Millennials get a mixed reputation. While some call us narcissistic and shallow, others are inspired by our connectedness and drive for social change. Are we all about ourselves or others?
The Huffington Post recently featured two opposing studies regarding millennial values that’ve left a few scratching heads. One article reported a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that deemed millennials as more self-centered and focused on extrinsic motivators, such as money and fame, than Baby Boomers or GenXers were at our age. Ouch. Yet, only a few months later, the same newspaper reported on another study that 75% of millennials donate financially to charity and 63% donate time–statistics that seem to negate our previous narcissistic image.
So, which is it: Generation Me or We?
If you look at the numbers, the answer is pretty clear. But since these studies are so different, I’ll be using them for different purposes. The first demonstrates a trend and mindset for a generation analyzing nation-wide data over 40+ years. The second describes how non-profits effectively engage millennials based on a much smaller and biased survey population. In this two-part article, I’ll report my findings after reading each study thoroughly and then how non-profits can use this data to their advantage.
First, let’s talk methods. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study, whose findings overwhelmingly supports the Generation Me theory, analyzes data going back to 1975 from two nationally representative samples: high school seniors and college freshmen at four year universities. While the second group is more selective, each was filtered carefully to represent the national demographics at the time. The survey focused primarily on what is most important in life (life goals), the importance of empathy (concern for others) and being involved in the community (civic orientation). The study distinguished these questions based on extrinsic values (those relying on external feedback such as fame, money, popularity) vs. intrinsic values (those relying on internal feedback like self-acceptance, actualization and community) to establish whether an action was motivated by narcissism or self-esteem.
What did all this data tell us? Compared to Baby Boomers (surveyed in 1966-78) and GenXers (79-99), Millennials (2000-2009) are across the board Generation Me.
Millennials are more motivated by extrinsic goals than intrinsic ones, more narcissistic, less concerned for others, less civically and communally engaged than either of the previous generations at our age. In terms of life goals, ”being very well off financially” rose four ranks while “becoming involved in programs to clean up the environment” dropped three ranks from Baby Boomer’s answers at 17 and 18. My English professors would say that we are true children of the post-modern literature movement, with “finding purpose and meaning in my life” dropping three ranks from Baby Boomers (although it still ranks higher than money for millennials). The only silver lining for millennials? Significant increases in volunteering–probably due to increased high school and college requirements.
As a self-proclaimed millennial cheerleader and environmentalist, this study was a bitter pill to swallow. At Tufts, I was surrounded by active citizens passionate about making the world a better place. Then again, every twentysomething wants to change the world. Are millennials just a little more jaded than our predecessors?
With the limits of self-report data, we just might not be giving ourselves enough credit. One question, asking “would you ever write to a politician” I would answer no, thinking of letters. But that report would be false, considering I have participated in multiple email and social media campaigns for causes I believe in. While millennials reported themselves less likely to engage in political action, we turned out in record numbers for the 2008 election race. When I see these potential shortcomings just in the political sphere, I wonder what other data misreports might have happened due to language?
The numbers are convincing and this study was thorough: we are Generation Me. However, it might not be as bad as we think. Stay tuned next time for how nonprofits can harness millennial potential using data from this study and the Millennial Impact Report.
Thanks for reading! Lindsey Kirchoff