertion that young people are both more confident and more miserable than ever before.[xxvii] They’re not naïve; they’re skeptical about large political and religious institutions, but optimistic about their own abilities to create a good life.
Some agree that youth are increasingly suffering from anxiety and depression. Kirby, 22, writes from Massachusetts, “It’s become more and more of a trend that people with easy childhoods and great parents, good education, fine jobs and good relationships, basically people who’ve had everything go right so far, are dealing with seemingly unexplainable depression and/or anxiety. It’s talked about all the time in my communications classes.” A therapist, Cyndi Sarnoff-Ross, sees this problem in her clients and reports, “Many clinicians are now focusing on this phenomenon of the let down,” the confusion young adults feel transitioning from a happy childhood where they could do no wrong to the real world.[xxviii] Kirby offers an explanation:
I think the problem is that without adversity, a person is never tested, and that inhibits the formation of identity. It’s related to the problem of “helicopter parents.” We’re also living in a time where decisions don’t seem to have many consequences. For example, our nation is in debt, but really for the most part we’re continuing to live the way we always have. Kids don’t see really lasting, important decisions being made; they see Congress refusing to make decisions that protect or positively impact their nation. This generation’s kids feel like they don’t have much to fight against, not like bad parenting or the Vietnam war that the hippies were kind of contrasting. A lot of psychologists are finding that too little stress is actually creating stress down the line.
Psychologists believe that some stress promotes problem-solving skills and too much triggers stress hormone cortisol and the person shuts down.
In one of the largest generational gaps discussed by Twenge, 15% of Millennials said they made no personal effort at all to help the environment, compared to only 5% of the Boomers. Only 9% of Millennials said they made quite a bit of effort to help the environmental, compared to 15% of Boomers. However, a in a 2010 Pew Research Center survey of the generations, Millennials were slightly more likely to be approving of the greater availability of green products (77%) than older generations and much more so than those over 65 (45%). A review of various surveys by the Center for American Progress found that Millennials are often more supportive of environmentalism than older generations, with 79% thinking “it’s my responsibility to improve the environment,” 74% supporting a national implementation of green energy, and 58% being more in favor of implementing environmental protection even if it slows economic growth.[xxix] The gulf between seniors and younger generations continued on other social issues.
I asked Zoe about environmental issues as she identifies as an activist. She isn’t convinced that humans cause global warming:
My biology teacher told us global warming doesn’t exist; he wants us to be skeptical and think twice about what we’re presented with in the media. I don’t know where I stand on global warming. I do know that we stop to poisoning the place in which we live. You can’t shit where you eat, as they say. We have to control the consumption of our resources because we have so few. I’m a huge environmentalist, but it’s not my top priority, I don’t know a whole lot about it. I approach it from capitalism’s waste and the inefficiencies of the economic system. It doesn’t make sense that we’re consuming at this rate. We have a lot of resources in this world but they’re not getting to where they need to be because people who need them don’t have the money to pay for them so they end up in landfills as a result of overproduction. You see science fiction shows like Firefire where we colonize other planets, which might be a good idea.
Zoe, 17, f, California
Marin, 14, agreed with Zoe about schools in our town; “In school, we don’t learn about environmental issues. We just learn what’s in our text books. We learn what the California State Law requires us to learn. It’s very disappointing that they don’t teach us anything about how our ways are effecting the environment. Its true that many kids don’t care about the environmental issues because they don’t know how big of a deal it is.” A blogger called Kayraha explained that Millennials’ lack of environmental action could be explained by: lack of time spent exploring nature, being overwhelmed by the volume of information, being pampered, they don’t think of ingrained habits such as shopping with reusable bags or recycling as action but take them for granted, plus the data was collected before the recession [and the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf] so attitudes may have changed.[xxx] “Jstudev” made a comment on The Atlantic website that backs up her point:
I ride a bike instead of driving and recycle but I eat meat so I would not go as far as to say I am helping the environment because of the culture I’m in. Whereas I bet my Dad who eats meat, drives and has a lot of posters of sharks and other exciting animals he likes on his wall would say he does a lot to help the environment because of a cultural difference in expectations.
As a working Millennial, I can say that I’ll only give two s**ts about the environment once I’m comfortable in my own life, paying bills, etc. In a period of record values of the dollar (low) and cost of living (high), we need to survive before we thrive. Nick Vaccaro
Winograd and Hais point out when the environment question in the longitudinal surveys was re-worded in 2011 to a more action-oriented approach instead of “participate in programs to clean up the environment,” 41% rated it as very important behavior. They add that, according to Pew Research 2010 survey, 80% of Millennials viewed climate change as a serious problem, 10 points higher than Gen X or Boomers. Youth lead large active environmental groups such as the Energy Action Coalition; the largest issue-based global youth blog is “It’s Getting Hot in Here.” Millennials often believe the best way to create change is to share information. It’s safe to say that some young people are environmental leaders and some don’t know much about problems like global warming.
In another book that could be called “youth bashing,” the evangelical father and son authors of Lost in Transition concluded that postmodern extreme individualism and moral relativity has left young adults confused and without vision of a greater good. The book draws from 230 in-depth interviews in 45 states with a representative cross-section of US “emerging adults,” ages 18 to 23, in 2008. The authors also refer to written surveys and telephone surveys they conducted before the face-to-face interviews. The authors focus on youth problems but mention that on the positive side, the percentage of youth starting and finishing college has increased, they’re optimistic about their futures, teen pregnancies have declined, and youth are less prejudiced than older generations.
The authors’ thesis is that youth suffer from postmodern moral relativity or “moral individualism;” they are unable to think through moral principles believing that what ever works for an individual is permissible. Their interviewees often said something like, “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?” The authors believe this lack of moral grounding leads to promiscuity, excessive drinking, over-emphasis on consumerism and political apathy.”[xxxi] The young adults who are lost without a moral compass feel confusion and pain. However, the percentages in their study who misbehave are in the minority (the majority are not politically active and emphasize consumerism), so it may be the authors have overstated their concerns. When I asked the lead author Christian Smith for a list of interview response percentages in an email, he declined referring me to their previous book about youth’s religious beliefs. The larger Pew Research Center surveys found that although US youth are less likely to attend religious services and affiliate with a particular religion than older generations, “Millennials are no less convinced than their elders that there are absolute standards of right and wrong,” and they are as likely to pray daily as well as have similar beliefs about the afterlife.[xxxii]
Rather than believing in objective moral truths, many young adults believe that morality is a social construction that changes with time and culture. And that in fact is true: For example, currently some Americans believe in a woman’s reproductive rights over her own body while others accuse anyone who performs or has an abortion, while others accuse them of baby killing and are adamant that human life begins at conception. Some believe that guns should be harder to get and kept out of the hands of killers, while others view gun ownership as a sacred constitutional right. Some believe that government should make sure every American has health care and others believe that each person is responsible for him or herself, as debated in the 2012 presidential race. Candidate Rick Santorum argued against birth control and abortion on the basis of his Catholic beliefs. Mitt Romney agreed with him, advocating defunded Planned Parenthood. President Obama disagreed.
Also in 2012, the Vatican accused US nuns in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious of “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” A bishop was put in charge of reining them in from their 2010 support of national health care in opposition to American bishops and their emphasis on helping the poor rather than opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. Sister Simone Campbell explained the Vatican is not used to strong women. But Millennials are used to them. Is the Holy Father correct or the radical feminist nuns? In the face of these kinds of opposing beliefs, it’s understandable that youth would question moral absolutes.
They’re also disappointed in their leaders. Many youth who were inspired by Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign of hope summarized in his slogans “Change we can believe in” and the chant “Yes We Can” were responsible for his election stopped believing and hoping. Their impact on the November 2012 election was _______. Although Millennials are more likely than older generations to advocate a strong federal government that provides services, recent surveys find them increasingly critical of the federal government and less trusting of the federal government than any time during the 50 years this question has been asked.[xxxiii] They especially (54%) distrust elected officials for being “crooked.” When the Gerstein-Agne Generation We survey asked respondents to select one characteristic that was least likely to describe Millennials, they picked trusting government and political leaders. Most (93%) thought that special interests and lobbyists dominate government, but they’re less likely than older generations to think that government is inherently inefficient. They think that politics and political engagement is relevant to them and in favor of government activism although cynical about its ability to do good.
About one-third of the Lost in Transition interviewees believed it’s all right to break moral rules if it works for you and you can get away with it. One-third didn’t know what makes something right or wrong, but 40% were influenced by what other people might think of them. About half said something that hurts other people is wrong, which seems to be a moral absolute. Some (27%) said most moral beliefs are relative, but with some exceptions. The authors qualified their conclusion about youth lacking moral principles by reporting that although nearly one-third of the respondents were moral relativists, two-thirds do not accept total moral relativism, although many couldn’t give an explanation for their beliefs. Another one-quarter of interviewees couldn’t decide, saying, “I think moral relativism kind of sucks. I think there are things that are inherently right and wrong. At the same time, situations, people change, society changes, culture changes to define, you know, what’s moral.”
When asked about their vision for a good life, the most frequent response (60%) was having close relationships (not getting a divorce) and wanting to be happy (40%). Over half (57%) of interviewees mentioned the importance of having money to pay for comfortable life. Only 9% mention belief in God or a religious goal as an important aspect of a life well lived. However, there are different findings in other studies discussed in the next chapter; for example, a 2010 Pew Research Center report on the ages 18 to 29 found they’re less religious than older Americans but as likely to pray.[xxxiv] Less than half say that religion is very important in their lives (45%) but two-thirds are certain of God’s existence and their beliefs about the afterlife are similar to older people.
What counts to emerging adults interviewed for Lost in Transition is having enough money to buy a middle-class lifestyle, including a nice house and car, although they don’t aim to be super rich. Having a college degree is valued more often for leading to a better job rather than learning. It may be they are reacting to the recession of 2008, rising tuition costs, large debt upon graduation from college ($1 trillion collectively), and high youth unemployment, so it’s understandable they would be concerned about having a middle-class lifestyle.
Few of the interviewees (less than one in ten) were critical of mass consumer materialism; they feel buying things helps the American economy. Shopping is a source of pleasure and happiness for 61%, while only 30% expressed concerns about consumerism. They felt there is nothing they can do to change the system so they might as well enjoying buying things. As one woman said, “There’s a lot of people who need shoes and I have over 100 pairs that I don’t need. So yeah, I’m worried about how consuming we are as a society, but not worried enough to change my ways yet.” [xxxv] Only a few percent of all interviewees were concerned enough to take action, such as something easy like shopping in a thrift store instead of a mall. Their primary solution is to be a more discriminating consumer. However, about one-quarter said they wanted to help others or have a positive influence on others, not just be comfortable.
In the national survey of college freshmen in 2011, the main motive for going to college was to get a better job, but a close second was to learn. Before the recession, learning was the main motivation. Also, more students (52.5%) rely on loans so they need a good paying job to pay them back. The freshmen’s parents are more affluent than in previous years, backing up other studies showing an achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families, about a third larger among children born in 2001 than those born 25 years earlier.[xxxvi] With youth unemployment of around 18%, 74% of over 3,000 young people put jobs and the economy as their top issue in a 2011 survey.[xxxvii] The same survey reported 69% regard community service as an “honorable thing to do.”
Young adults’ supposed lack of principles leads to casual sex, referred to as “hooking up.” One young woman advocated, “Sex should be a big deal. Sex is not a big enough deal to enough people.” Written survey results found 73% of never-married emerging adults have had sexual intercourse and the average age for first sexual intercourse was 16.[xxxviii] But the average number of sexual partners was three, which doesn’t suggest a lot of casual hooking up. In telephone surveys, over half (57%) had some regrets about their past sexual experiences. Women were more likely to express regrets, while three-quarters of those with no regrets were male. Few of either gender mentioned concerns about STDs although they’re widespread. The authors found romantic breakups were usually more painful for the women involved than the men and that a double-standard still exists: “Many guys act like women are different, they cannot understand them, and it is not their responsibility to try to.”[xxxix]
Lost in Transition authors believe moral relativism also leads to binge drinking and use of drugs, mainly tobacco and marijuana. The authors report that more than 40% of college students report binge drinking during the past two weeks and that thousands of college co-eds are victims of alcohol-related date rape. However, the 2011 survey of almost 204,000 college freshmen reported that drinking alcohol was at an all-time low down to 41% who had consumed frequently or occasionally in their senior year of high school. The Lost in Transition authors site studies that about one-quarter of young women experience rape or attempted rape during their college years. “Partying” means getting intoxicated, which is associated with having fun and being wild. The authors fault alcohol advertisers who spend billions of dollars to associate alcohol with living with gusto. However, they report 22% of the interviewees were non-drinkers, 25% were occasional users, and 22% were recovering drinkers who had become more moderate. These figures mean that less than one-third were heavy drinkers. The authors fault older adults—parents, educators and religious leaders–for doing “an awful job” in teaching moral reasoning and for not being more involved as mentors to young adults. They believe secondary schools try to ignore and avoid moral issues and instead focus on standardized test results.
Lacking moral convictions is also associated with lack of political interest and involvement—69% of the young adults said they are not political in any way and others count watching the news on TV or reading a newspaper as being political.[xl] The authors categorized young adult’s political orientation as apathetic (27%), the uninformed (13%), the distrustful but informed (19%), the disempowered but informed who don’t think they can make a difference (10%), the marginally political (27%) who are somewhat informed but not activists, while only 4% are genuinely political and engaged. The young adults feel stretched for time and don’t have much faith in their ability to make a difference, so they spend little time volunteering. By 2012 Millennials were about a quarter of the eligible voters, which will increase to over a third by 2020. True, youth voter turnout decreased in the 2010 elections, as it did for all ages, but Rock the Vote works to encourage youth voter turnout and in 2012 _______.[xli]
They found a correlation between emphasis on consumerism and less interest in politics and the common good, the effect heightened by individualism. As one of the young adults said, “I really like this idea of self-responsibility and only caring about oneself. …. I don’t think that we should be concerned with other people, unless they ask for help.”[xlii] The majority of the interviewees said no one has a responsibility to help other people. Their focus is on their own relationships. The authors conclude, “Having freed people from the formative influences and obligations of town, church, extended family, and conventional morality, American individualism has exposed those people to the more powerful influences and manipulations of mass consumer capitalism….all done in the name of individual self-determination.”[xliii] My interpretation of the problem is different, not so much a failure of their educators and parents, but youths’ reaction against the dangers of black and white absolutism, in terms of debates about reproductive choice, health care, guns, justification for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and responsibility for caring for disadvantaged people. It’s logical to conclude that the individual has to make up his or her mind about what’s right.
When in doubt, go to the source: I asked Zoe, 17, about the Gen We, Gen Me debate. You can see her on TheGlobalyouth YouTube channel wisely saying:
It’s hard to polarize these ways of looking at an aspect of life; when you polarize ways of looking it distorts it, the truth is somewhere in the middle. In some ways we are a narcissistic generation but that doesn’t speak for everyone. I don’t think they’re so much narcissistic, but they’re feeling helpless so they come to the conclusion they can’t change the world around them, that what they do and think doesn’t matter, so they bury themselves in more trivial matters. I think there’s a lot of pessimism driving this. Also, being self-centered is normal behavior for teenagers. And how you’re perceived influences how you act, the media portrays teens in a way that’s sometime harmful.
I talked with a group of six university students at CSUC to see what they thought about the Lost in Transition characterizations. They agreed that their generation is very individualistic about morality, but Nikki said her parents drummed it into her that some things, like lying and cheating, are wrong and consequences will come back to haunt you. They thought their individualism followed from a loss of community, a lack of a rallying point like surviving WWII or opposing the war in Vietnam. “A lot was given to us,” said Rachel, “so we have freedom without responsibility.”
They know friends who hook up, people who don’t, and players who change once they get into a monogamous steady relationship. When saturated with ads associating alcohol, sex and freedom in a college party culture with alcohol flowing and sexy music, sexual activity is a predictable outcome. They know people who wake up and don’t like what they did the previous evening, so this generation is not without morality. They also pointed to “free love” culture and drug use in the 60s and felt Gen X used more drugs than Millennials. The difference is now people are more aware of the need for sexual consent to prevent rape and assault. This particular group of students considers themselves activists. It appears Lost in Transition may paint too dismal a picture of Millennials according to the scattered percentages they report and their sample of only 230 young adults. But we need to pay attention to their warnings about taking modern consumerist values to their extreme.
In many countries youth are cynical about government corruption. In China a young man thinks at its beginnings the Chinese Communist Party tried to help the people, but now leaders are just concerned with power and money. Now the media are known as the Communist Party’s “throat and tongue.” In the TV studio where he works, the wages are so low employees rely on “gray income,” receiving bribes to not report news such as malpractice at a hospital. Much depends on connections called guanxi. His reaction is cynical and relativistic, not because of his upbringing, but because of the corruption and greed he experiences:
I used to think life is all about love and the reason why we are here on Earth. But now, I doubt what it is all about. I don’t see it simply right or wrong anymore. There is no right or wrong, good or evil. One plus one doesn’t have to equal two; there are no rules. It is so complicated and beyond my cognition.
It’s not surprising that young people are suspicious of claims that certain values are absolutely the right ones, not because they weren’t given proper moral instruction, but because they’re logical. As Tom, 14, said in New Zealand, “Look at religion. The Jews are the chosen ones. No, wait, the Muslims are the chosen ones. Hey! God said that we Christians are the chosen ones! It’s a big mess.” The star of the Harry Potter movies, Daniel Radcliffe, 22, doesn’t believe in God because, “I have a problem with religion or anything that says, ‘We have all the answers’ because there’s no such thing as ‘the answers.’ Religion leaves no room for human complexity.”[xliv] Like others in his generation, he says what counts for him is loving relationships. Millennials are skeptical about absolute values but care about helping others.
[i] Jean Twenge, W. Keith Campbell, and Elise Freeman, “Generational Differences in Young Adults’ Life Goals, Concern for Others, and Civic Orientation, 1966-2009.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, March 5, 2012.
[ii] Jean Twenge, et al., “Egos Inflated Over Time: A Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, Journal of Personality, Vol. 76, Issue 4, August 2008.
[iv] Jean Twenge, et al., “Generational Differences in Young Adults’ Life Goals, Concern for Others, and Civic Orientation, 1966–2009.”
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, March 5 , 2012.
[v] Jean Twenge, “Millennials: The Greatest Generation or the Most Narcissistic?”, The Atlantic, May 2, 2012.
[vi] Neil Howe and Reena Nadler, “Why Generations Matter,” LifeCourse Associates, February 28, 2012.
[vii] David Madland and Ruy Teixeira, “New Progressive America: The Millennial Generation,” Center for American Progress, May 13, 2009.
“The Generation Gap and the 2012 Election,” Pew Research Center, November 3, 2012. Millennials favor a bigger government; just 35% prefer a smaller government.
[viii] Ibid, p. 33, 35.
[ix] John Pryor, et al., “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2011,” heri.ucla.edu/PDFs/pubs/TFS/…/TheAmericanFreshman2011.pdf
[x] “Religion Among the Millennials: Less Religiously Active Than Older Americans, But Fairly Traditional In Other Ways,” Pew Research Institute,
POLL February 17, 2010.
[xi] Jeffrey Arnett, “The Empathic Civilization: The Young Pioneers of the Empathic Generation,” Huffington Post, February 9, 2010.
Other service sites are: http://mobilize.org/
[xiv] Ibid., p. 210
[xvi] Morley Winograd and Michael Hais. Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011.
[xvii]Kali Trzesniewski, et. al, “Do Today’s Young People Really Think They Are So Extraordinary? An Examination of Secular Trends in Narcissism and Self-Enhancement,”
Kali Trzesniewski and M. Brent Donnellan, “Rethinking ‘Generation Me:’
A Study of Cohort Effects From 1976–2006,”
Perspectives on Psychological Science, January 2010 5: 58-75.
[xviii] Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, “Birth Cohort Differences in the Monitoring the Future Dataset and Elsewhere
Further Evidence for Generation Me—Commentary on Trzesniewski & Donnellan,”
Perspectives on Psychological Science January 2010, Vol. 5: 58-75.
[xix] Pew Research Center, “A Portrait of ‘Generation Next,’” January 9, 2007.
[xx] Brent Roberts, et. al., “It Is Developmental Me, Not Generation Me
Developmental Changes Are More Important Than Generational Changes in Narcissism—Commentary on Trzesniewski & Donnellan,”
Perspectives on Psychological Science, January 2010 5: 58-75
In the most recent General Social Survey, 26% of Millennial generation respondents said they were unaffiliated, as did 21% of Gen Xers. Among Baby Boomers, 15% were unaffiliated – not significantly different from when they were first measured in the 1970s.
[xxi] Jeffrey Arnett, “To Grow Up,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 5(1), 2010.
[xxii] UCLA News, “Today’s College Freshmen Have Family Income 60% Above National Average, UCLA Survey Reveals,” April 9, 2007.
[xxiii] Neil Howe and Reena Nadler, “Why Generations Matter,” LifeCourse Associates, February 28, 2012.
[xxv] Jean Twenge et al., “Birth cohort Increases in Psychopathology Among Young Americans, 1938-2007,” Clinical Psychology Review, Vol. 30, Issue 2, March 2010.
[xxvii] Jeffrey Arnett, “Suffering, Selfish, Slackers?,” Journal of Youth Adolescence,” Vol. 36, December 16, 2006, p. 24.
[xxviii] Cyndi Sarnoff-Ross, “Daily Strength” blog, July 8, 2011.
[xxix] David Madland and Ruy Teixeira, “New Progressive America: The Millennial Generation,” Center for American Progress, May 13, 2009, pp. 25-26.
[xxx] Spinach in Our Teeth, March 19, 2012
[xxxii] Pew Research Center, “Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change.” February 24, 2010.
[xxxiii] David Madland and Ruy Teixeira, “New Progressive America: The Millennial Generation,” Center for American Progress, May 13, 2009, pp. 3-31.
[xxxiv] Pew Research Center, “Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change.” February 24, 2010.
[xxxv] Ibid, p. 83.
[xxxvi] Bill Boyarsky, “Income Inequality goes to School, “ Truthdig, February 24, 2012.
[xxxvii] Spring 2011 poll, Harvard Institute of Politcs
[xxxviii] Ibid., p. 149
[xxxix] Ibid, p. 177
[xl] Ibid, p. 196
[xli] Jeffrey Arnett, “Suffering, Selfish, slackers?,” Journal of Youth Adolescence, Vol. 36, December 16, 2006.
[xlii] Ibid., p. 219
[xliii] Ibid, p. 235