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Generational Values and Desires

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Generational study is important, helping organizations understand the various age groups they are working to help. For Focus on the Family, Millennials are the present generation moving (or not) into family life.

Like all generations, this one is shaped by those that preceded it. Millennials have unique characteristics, but in other ways not so different from others. This report examines a number of important aspects of this current generation while comparing it with other recent generations of Americans.

Size: Millennials Largest Generation

Generations in America have toggled between growing and shrinking since 1910. The big jump of course, was the Baby Boomers (1946-1964). The Gen-Xers declined markedly from the Boomers’ high and Millennials, according to the Population Reference Bureau “include almost as many births as the original baby boom… They will become the largest generation of any living during the century.”1 Immigration will contribute significantly to their growth, unlike previous generations.

Marriage: Fewer Married, But Desire to Wed

While Millennials (one in five / 21%) are half as likely to be currently married as their parents at the same age, Pew reports that generally the “youngest generation has the strongest desire to marry” which is “a reflection of their stage in the life cycle.”2 However, Pew explains that Millennials are five percentage points less likely than those of older generations to say that “successful marriage is one of their most important life goals.”3

Percent Married as Young Adults (age 18-28) by Generation 4  

Parents: Millennials Less Likely to Have Children, More Likely Prior to Marriage

Millennials are less likely to have children than those of previous generations at the same age. This declines with every new generation in recent history. What is a stark contrast is that Millennials are twice as likely to have children out of wedlock and live as single parents compared to Boomers at the same age. They are also less likely to be living in the same household with their children than Boomers were (20% vs. 30%).5

Living Arrangements: Millennials More Likely Living with Parents and Cohabiting

Millennials are more likely to be living with other family members such as parents or siblings than the immediate two generations:  47% for Millennials, 43% for Xers and 39% for Boomers. Thirty-six percent of Millennials depend on their parents or other family members for financial assistance.6

They are also markedly more likely to cohabit but to do so with a strong desire to marry.7 Much of their decision to cohabit rather than commit to marriage is due to their deep anxiety over the possibility of failure based on so many of their parents’ own marital failures. This fear and pain is a key marker of this generation, and it nearly paralyzes them in terms of relational development.

Millennials are more likely to say they have better relationships with their parents compared with older generations.8

Care for Elderly Parents: Younger See Their Duty

Millennials are more likely (63%) to see it as their duty to care for their aging parents compared to Boomers (55%) and Silents (38%). Xers were the only generation more likely than Millennials to feel this obligation (67%).

(The lower measure for Silents could be attributed to the reality that the question applied to very few of them since they were 60+ years of age when the question was asked in 2005.)

Thoughts on Changing Family Forms: More Accepting of New Family Forms

Millennials are continuing the prior generational trend of being increasingly in favor of new family forms, but by a slightly higher margin. Pew explains, “Nearly half of those younger than 30 say the growing variety of family arrangements is a good thing.”9

What Makes Your Generation Unique?: Silents Greatest to See Themselves as Unique

Pew has tracked how the past four generations see themselves as unique and distinct compared to others. Millennials are very likely to see themselves as unique and distinct, but not as highly as the Silents, primarily because of their experience of growing up during the Great Depression and serving in World War II.10

 When asked what qualities set their generation apart, the following are their most-cited answers by percent.11

A majority of Millennials say that older generations are superior to the younger generations in strength of work ethic, moral values and respect for others.12

Education and Work: Millennials Highly Educated, Less Employed

Millennials are the most educated of the last four generations, the most likely to have graduated from high school, and the most likely to have some college as well as completing 4 years or more of college. Millennials and Xers represent the first generations to have more women than men earn college degrees.

Workwise, Millennials are less likely to be employed, with 63% of today’s young adults employed compared to 70% of Xers and 66% of Boomers at the same age.13 This youngest adult generation is more than twice as likely (24%) to be working part-time compared to Xers (10%) at the same age and just slightly less than half than the Boomers (13%).

Millennials are more likely to be in the workforce than the Silents were at the same age, but as Pew explains, “That’s mainly because … a large share of the young women were stay-at-home moms.” 14 Millennials are the only generation of the last four that did not cite “work ethic” as one of their key qualities.

Military Service: Millennials Markedly Low

Even with our nation engaged in foreign wars on many fronts over the last decade in the shadow of 9/11, military service among Millennials is dramatically lower compared previous generations, reducing the steady and steep generational decline to what is now a mere 2%.

Life Goals and Values: Marriage, Parenting, Big Income, Helping Others High Desires. Faith is Not Key for Millennials

Marriage - Fewer Millennials than Xers say having a successful marriage is one of their “most” or “very”  important life goals, (82% vs. 85%).15

Parenting - Millennials are two percentage points more likely than Xers to say that being a good parent is their most important life goal, 52% vs. 50%.

Faith – Millennials are markedly less likely to say a “religious life” is important to them compared with Xers, 43% vs. 53%. Silents and Boomers were 68% and 59%.

Career Success and High Pay – Markedly more Millennials say that career success and high-pay are their “most”  or “very” important life goals than Xers, 62% and 50% respectively.

Xers are slightly more likely that Millennials to say a religious life is a more important life goal than a successful, high-paying career (53% and 50%). Millennials said a financially rewarding career is a markedly much more important life goal than living a very religious life (62% v. 43%).16

Civic/Social/Political Involvement: Contrary to Popular Opinion, Millennials Are Actually Quite Low.

It has been widely reported and understood that Millennials may be the most civic, other-minded generation of the last century. Going by popular books and articles, one is likely to conclude largely that Millennials are “Generation We”, primarily dedicating great parts of their lives to helping others and their communities.

But nationally representative research by leading scholars on the issue comes to dramatically different conclusions. Two of these scholars are Professors Jean Twenge (San Diego State) and Christian Smith (Notre Dame). They explain that the “Generation We” understanding of the Millennials issues from surveys that examined relatively small, non-representative population samples and did not compare them with previous generations.

Jean Twenge’s Findings

As Twenge explains in a May 2012 Atlantic article, “You can’t really conclude anything about generational difference if you have data from only one generation.”17 Twenge’s work does not have this limitation. She uses two massive, nationally representative samples - 1 million high schoolers and 9 million college respondents - comparing Boomers, Xers and Millennials at the same age. Her data draws from what respondents said about themselves.

Her 2012 article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that “For the most part, Millennials continued the downward trend in concern for others begun by GenX. In sum, Millennials generally score lower than previous generations in concern for others …”18

Twenge explains that most of the items on the social/community concern measures declined “faster or just as fast” for Millennials compared to Xers, than between Boomers and Xers.

Millennials were less likely to think about social problems, make efforts to conserve natural resources, be interested in or participate in government, voting, contacting their representatives, participate in demonstrations or boycotts or giving money to political causes. The decline in environmental concern and action are markedly steep. Three times as many Millennials said they “made no personal effort at all to help the environment” compared to Xers, (15% vs. 5%). 19

Millennials did show increased levels of community volunteering; however, Twenge explains that this could result from high schools being much more likely to encourage community volunteerism through school-organized programs, with only 9% of schools doing so in 1984, while 46% did so in 1999.

Twenge concludes:

“In sum, these results primarily support the ‘Generation Me’ view, with linear downward trends in civic engagement and community feeling … the data analyzed here suggests that the popular view of Millennials as more caring, community oriented, and politically involved than previous generations is largely incorrect.” 20

Christian Smith’s Findings

The other large population-based study is Professor Christian Smith’s, who has been studying emerging American adults since 2001. Smith followed a large cohort of young Americans from beginning at ages 13 to 17 into their twenties, considering them in contrast with previous generations. Smith’s findings are similar to Twenge’s.

Based on interviews with hundreds of emerging adults in national samples, Smith reports these youngest adults possess an “extremely low estimation of anyone’s ability to make a positive impact on the world … very few are idealistic activist when it comes to their making a mark on the world.” Just as few “are bothered by their disconnection and low expectations.”21

The young adults who are hopeful about meaningful change and involved in efforts on behalf of others are a markedly small percentage of their generation, less than 5 percent. However, these few are notable, striving for the educational and economic opportunity of others, involved in urban renewal, promoting racial justice and ending human trafficking through communication, organizing and social-movement activism. These young adults “view anything less as selfish indifference that is morally intolerable.”22

Smith addresses the phenomenon of so many journalists adopting and spreading the “Generation We” story line of Millennials in stark language.

“The idea that today’s emerging adults are as a generation leading a new wave of renewed civic-mindedness and political involvement is sheer fiction. The fact that anyone ever believed that idea simply tells us how flimsy the empirical evidence that so many journalistic media stories are based upon is and how unaccountable to empirical reality high-profile journalism can be.”23

Conclusion

Generational study and comparisons are important because they provide a smarter context for understanding one’s work to reach and assist present generations in developing thriving families and growing faiths. And to do this, one must have a realistic, reliable research-based picture of how these generations are changing and how they compare and contrast with one another, regardless of the story those findings might tell.

These findings have significant implications for the work of ministries like Focus on the Family because they reveal that generations have been getting more self-focused and less self-sacrificing, an important quality for success in marriage, parenting and general healthy family functioning as well as overall life happiness and contentment. Given that these youngest generations consistently report marriage and successful parenting as important life goals, we must help them understand how essential strong family health and happiness are related to self-sacrifice and service mindedness.

Glenn T. Stanton is theGlenn T. Stanton is the Director of Global Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, CO and the author of Secure Daughters, Confident Sons: How Parents Guide Their Children Into Authentic Masculinity and Femininity and The Ring Makes All the Difference .

Andrew Hess is Research Associate for Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, CO and Adjunct Professor of Humanities and Theology at Colorado Christian University. 

Originally published June 2012


1Carlson Elwood, “20th Century U.S. Generations,” Population Bulletin 64 (2009), Population Reference Bureau, p. 3.
2Pew Research Center, “The Decline of Marriage and the Rise of New Families,” A Social and Demographics Trend Report, November 2010, p. 36.
3Paul Taylor and Scott Keeter (eds.), Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next, Pew Research Center, February 2010, p. 18.
4Taylor and Keeter, 2010, p. 11.
5Taylor and Keeter, 2010, p. 11-12.
6Taylor and Keeter, 2010, p. 12, 48.
7Pew Research Center, 2010, p. 92.
8Taylor and Keeter, 2010, p. 3.
9Pew Research Center, 2010, p. 11-12.
10Taylor and Keeter, 2010, p. 13.
11Taylor and Keeter, 2010, p. 13.
12Taylor and Keeter, 2010, p. 3, 6.
13Taylor and Keeter, 2010, p. 10.
14Taylor and Keeter, 2010, p. 11.
15Taylor and Keeter, 2010, p. 11, 17, 18.
16Taylor and Keeter, 2010, p. 116, 117.
17Jean Twenge, “Millennials: The Greatest Generation or the Most Narcissitic?” the Atlantic, May 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/05/millennials-the-greatest-generation-or-the-most-narcissistic/256638/
18Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell and Elise C. Freeman, “Generational Differences in Young Adults’ Life Goals, Concern for Others and Civic Orientation, 1966-2009,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (March 2012), p. 11.
19Twenge, Campbell, Freeman, 2012, p. 12.
20Twenge, Campbell, Freeman, 2012, p. 13, 16.
21Christian Smith, et al., Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 211.
22Smith, et al., 2011, p. 270.
23Smith, et al., 2011, p. 224.
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