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Newer generations increasingly about “me,” study finds

March 16, 2012
Courtesy of the American Psychological Association
and World Science staff

Young Amer­i­cans care less and less about the the en­vi­ron­ment, pol­i­tics, and the world around them in gen­er­al, a study has found; even the idea of seek­ing a mean­ing­ful life is out of fash­ion.

In­stead, mon­ey, im­age and fame are the idols of our time.

“Pop­u­lar views of the mil­len­ni­al genera­t­ion, born in the 1980s and 1990s, as more car­ing, com­mun­ity-oriented and pol­i­tic­ally en­gaged than pre­vi­ous genera­t­ions are largely in­cor­rect, par­tic­u­larly when com­pared to ba­by boomers and Genera­t­ion X at the same age,” said the stu­dy’s lead au­thor, Jean Twenge, a psy­chol­o­gist at San Die­go State Uni­vers­ity and au­thor of the book Genera­t­ion Me. “These da­ta show that re­cent genera­t­ions are less likely to em­brace com­mun­ity mind­ed­ness and are fo­cus­ing more on mon­ey, im­age and fame.” 

The stu­dy, based on 40 years of past re­search on nine mil­lion young adults, ap­peared on­line this month in the Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy, pub­lished by the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal As­socia­t­ion.

The au­thors did al­low that mil­len­ni­als were more likely than the pre­vi­ous genera­t­ions to vol­un­teer dur­ing high school and to say they planned to par­ti­ci­pate in com­mun­ity serv­ice in col­lege. But they con­tend that this is probably due to schools’ re­quir­ing com­mun­ity serv­ice for gradua­t­ion.

The wish to save the en­vi­ron­ment, an ar­ea of par­tic­u­lar con­cern to mil­len­ni­als, showed some of the larg­est de­clines, with three times as many mil­len­ni­als as ba­by boomers at the same age say­ing they made no per­son­al ef­fort to help the en­vi­ron­ment. Fif­ty-one per­cent of mil­len­ni­als said they made an ef­fort to cut down on elec­tri­city use to save en­er­gy, com­pared to 68 per­cent of boomers in the 1970s.

Twenge and col­leagues an­a­lyzed da­ta from the Uni­vers­ity of Michi­gan’s Mon­i­tor­ing the Fu­ture study of high school se­niors, con­ducted con­tin­u­ously since 1975, and the Amer­i­can Fresh­man sur­vey by the Uni­vers­ity of Cal­i­for­nia Los An­ge­les High­er Educa­t­ion Re­search In­sti­tute of en­ter­ing col­lege stu­dents since 1966. Both sur­veys in­clud­ed items on life goals, con­cern for oth­ers, and civ­ic and com­mun­ity in­volve­ment.

In the Amer­i­can Fresh­man sur­vey, the pro­por­tion of stu­dents who said be­ing wealthy was very im­por­tant to them rose from 45 per­cent for ba­by boomers (sur­veyed be­tween 1966 and 1978) to 70 per­cent for Genera­t­ion Xers (sur­veyed be­tween 1979 and 1999) and 75 per­cent for mil­len­ni­als (sur­veyed be­tween 2000 and 2009). 

The frac­tion who said it was im­por­tant to keep up to date with pol­i­tics dropped, from 50 per­cent for boomers to 39 per­cent for Genera­t­ion Xers and 35 per­cent for mil­len­ni­als. “Be­com­ing in­volved in pro­grams to clean up the en­vi­ron­ment” fell from 33 per­cent for boomers to 20 per­cent for mil­len­ni­als. “De­vel­op­ing a mean­ing­ful phi­los­o­phy of life” de­creased the most across genera­t­ions, from 73 per­cent for boomers to 45 per­cent for mil­len­ni­als.

“These da­ta sug­gest that the ‘Me Genera­t­ion’ la­bel af­fixed to the ba­by boomers was un­war­ranted. In com­par­i­son to the pro­ceed­ing genera­t­ions, the boomers look sig­nif­i­cantly more self­less,” Twenge said. “The genera­t­ional trends to­ward more pol­i­tical dis­en­gage­ment, less en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cern and more ma­te­ri­al­istic val­ues could have a mean­ing­ful im­pact on so­ci­e­ty. It will be in­ter­est­ing to see how mil­len­ni­als are af­fect­ed by the re­cent re­ces­sion and wheth­er fu­ture genera­t­ions will re­verse the trends.”


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Young Americans care less and less about the the environment, politics, and the world around them in general, a study has found; even the idea of seeking a meaningful life is out of fashion. Instead, money, image and fame are the idols of our time. “Popular views of the millennial generation, born in the 1980s and 1990s, as more caring, community-oriented and politically engaged than previous generations are largely incorrect, particularly when compared to baby boomers and Generation X at the same age,” said the study’s lead author, Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University and author of the book Generation Me. “These data show that recent generations are less likely to embrace community mindedness and are focusing more on money, image and fame.” The study, based on 40 years of past research on nine million young adults, appeared online this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association. The authors did allow that millennials were more likely than the previous generations to volunteer during high school and to say they planned to participate in community service in college. But they contend that this is probably due to schools’ requiring community service for graduation. The wish to save the environment, an area of particular concern to millennials, showed some of the largest declines, with three times as many millennials as baby boomers at the same age saying they made no personal effort to help the environment. Fifty-one percent of millennials said they made an effort to cut down on electricity use to save energy, compared to 68 percent of boomers in the 1970s. Twenge and colleagues analyzed data from the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study of high school seniors, conducted continuously since 1975, and the American Freshman survey by the University of California Los Angeles Higher Education Research Institute of entering college students since 1966. Both surveys included items on life goals, concern for others, and civic and community involvement. In the American Freshman survey, the proportion of students who said being wealthy was very important to them rose from 45 percent for baby boomers (surveyed between 1966 and 1978) to 70 percent for Generation Xers (surveyed between 1979 and 1999) and 75 percent for millennials (surveyed between 2000 and 2009). The fraction who said it was important to keep up to date with politics dropped, from 50 percent for boomers to 39 percent for Generation Xers and 35 percent for millennials. “Becoming involved in programs to clean up the environment” fell from 33 percent for boomers to 20 percent for millennials. “Developing a meaningful philosophy of life” decreased the most across generations, from 73 percent for boomers to 45 percent for millennials. “These data suggest that the ‘Me Generation’ label affixed to the baby boomers was unwarranted. In comparison to the proceeding generations, the boomers look significantly more selfless,” Twenge said. “The generational trends toward more political disengagement, less environmental concern and more materialistic values could have a meaningful impact on society. It will be interesting to see how millennials are affected by the recent recession and whether future generations will reverse the trends.”