This report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation was published in 2012. See more content related to millennials, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
THE MILLENNIAL GENERATION RESEARCH REVIEW
Published in 2012 by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation
This report provides a summary of the research done on the Millennial generation since 2009. Generational cohorts are just one way to categorize a group of people with similarities—in this case, the era in which individuals were born and when they came of age. We will use the birth years of 1980 to 1999 here to define the Millennial cohort. Sources, though, are inconsistent, with as many as 21 different birth spans referenced.
Age (in 2012)
1901 – 1924
88 – 111
1925 – 1946
66 – 87
Baby Boom Generation
1946 – 1964
48 – 65
1965 – 1979
33 – 47
1980 – 1999
13 – 32
12 and under
Like every other generation, Millennials display generalized and unique traits. Economic, political, and social background influences the culture and creates a lasting impact. Changes cannot be fully understood for some time, usually around the time the unique characteristics of the next generation become recognized. Imprints move through the life cycle of individuals, making more significant impressions on youth when they are forming their core values.
Of course, these societal events affect other generations, though they are often interpreted differently through the lens of maturity and experience. Eventually, the young adults of one generation become the elders, carrying elements of their generational influence with them and making a lasting impact on society.
If each generation has a personality, you may say that the baby boomer is the idealist, shaped by Woodstock, JFK, RFK, and MLK. Generation X is the skeptical independent, shaped by latchkeys, Watergate, and the PC. Generation Y is the connected, diverse collaborator, shaped by 9/11, texting, and the recession.
It is therefore understandable that the stereotypical ambitious boomer workaholic may be critical of one who does not share the same ethics and values. The independent Gen Xer may not appreciate the team orientation and desire for seemingly constant feedback. At the same time, the social-minded Millennial may not understand the priorities of other generations.
Millennials are likely the most studied generation to date. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, there are plenty of them to study, 80 million plus (the largest cohort size in history). There are data to find pretty much whatever you are looking for, as the data are varied and sometimes contradictory. In fact, Millennials are full of contradictions, which, of course, may explain the youth of any generation. Most consistent is that this generation is technically savvy, almost as if it has a digital sixth sense. A wired, connected world is all that Millennials have ever known.
They are considered optimistic, with 41% satisfied with the way things are going in the country, compared with 26% of those over 30.G1 Optimism abounds despite the many tragic events that have shaped this generation, such as 9/11, terrorist attacks, school shootings like Columbine, the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami, and hurricane Katrina. Political, economic, and organizational influences include the 2000 election, the impeachment of a president, the recession and the fall of Enron to name a few. As kids, they were tightly scheduled and many would say overindulged by helicopter parents. They were products of NCLB, reality TV, and an “iWorld,” where Starbucks is usually just a short walk away.
For the purposes of this report, this cohort will be called Generation Y, Gen Y or with more frequency, Millennials, as they reportedly prefer. There are at least 30 other labels for this generation.
MOST DIVERSE GENERATION
Young people are more tolerant of races and groups than older generations (47% vs. 19%), with 45% agreeing with preferential treatment to improve the position of minorities. This may be attributable to the diversity of the generation itself, which recalls that of the silent generation. The shifting population is evidenced with 60% of 18 – 29 year olds classified as non-Hispanic white, versus 70% for those 30 and older. This reflects a record low of whites, with 19% Hispanic, 14% black, 4%Asian, and 3% of mixed race or other. Additionally, 11% of Millennials are born to at least one immigrant parent.G2
Millennials are considered multitaskers extraordinaire, though brain science tells us that multitasking is a myth.G3 More likely, they are apt to switching tasks quickly enough to appear to be doing them simultaneously. When it comes to heavy media multitasking, studies show greater vulnerability to interference, leading to decreased performance.G4 Some studies suggest that this generation is rewiring the brain with extensive multitasking training, evidenced by the teenager who can simultaneously play video games, watch TV, and do homework. They are retraining the brain to reduce the performance deterioration of multitasking by increasing the speed of information the brain processes. This rewiring allows multiple tasks to be processed in more rapid succession. This activity and research suggest that our brains are evolving.
Popular opinion is that Millennials are more caring, community oriented, and politically engaged than previous generations. Psychologist and Gen Y researcher Jean Twenge contradicts these assumptions. She and her colleagues find that today’s youth are more interested in extrinsic life goals and less concerned for others and civic engagement.G5 They are described as overly self-confident and self-absorbed.G6
This generation masters self-expression, with 75% creating a profile on a social networking site, 20% posting a video of themselves online, 38% with one to six tattoos, and 23% with a piercing in some place other than an earlobe.G1 There is also a trend toward personal branding, which, on its surface, appears self-promoting. Looking a bit deeper reveals a method for young people to identify their passions and determine the most expedient path forward, rather than having others set a path for them.
MORE SIGNS OF THE TIMES
Millennial’s main sources for news are television (65%) and the Internet (59%). Lagging behind are newspapers (24%) and radio (18%).G1 Different from the youth of the two previous generations, parents have considerable influence on Millennial’s political views. In one study of young American leaders, 61% listed parents as most influential, far in advance of public leaders (19%) and the media (12%).G7 Faith leaders and celebrities ranked as having minimal or least influence.
Millennials are never far away from their next text, with 80% sleeping with their cell phone next to the bed. For some, this bed is in their parents’ homes, as 13% have “boomeranged” back because of the recession after living on their own. Thirty-six percent say they depend on financial support from their families. G1
Many Millennials have grown up with parental support and encouragement and have experienced relatively comfortable lifestyles. Approximately 20% of American Millennials living in poverty have not been so privileged. G8
Nearly half of Millennials feel they may be worse off than their parents. Health trends indicate that Millennials could be the first generation in over a century to see their lifespan level off and even decline,G9 with obesity becoming epidemic. G10
WHAT’S THE SAME
For the most part, the priorities of being a good parent and having a successful marriage are most important to Millennials, similar to those held by Gen Xers at a similar stage of life. Similarly, helping others in need is as important to the youth of both generations. Differences in the order of life’s priorities are that older generations are more likely to place a higher importance on a very religious life (21% vs. 15%) and a lower importance on being successful in a high-paying career (7% vs. 15%). G1
Millennials have and will continue to influence education. First, as students, these digital natives have forced learning institutions to communicate and educate in new ways.
They bring a new generational personality—done of optimism, structure, team orientation, and a confidence bordering on entitlement.
Instructors are figuring out how to manage the amount of involvement and feedback these students demand.
Some institutions are adapting their space to a less formal learning environment that combines structured learning with preferred group-based practical learning.
Millennials are also entering the teaching ranks. Like their corporate peers, they prefer frequent feedback, fairness, recognition, and peer learning.
Parents of Millennials influence the environment as they continue their active involvement in their children’s educational experience.
Educators are celebrating the high school graduation rate, which now stands at 72%. This is the highest level of high school completion in more than two decades.ED1 Of those graduates, 68% enrolled in college.ED2 Approximately 58% of those entering a four-year institution will receive a bachelor’s degree within six years.ED3
While education is expensive, education levels had more effect on earnings over a 40-year span than any other demographic factor.Earnings increase incrementally for those with some high school, with a high school diploma, with a bachelor’s, to those with an advanced degree. The difference in earnings over the 40 years by level of education can be in the millions of dollars.ED4 This helps Millennials with their average $25,000 student loan debt. For the first time in America, there is now more student loan debt than credit card debt. ED5
College prices are rising more rapidly than the prices of other goods and services. Despite the fact that more students and families struggle to pay for higher education, enrollments continue to increase. As students recognize that more education leads to higher earnings throughout life, they are finding ways to finance their education. Sustaining enrollment will require postsecondary institutions to find more cost-effective methods to offer high-quality education. ED6
Millennials score high on IQ tests. They also score higher on such traits as extraversion, self-esteem, self-liking, high expectations, and assertiveness. These traits are purported to often lead to narcissism and entitlement. ED7
Two-thirds of students predict they will perform in the top 20% of the population in their adult jobs. Self-esteem cannot deliver their expected success, and this mathematical impossibility leads many to experience frustration.They are showing measures of stress, anxiety, and symptoms of depression and are receiving lower scores on self-reliance. ED7
Millennials want a clearly structured academic path. They look for special treatment and ask specifically what knowledge is required for exams.ED8 College professors sense there students wanting to be entertained by the instructor.ED9 These instructors also experience Millennials challenging them on grades and the relevance of assignments.ED7
QUID PRO QUO
This generation has a transactional relationship to education, seeing higher education as a necessary and expensive consumer good. This commodity mind-set translates tuition into a college degree.ED8 The average Millennial student expects professors to be accessible and approachable and to connect lessons to real life. ED10
LOOK MOM, NO LECTERN
Millennial’s parents uniquely close (and hovering) relationship has given rise to increased staff levels in family engagement centers.ED11 Institutions are also modifying learning spaces to combine straight instruction with the applied team learning Millennials prefer. This less formal learning environment will also need to accommodate the twin trends of students increasingly feeling the need for remedial course work upon entering college, which runs as high as 40% upon admission,ED13 and a rising number of entering college students who took Advanced Placement courses in high school (now at 71%).ED12
MORE SIGNS OF THE TIMES
Notable shifts in support of same-sex marriage, affirmative action, and access to higher education for undocumented studentsED12 are just some examples of the greater tolerance of freshmen entering college campuses.
Though not all students are on campus as colleges and universities build online education, an effort they consider a critical part of their successful strategies. Virtual learning is on this rise, with 31% of all higher education students now taking at least one course online.ED14
The average age of college faculty is now around 50.ED11 Though, as Millennials enter college not just as students but also as teachers (currently, one in five Millennials become teachers), they will have a greater influence on curriculum, learning space, and the college experience.
WHERE THEY ARE GOING
Millennials are sizing up to be the most educated generation in history.ED15 Bachelor degrees conferred were predominantly in business, the social sciences and history, health sciences, and education.ED16
After commencement, 29% of top college graduates intend to seek employment in the private sector, while 17% have set their sights on the nonprofit field or teaching. Only 2% of respondents plan to work in the federal government after leaving school. Some 27% are looking at graduate school, and the rest are looking at the military and other options.ED17
The question might not be so much how Millennials have influenced entrepreneurship, but perhaps how the economy has dealt an unfortunate hand to a generation considered one of the most promising for business ownership to date. Many to most desire to start their own businesses. They have the ideas and innovative qualities of successful entrepreneurs. With more guidance, funding, and encouragement, this entrepreneurial spirit may just run free and do its part in creating more jobs and helping rescue the economy.
ENTREPENEUR ~ Key Findings
Millennials have witnessed instability in the workplace, business scandals, and their parents’ jobs being downsized after loyal years of service. These market conditions and unemployment rates, almost twice that of all workers, are leading many to become entrepreneurs.
The young entrepreneur has achieved star status—think Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook or Andrew Mason of Groupon. Small business is regarded as a driver of the U.S. economy, providing jobs for the nation’s private workforce.E1 Starting a business can look very appealing.
Though research varies, half to two-thirds of Millennials are interested in entrepreneurship, and more than a quarter (27%) are already self-employed.E2 Males, blacks, and Latinos are most inclined toward starting their own business; females are more likely to be interested in starting nonprofits.E3
In 2011, many took the leap. Millennials launched almost 160,000 startups each month, and 29% of all entrepreneurs were 20 to 34 years old.E4
Startups are essential to job creation in the United States. The entrepreneurial mind-set of Millennials could support the economic recovery, helping reverse a declining trend of business startups.E5
Millennials say the ability to get a loan or credit is the biggest challenge to starting a business, with almost two-thirds saying that they do not receive enough support from banks.E2 Another obstacle is the lack of education and resources to run a small business.
Millennials would also like to see Congress make it easier to start a business by providing increased access to education, training, and student loan relief.E2
Observers note another challenge for Millennials is that while they are great at multitasking, it often results in turning clients away because of a lack of engagement. Certain traditional elements of business interactions, particularly revolving around the human element and customer interactions are skills to be developed.
Entrepreneurship curriculum has been added to more than 2,100 U.S. colleges and universities,E6 though more than half the students offered these classes said that they didn’t feel the course work prepared them to start a business.E2 The curriculum has been evolving quickly, trying to develop more relevant offerings reflective of today’s trends. According to Belmont University, 40% or more of the freshmen that come into their entrepreneurship program have already started businesses.E6
The workplace values business ownership and education on an applicant’s resume. Employers recognize the creative, innovative skills that bring an “intrapreneurial” spirit within a firm that keeps their organizations up to date.
Author Donna Fenn’s book on Gen Y Upstarts! suggests this generation approaches entrepreneurship as a way of life. She also believes that starting a business in today’s digital age is cheaper and less risky. She predicts that in 20 years, Millennials will prove to be the most seasoned, experienced generation of entrepreneurial leaders yet.E6
That may be true, especially with the abundant support from parents, teachers, and older entrepreneurs. Members of this generation are also regarded as serial entrepreneurs, who will likely sell their successful businesses or hone their skills on the less successful ones as they go along.
This generation is large and with their numbers come substantial buying power, both through their own increasing earnings as they age and through the financial support of their Baby boomer and Gen X parents. Not only do Millennials contribute to the market directly, but also as vocal consumers and early adopters they influence purchases of others. They are also changing the means and speed by which marketplace information is exchanged. Millennials add content through constant connectedness and the popularity of social media, keeping marketers on their toes. This generation’s connectedness also demands that brands ensure or influence that the user experience is positive. Additionally, this generation will continue to change the marketplace through the blurring of traditional gender roles. Savvy marketers will broaden their reach across gender lines to take advantage of the larger, more diverse potential market for their products.
MARKETPLACE ~ Key Findings
Reports on Millennial annual purchasing power widely range between $125 billion and $890 billion. A more consistent estimate is $200 billion of direct purchasing power and $500 billion of indirect spending, largely due to the influence on the spending of their mostly baby boomer parents.M1 With Millennials’ peak buying power still decades away, marketers would do well to establish relationships with this consumer force.
GR8 WZ 2 rEch gnr8n Y
The biggest lesson when marketing to Millennials is that organizations must know and use social media. As referenced earlier, more than three-quarters of Millennials have created a profile on a social networking site.M3 In an eight-hour workday, people spend approximately one hour on social media sites. This seems like a large percentage of the workday, but it is even larger for Millennials who spend about 1.8 hours on social media sites.M4
The majority of Gen Yers use social media to connect with brands, though most firms still allocate a disproportionate percentage of marketing budgets to nondigital channels.M5 Gen Yers also connect to a brand through affiliation with a cause. This is more important to Gen Y than to previous generations. A brand that shows it cares is attractive to this generation.M1
To be effective, advertising should be placed around engaging content. On average, engagement is higher among Millennials than other generations for television and websites; on a percentage basis, it is greater on the Web than on TV. It appears that Millennials are highly engaged with content they chose to view online and on TV, which amplifies the effectiveness of ads for Millennials.M6
A TWO-WAY STREET
Millennials’ relationship with technology has completely changed their relationships with most everything. With brands and services, what used to be a one-way conversation is now a multifaceted, 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week dialogue between brands and their customers and among their customers. They have the confidence to stand up for what they believe and the confidence, technology, and network to voice their opinions. With Millennials, brands know where they stand, sometimes even minute to minute. According to one survey, 86% of Millennials are willing to share information about their brand preferences online, making it a top personal identifier.M6
Millennials are 2.5 times more likely to be early adopters of technology than are older generations. They are more likely to use the Internet, broadcast thoughts, and contribute content. Millennials stand out when it comes to producing and uploading online content (60%) compared with non-Millennials (20%).M1 In 25% of searches for the top 20 brands, results are links to user-generated content.M8 This has huge implications for brands to become aware of others’ experiences of their product or service and ensure that it is in harmony with their brand strategy.
Tapping into the Millennial generation as they begin their adult lives, as with previous generations, is important for brands hoping to establish lifelong relationships with their customers. This is also important with Millennials because they help set trends through social media. It all comes down to trust for brands. The trust is deeper and more intense with this group, but the greater availability of information can also destroy it faster. Once Millennials lose faith in a brand, it’s nearly impossible to win them back. Keeping positive relationships are critical.M6
Much of the research shows that Millennials are open to new experiences and new brands. They are eager to interact with brands and interested in building relationships with them. They have the self-assurance to stand up for what they believe. It is critical to determine how to get hurried Millennial consumers to spend time developing a relationship with a brand.
With the Internet and social media, the number of sources for information has increased dramatically. When gathering information and making buying decisions, Millennials rely on recommendations from peers and friends more than from experts. They use mobile devices to read user reviews and explore information on social networks. Having grown up with mobile and digital technology as part of their everyday lives, they switch their attention between media platforms 27 times per hour.M9 This tells advertisers that they need to engage Millennials quickly before they lose their attention.
Millennials also seek peer affirmation. Seventy percent of Millennials are more excited about a decision they’ve made when their friends agree, compared with 48% of non-Millennials.M9
All along, Gen Yers have been told that they can do anything they want to do and be anything they want to be. This is proving to be true across genders. For example, the number of stay-at-home fathers in the United States has tripled in the past 10 years up to 154,000,M10 according to the most recent Census (although not all by choice with the recession). Some experts argue that the real figure could actually be in the millions, if the definition is broadened to include dads who work part time while remaining the primary caregivers. Women can control their reproductive health as they advance in their careers, providing more work and family options—with or without a male partner. Meanwhile, the working Millennial male does not have the same experience of having a woman at home to support his career as did the husband of previous eras.
What this means for marketers is that gender distinctions are no longer set in stone. The NFL is targeting women, and ESPN has launched a new website, espnW, targeted toward a female audience. The number of men who are the primary household grocery shopper increased to 31% in 2011, up from 14% in 1985.M11 Some estimates are even higher. A nationwide survey of 1,000 fathers said that 51% were the primary grocery shoppers in their household.M11 Marketers should take advantage of a broader market across genders with Millennials and create appropriate content.
A study shows that the biggest objective for young adults today, both male and female, is happiness.M12 This is an important shift: It appears men and women are moving away from what used to be the be-all and end-all—money and power—in favor of love and friendship. It will be noteworthy to see how this evolution affects this and future generations.
PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS SUMMARY
There has been a recent uptick in professional association membership, reversing an overall downward trend. Associations have been exploring ways to become more relevant, particularly to the Millennial generation that considers traditional association services not as necessary with the advent of the Internet and social media. Economic reasons due to the recession also influence their membership decisions. As in other areas of their lives, Millennials expect timely, meaningful, and relevant communications and programs from the organizations they chose to join.
PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS ~ Key Findings
DOWN (AND MAYBE BACK UP?) MARKET
Many professional membership organizations and associations had been experiencing overall declining membership, but recently have seen an uptick in membership. Research shows an upward trend with 36% of responding organizations showing an increase in membership in 2010; 49%, in 2011; and 52%, in 2012. Many member-based organizations showed an unchanged level or decline in membership over this time frame, with 62% unchanged or declined in membership in 2010, 50% unchanged or declined in membership in 2011, and 45% unchanged or declined in membership in 2012.P1
Key to maintaining and increasing membership in associations is to both renew existing members and attract new members. The percentage of organizations with declining renewal rates has also recently trended down: In 2009, 31% of associations reported that renewal rates for their organization had declined; in 2010, 44%; in 2011, 24%; and in 2012, 22%.P1
Specifically, two of the largest associations in the United States have shown overall declining memberships and are considering ways to reverse this trend.
The American Bar Association (ABA) has seen a decline in membership between 2,000 and 4,000 members per year since 2008, when membership stood at 408,000. ABA membership isn't growing at the same rate as the profession, according to former ABA President Carolyn Lamm.P2 While the ABA expects membership to increase as the economy improves, Patricia Refo, chairwoman of the ABA’s standing committee on membership, says that it also realizes that it must appeal more to younger lawyers and is working on “an aggressive social media component to promote membership and is constantly looking for new channels.”P3
The American Medical Association’s 2011 annual report indicates that except for 1 of the last 11 years of decreasing membership, they have experienced an increase of 1,000 new members to bring total to 217,000. This is still lower than the 2007 membership of 241,000, which includes 8,577 free memberships given to first-year residents who had been student members the previous year.P4
REDEFINE VALUE PROPOSITION?
The primary responsibilities of associations and the services they provide have historically included industry research (71%), ongoing education opportunities, and accreditation (95%), publishing of periodicals (62%), legislative lobbying (40%), and political action committees (35%). Percentages are based on the number of associations that provide this service.P5
In a 2012 study, the primary reason association executives gave as to why members join associations continues to be networking (22%), access to specialized and current information (12%), and advocacy (12%).P1
With the advent of the Internet and social media, people and organizations have the means for doing their own research and sharing information and have vehicles for organizing around social and political issues. Millennials (and increasingly other generations) use Facebook, Twitter, and other tools to self-organize and participate in causes they care about. They simply are not as interested in joining established member-based organizations.P6
This is evidenced by the continued downward trend since 2009 in networking and access to specialized and current information regarding the reasons people join associations. This contrasts with the upward trend in advocacy and continuing education as the reasons individuals join associations.P1
Associations with more than 5,000 members report what their greatest challenges are attracting and keeping young members.P1 Going forward, associations may need to retool their offerings to attract members. One example is a program created by the Minneapolis Regional Chamber called Emerging Leaders. It hosts six events per year and monthly round tables for younger members with content of interest to this group and leadership opportunities. It has also enhanced its online presence in response to what this generation knows best.P7
For member-based organizations (as well as for companies and other organizations), the complexity of managing communications and the speed in which information is available are increasing. With the addition of social media (e.g., social networks, blogs, video sharing, and online ads) to mainstream media communications methods (e.g., websites, email, and direct mail), integrating messaging and content is a challenge.P6 Millennials have little patience for the speed to which things get done and may not see the value in becoming a member of what they see as inefficient organizations.P8
A NOTE ON THE MILLENNIAL DONOR
In the area of fundraising, Millennial donors seem to blend their preference for technology with a desire for personal, traditional giving requests. They use online tools to make their donations, but they need to trust the organizations to which they’re donating and feel that they have a compelling mission or cause. Millennials tend to give smaller donations to a number of organizations versus fewer larger donations and tend to give one time for a specific cause or event versus annually.P9 One study found that 20-somethings donated on average to 3.6 different groups.P10
This generation experiences a paradoxical world that is both expanded and shrunk. Technology has blurred borders all within an accessible connected generation. The lines between work and life are ill-defined in a literal 24/7 world—further motivating Millenials toward work-life balance. The workday is no longer 9 to 5.
Intergenerational conflicts can be most noticeable in the workplace. Ideologies and cultures clash, making “other” people harder to understand. It is helpful to know that Millennials work best with clear guidelines, frequent and immediate feedback, context, clarity and independence. They prefer to work in teams and make group decisions. They do not deal well with ambiguity and slow processes. They value trust and transparency.
The corporate ladder has become more of a career lattice, with Millennials often preferring job rotation to a more time-demanding job promotion. The most creative programs use the best talents of each generation, with an end benefit of improved understanding and communication. Improved working relationships also increase productivity and allow mutual knowledge transfer. Welcoming this generation into the workforce will take effort from managers. The benefits will be plentiful, as the delivered needs of this generation will bring out the best talents in each employee.
WORKPLACE ~ Key Findings
ROOM FOR MILLENNIALS
With positivity and optimism, 80 million Millennials have begun entering the world of work, and other generations are taking notice. The recession and globalization influence this workplace as do changes in the composition and size of the population, mostly due to slower population growth, an aging workforce, and immigration. The United States is also experiencing an increase in minorities, particularly Asian and Hispanic populations.W1
Cyclical factors are also affecting youth labor force participation. In weak job markets, the young adult workforce is usually the last to be hired and first to be fired. In down markets, when jobs are harder to find, many Millennials make the choice to stay in school, lowering the participation rate.W1
The recent trend of companies to outsource some of traditional entry-level jobs may also be shifting the types of jobs offered, affecting employment rates for younger, less experienced candidates.W2 As well, there is more competition from more experienced workers for those companies that are hiring. More than half of baby boomers nearing retirement have delayed doing so, making it harder to find space for new workers. W3Once Millennials understand and experience firsthand the severely restricted job market, they are forced to compromise their anticipation of landing that perfect job.
A weakened job market can lead to entrants taking jobs that are not a good match, usually ones offering lower average wages, especially at smaller firms. Wage losses can amount to about 9% of annual earning at first.W4 Research suggests that even after recovery, college graduates who enter the workforce during a weak economy will continue to experience a relative wage loss for at least 15 more years.W5
All agree it’s much harder to be a young adult today than it was even just a generation ago. The defining moment of the recession hit during a vulnerable life stage. More than a third of young adults admit to being distracted on the job or having taken time off because of personal financial issues.W6 Many are taking any job to pay their bills. As noted earlier, for 25 – 29 year olds, 34% have boomeranged back to living with their parentsand perhaps have taken an unpaid job to gain work experience. They are postponing marriage and family.W7
Total Civilian labor force (2012 and 2020 projected) Unemployment Rate
2012 2012 2020
Total level 162,269,000 % distribution % distribution
16 – 24 24,377,000 15% 11.2%
25 – 34 35,406,000 21.8 22.2
35 – 44 34,434,000 21.2 21.4
45 – 54 37,026,000 22.8 20.1
55+ 31,026,000 19.1 25.2
16 to 19 .............. 24.6%
20 to 24 .............. 12.9
25 to 34 ............... 8.2
35 to 44 ............... 6.8
45 to 54 ............... 6.4
Total projected for 2020….5.2%
Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010, 2012
VALUE OF A COLLEGE DEGREE
Higher education is appearing essential for economic security, as more and more jobs are requiring postsecondary education.W11 Only workers with a bachelor’s degree experienced an increase in earnings over the last generation.
The median earnings for young women with at least a bachelor’s degree rose 20% over the last 30 years, evidence of the advancement of women in the workplace. Millennial women fare better than their mothers did at the beginning of their careers, though their salaries still lag behind those of their male counterparts.W8
Also, the erosion of the union movement makes it is more difficult for those with blue collar jobs to rise to middle class. Males with high school diplomas in 2010 actually made less money than their counterparts in 1980: $30,000 versus $39,750 in annual salary adjusted for inflation.W8 Since 2010, just 54% of young adults ages 18 to 24 have been employed, the lowest level since 1948, when the government began keeping track.W13
UNDEREMPLOYED OR UNEMPLOYED
As one might expect, underemployment (people who are either unemployed, inadequately employed or dropped out of the labor market altogether) shows a bleaker picture for Millennials as well as for minorities compared with the total population.
2011 Underemployment Rates*, By Age, Race, and EthnicityW20
White only, non-Hispanic
Black only, non-Hispanic
Asian only, non-Hispanic
Hispanic, any race
18 – 24
25 – 34
35 and older
Despite the underemployment statistics, minority Millennials feel more optimistic than whites. Only 12% of whites believe that their generation would be better off than their parents, versus 31% of African-Americans and 36% of Latinos .W8
FLEXIBILITY AND SECURITY
More than half of Millennials (56%) agreed that a quality benefits package influences their choice of employers, and 63% say that benefits are an important reason in staying with an employer.W6 While managers believe Millennials put the highest priority on salary,W17 research indicates salary has become a threshold issue for this generation of workers.
Economic conditions have shifted young workers’ attitudes toward employee benefits. More than four out of five indicate a preference for financial guarantees over greater risks. This makes income protection benefits more important, not traditionally valued by the young worker. They look for stable, even if it means lower, returns more than older workers.W6
More than half of Millennials (56%) prefer benefits they can choose, and 62% are willing to bear most of the cost, rather than lose a benefit. In addition to health, other benefits of interest are auto and home insurance as well as dental, vision, life, and disability insurance. W6 Other benefits preferred by Millennials are paid vacation time, retirement savings plans, and a flexible work schedule. They also look for interesting and challenging work, personal development, a custom career plan, and an organization that reflects their values.
FOR WORK-LIFE BALANCE
Gen Xers tried to achieve work-life balance; Millennials demand it. At almost twice the size of Gen X, Millennials may just get it with three out of four saying that work-life balance drives their career choices. W10 Many organizations have shifted their benefits and environments accordingly. Most notable is Google, the consistent top mention of places Millennials would like to work,W10 which offers many perks and “balance enhancers.”
A FLIGHT RISK?
Millennials expect close relationships and frequent feedback from their managers.W12 They view their managers as coaches or mentors. These bosses—not the corporation—can earn the loyalty of Millennial employees by keeping commitments. Positive relationship with a boss manages Millennial retention risk. The No. 1 reason that this age group leaves a job is directly related to their boss. W6
A Millennial wants an employer that offers a “democratized” nontenured workplace, where authority is earned in a collaborative, casual office. Ideas matter more than experience, and work output is valued more that the time put in.W14 Creative engagements provide value to both Millennials and other generations. For example, initiatives like mentoring programs have had success in both shared learning and employee retention.
In a Sun Microsystems mentoring program, participants had a retention rate 23% higher than nonparticipants, and the mentors had a retention rate 20% higher than nonparticipants, saving Sun an estimated $6.7 million.W15 Sun also found that mentoring programs increased the level of trust in organizational leadership.
Still, more than half of Gen Y workers agree that given the choice, they hope to be working for another employer in 2012, W6 perhaps reflecting their short-term focus and different idea of job and career.
ALTRUISM, VOLUNTEERISM, AND OPTIMISM
Millennial employees who frequently participate in workplace volunteer activities are more likely to feel positive, loyal, and satisfied than those Millennials who rarely or never volunteer, and they are more likely to recommend their company to a friend. Volunteering shows more ambition than altruism, with 51% saying that volunteerism needs to benefit them professionally.W16 More than half of Millennials volunteer, proportional to that of Gen X.
They are an optimistic group. Millennials with fulltime jobs may just be the happiest workers in America. Among Millennials aged 25 to 29 who work full time, 42% say they are “very happy” with their lives. While most say they don’t earn enough money to lead the kind of life they want, they believe they will earn enough in the future. Those not working are also confident they will have enough income in the future.W17
SKILL SET SUPPLY AND DEMAND
Qualities employers want to see in candidates are those considered tried and true. Managers are seeing the desired teamwork, analytical, and computer skills demonstrated by Millennials. Key skills that managers would like to see developed are those around communications, work ethic, initiative, interpersonal, and adaptability. W18
Millennials and their bosses both see necessary growth in areas such as communications skills, as well as the ability to give and receive criticism.W19 Another area for improvement mentioned by managers is enhancing professional workplace etiquette.
A summary of Millennials, told in short story form
Titled “About ‘Jessica’” as it is one of the most popular names given to girls born in the 1980s and 1990s1
Jessica earned her first soccer trophy while she was still in nursery school. The soccer trophies and medals kept on coming, as did the ones for swimming, karate, basketball, Girl Scouts, and debate. She has been encouraged to be anything she wants to be. Because of the almost constant support she receives and her full schedule, she craves lots of attention in the form of praise and feedback. Her baby boomer parents shower her with attention and consult her about what restaurants the family visits and where they will go on vacation.
Jessica has a full collection of Beanie Babies. She and her parents would discuss which were the most coveted ones when they would drive her to school in the morning. Then, her parents would surprise her with these collectibles after purchasing them online, some at hefty prices! They are now neatly stored in her parents’ attic for the time she has a child or house of her own.
Upon college, she expects a return on the investment in her tuition to be a minimum of a 3.6 GPA. Her Gen X+ professors want her to earn it. The transactional perspective on education typical of her generation is a harsh disconnect with her instructors.
Her college’s family engagement center enlightens instructors of this new student philosophy and encourages instructors to provide students more leeway than past cohorts. Professors endeavor to relate to and educate this new student and are humored by the continuing reminders of not using Wikipedia as an annotation source.
Jessica thinks that she will be in the top 20% of graduates in her class. The problem is that 66% of her peers think so too. That expectation later leads to some anxiety and a bit of depression, which concern her parents. They continue to support her and with the school find her a therapist to build up her usual hopefulness.
Jessica has a hard time finding a paying professional job upon graduation and wonders how she will afford her shared apartment and pay her remaining student loan debt. Once her unpaid internship does not result in a job, she moves back in with her parents.
Jessica acts quickly to a text from her friend Michael (the name given to more babies born in the 1980s and 1990s than any other1) that his organization is hiring. Happily, she interviews and receives an offer with a fine starting salary. She verifies with her potential employer that she can still make her Wednesday late afternoon volleyball games and consults with her mom about the offer before accepting.
Her manager, who is 49, appreciates her enthusiasm and energy. Jessica clearly wants to be competent and successful. And while she can manage multiple tasks at once, her manager sees her missing some important information in meetings and wants her to improve her client relationship skills.
Lucky for Jessica, her manager has received training on how to coach his employees, particularly Gen Yers. Jessica has appreciated her manager’s support, and their relationship is positive. Jessica told her parents the company is OK, but her manager is great, so she plans to stay a while. She is enjoying the feeling of stability.
Her manager invests extra time in providing more context, interim goals, and plenty of feedback. The payoff is that Jessica is receptive and very open to developing her skills and is looking forward to her mentoring relationship with a director in another department. The director is also looking forward to a fruitful and informative alliance.
Many of Jessica’s friends are still looking for jobs, so she feels lucky. A few are going back for their master’s degrees. She’d like to increase her education one day as well. She texts her friends about her volleyball win and tweets that her company just launched a great new product and suggests they try it out.
1 Social Security Administration, Top Names (5/14/2012) http://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/top5names.html
G1 Pew Research Center (2009) MILLENNIALS Confident. Connected. Open to Change. http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1501/millennials-new-survey-generational-personality-upbeat-open-new-ideas-technology-bound
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ED14 Allen, E., I., Seaman, J. (2011) Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, Babson Survey Group, http://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/goingthedistance.pdf
ED15 Pew Research Center (2009) MILLENNIALS Confident. Connected. Open to Change.http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1501/millennials-new-survey-generational-personality-upbeat-open-new-ideas-technology-bound
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M4 Ott, Adrian (November 2010) How Social Media Has Changed the Workplace (Study), Fast Company.http://www.fastcompany.com/1701850/how-social-media-has-changed-the-work...
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M9 Innerscope Research, Time Inc. (April 2012) A Biometric Day in the Life. http://www.timeinc.com/pressroom/detail.php?id=releases/time_inc_study_digital_natives.php
M10 U.S. Census Bureau (September 2011) Source: U.S. Census Bureau, "Families and Living Arrangements, Table SHP-1. Parents and Children in Stay-At-Home Parent Family Groups
M11 Yahoo!, DB5 and Hunter (2011) Digital Dads: I’m Not a Subsegment. http://advertising.yahoo.com/article/digital-dads-im-not-a-subsegment.html
M12 Euro RSCG Worldwide (2010) Prosumer Report, Gender Shift: Are Women the New Men? http://www.prosumer-report.com/gender/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/GenderShift_Final.pdf
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P3 Blumenthal, Jeff (March 2011) Decline in Bar Association Membership, Philadelphia Business Journal http://www.bizjournals.com/philadelphia/print-edition/2011/03/25/decline...
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P9 Johnson Grossnickle Associates (Achieve 2011) Millennial Donors Report 2011. http://millennialdonors.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/MD11_Report1.pdf
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W20 Table compiled and prepared by Catherine Reutschlin, retrieved from: Reutschlin, Catherine (February 2012) The What Unemployment Rates Don’t Tell Us About Millennials’ Jobs Woes, policymic Next Generation News and Politics. http://www.policymic.com/articles/4047/what-unemployment-rates-don-t-tell-us-about-millennials-jobs-woes
Correction Appended: May 9, 2013
I am about to do what old people have done throughout history: call those younger than me lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow. But I have studies! I have statistics! I have quotes from respected academics! Unlike my parents, my grandparents and my great-grandparents, I have proof.
Here's the cold, hard data: The incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20s as for the generation that's now 65 or older, according to the National Institutes of Health; 58% more college students scored higher on a narcissism scale in 2009 than in 1982. Millennials got so many participation trophies growing up that a recent study showed that 40% believe they should be promoted every two years, regardless of performance. They are fame-obsessed: three times as many middle school girls want to grow up to be a personal assistant to a famous person as want to be a Senator, according to a 2007 survey; four times as many would pick the assistant job over CEO of a major corporation. They're so convinced of their own greatness that the National Study of Youth and Religion found the guiding morality of 60% of millennials in any situation is that they'll just be able to feel what's right. Their development is stunted: more people ages 18 to 29 live with their parents than with a spouse, according to the 2012 Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults. And they are lazy. In 1992, the nonprofit Families and Work Institute reported that 80% of people under 23 wanted to one day have a job with greater responsibility; 10 years later, only 60% did.
(Poll: Who's the Most Influential Millennial?)
Millennials consist, depending on whom you ask, of people born from 1980 to 2000. To put it more simply for them, since they grew up not having to do a lot of math in their heads, thanks to computers, the group is made up mostly of teens and 20-somethings. At 80 million strong, they are the biggest age grouping in American history. Each country's millennials are different, but because of globalization, social media, the exporting of Western culture and the speed of change, millennials worldwide are more similar to one another than to older generations within their nations. Even in China, where family history is more important than any individual, the Internet, urbanization and the one-child policy have created a generation as overconfident and self-involved as the Western one. And these aren't just rich-kid problems: poor millennials have even higher rates of narcissism, materialism and technology addiction in their ghetto-fabulous lives.
They are the most threatening and exciting generation since the baby boomers brought about social revolution, not because they're trying to take over the Establishment but because they're growing up without one. The Industrial Revolution made individuals far more powerful--they could move to a city, start a business, read and form organizations. The information revolution has further empowered individuals by handing them the technology to compete against huge organizations: hackers vs. corporations, bloggers vs. newspapers, terrorists vs. nation-states, YouTube directors vs. studios, app-makers vs. entire industries. Millennials don't need us. That's why we're scared of them.
In the U.S., millennials are the children of baby boomers, who are also known as the Me Generation, who then produced the Me Me Me Generation, whose selfishness technology has only exacerbated. Whereas in the 1950s families displayed a wedding photo, a school photo and maybe a military photo in their homes, the average middle-class American family today walks amid 85 pictures of themselves and their pets. Millennials have come of age in the era of the quantified self, recording their daily steps on FitBit, their whereabouts every hour of every day on PlaceMe and their genetic data on 23 and Me. They have less civic engagement and lower political participation than any previous group. This is a generation that would have made Walt Whitman wonder if maybe they should try singing a song of someone else.
They got this way partly because, in the 1970s, people wanted to improve kids' chances of success by instilling self-esteem. It turns out that self-esteem is great for getting a job or hooking up at a bar but not so great for keeping a job or a relationship. "It was an honest mistake," says Roy Baumeister, a psychology professor at Florida State University and the editor of Self-Esteem: The Puzzle of Low Self-Regard. "The early findings showed that, indeed, kids with high self-esteem did better in school and were less likely to be in various kinds of trouble. It's just that we've learned later that self-esteem is a result, not a cause." The problem is that when people try to boost self-esteem, they accidentally boost narcissism instead. "Just tell your kids you love them. It's a better message," says Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, who wrote Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic. "When they're little it seems cute to tell them they're special or a princess or a rock star or whatever their T-shirt says. When they're 14 it's no longer cute." All that self-esteem leads them to be disappointed when the world refuses to affirm how great they know they are. "This generation has the highest likelihood of having unmet expectations with respect to their careers and the lowest levels of satisfaction with their careers at the stage that they're at," says Sean Lyons, co-editor of Managing the New Workforce: International Perspectives on the Millennial Generation. "It is sort of a crisis of unmet expectations."
(Income Inequality: It's Not Just for Older People Anymore)
What millennials are most famous for besides narcissism is its effect: entitlement. If you want to sell seminars to middle managers, make them about how to deal with young employees who e-mail the CEO directly and beg off projects they find boring. English teacher David McCullough Jr.'s address last year to Wellesley High School's graduating class, a 12-minute reality check titled "You Are Not Special," has nearly 2 million hits on YouTube. "Climb the mountain so you can see the world, not so the world can see you," McCullough told the graduates. He says nearly all the response to the video has been positive, especially from millennials themselves; the video has 57 likes for every dislike.
Though they're cocky about their place in the world, millennials are also stunted, having prolonged a life stage between teenager and adult that this magazine once called twixters and will now use once again in an attempt to get that term to catch on. The idea of the teenager started in the 1920s; in 1910, only a tiny percentage of kids went to high school, so most people's social interactions were with adults in their family or in the workplace. Now that cell phones allow kids to socialize at every hour--they send and receive an average of 88 texts a day, according to Pew--they're living under the constant influence of their friends. "Peer pressure is anti-intellectual. It is anti-historical. It is anti-eloquence," says Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory, who wrote The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30). "Never before in history have people been able to grow up and reach age 23 so dominated by peers. To develop intellectually you've got to relate to older people, older things: 17-year-olds never grow up if they're just hanging around other 17-year-olds." Of all the objections to Obamacare, not a lot of people argued against parents' need to cover their kids' health insurance until they're 26.
(MORE: I'm Not on Facebook and I Don't Regret It—Yet)
Millennials are interacting all day but almost entirely through a screen. You've seen them at bars, sitting next to one another and texting. They might look calm, but they're deeply anxious about missing out on something better. Seventy percent of them check their phones every hour, and many experience phantom pocket-vibration syndrome. "They're doing a behavior to reduce their anxiety," says Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University at Dominguez Hills and the author of iDisorder. That constant search for a hit of dopamine ("Someone liked my status update!") reduces creativity. From 1966, when the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking were first administered, through the mid-1980s, creativity scores in children increased. Then they dropped, falling sharply in 1998. Scores on tests of empathy similarly fell sharply, starting in 2000, likely because of both a lack of face-to-face time and higher degrees of narcissism. Not only do millennials lack the kind of empathy that allows them to feel concerned for others, but they also have trouble even intellectually understanding others' points of view.
What they do understand is how to turn themselves into brands, with "friend" and "follower" tallies that serve as sales figures. As with most sales, positivity and confidence work best. "People are inflating themselves like balloons on Facebook," says W. Keith Campbell, a psychology professor at the University of Georgia, who has written three books about generational increases in narcissism (including When You Love a Man Who Loves Himself). When everyone is telling you about their vacations, parties and promotions, you start to embellish your own life to keep up. If you do this well enough on Instagram, YouTube and Twitter, you can become a microcelebrity.
Millennials grew up watching reality-TV shows, most of which are basically documentaries about narcissists. Now they have trained themselves to be reality-TV-ready. "Most people never define who they are as a personality type until their 30s. So for people to be defining who they are at the age of 14 is almost a huge evolutionary jump," says casting director Doron Ofir, who auditioned participants for Jersey Shore, Millionaire Matchmaker, A Shot at Love and RuPaul's Drag Race, among other shows. "Do you follow me on Twitter?" he asks at the end of the interview. "Oh, you should. I'm fun. I hope that one day they provide an Emmy for casting of reality shows--because, you know, I'd assume I'm a shoo-in. I would like that gold statue. And then I will take a photo of it, and then I will Instagram it." Ofir is 41, but he has clearly spent a lot of time around millennials.
I have gone just about as far as I can in an article without talking about myself. So first, yes, I'm aware that I started this piece--in which I complain about millennials' narcissism--with the word I. I know that this magazine, which for decades did not print bylines, started putting authors' names on the cover regularly in 2004 and that one of the first names was mine. As I mocked reality shows in the previous paragraph, I kept thinking about the fact that I got to the final round for 1995's Real World: London. I know my number of Twitter followers far better than the tally on my car's odometer; although Facebook has a strictly enforced limit of 5,000 friends, I somehow have 5,079. It was impossible not to remember, the whole time I was accusing millennials of being lazy, that I was supposed to finish this article nearly a year ago.
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I moved home for the first six months after college. When I got hired at Time, my co-workers hated me for cozying up to the editor of the magazine. I talk to one of my parents every other day and depend on my dad for financial advice. It's highly possible that I'm a particularly lame 41-year-old, but still, none of these traits are new to millennials; they've been around at least since the Reformation, when Martin Luther told Christians they didn't need the church to talk to God, and became more pronounced at the end of the 18th century in the Romantic period, when artists stopped using their work to celebrate God and started using it to express themselves. In 1979, Christopher Lasch wrote in The Culture of Narcissism, "The media give substance to, and thus intensify, narcissistic dreams of fame and glory, encourage common people to identify themselves with the stars and to hate the 'herd,' and make it more and more difficult for them to accept the banality of everyday existence." I checked my e-mail three times during that sentence.
So while the entire first half of this article is absolutely true (I had data!), millennials' self-involvement is more a continuation of a trend than a revolutionary break from previous generations. They're not a new species; they've just mutated to adapt to their environment.
For example, millennials' perceived entitlement isn't a result of overprotection but an adaptation to a world of abundance. "For almost all of human history, almost everyone was a small-scale farmer. And then people were farmers and factory workers. Nobody gets very much fulfillment from either of those things," says Jeffrey Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark University, who invented the phrase emerging adulthood, which people foolishly use instead of the catchy twixters. Twixters put off life choices because they can choose from a huge array of career options, some of which, like jobs in social media, didn't exist 10 years ago. What idiot would try to work her way up at a company when she's going to have an average of seven jobs before age 26? Because of online dating, Facebook circles and the ability to connect with people internationally, they no longer have to marry someone from their high school class or even their home country. Because life expectancy is increasing so rapidly and technology allows women to get pregnant in their 40s, they're more free to postpone big decisions. The median age for an American woman's first marriage went from 20.6 in 1967 to 26.9 in 2011.
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And while all that choice might end in disappointment, it's a lottery worth playing. "I had one grandfather fight in the Pacific and one in the Atlantic theater. One became a pilot; one became a doctor. When you grow up during the Great Depression and fight off the Nazis, you want safety and stability," says Tucker Max, 37, who set an example for millennials when instead of using his Duke law degree to practice law, he took his blog rants about his drunken, lecherous adventures and turned them into a mega-best-selling book, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, that he got an independent publisher to print. "Everyone told you that everyone above you had to s--- on you before you got to s--- on people below you. And millennials didn't want to do that."
In fact, a lot of what counts as typical millennial behavior is how rich kids have always behaved. The Internet has democratized opportunity for many young people, giving them access and information that once belonged mostly to the wealthy. When I was growing up in the 1980s, I thought I would be a lawyer, since that was the best option I knew about for people who sucked at math in my middle-class suburb, but I saw a lot more options once I got to Stanford. "Previously if you wanted to be a writer but didn't know anyone who is in publishing, it was just, Well, I won't write. But now it's, Wait, I know someone who knows someone," says Jane Buckingham, who studies workplace changes as founder of Trendera, a consumer-insights firm. "I hear story after story of people high up in an organization saying, 'Well, this person just e-mailed me and asked me for an hour of my time, and for whatever reason I gave it to them.' So the great thing is that they do feel entitled to all of this, so they'll be more innovative and more willing to try new things and they'll do all this cool stuff."
Because millennials don't respect authority, they also don't resent it. That's why they're the first teens who aren't rebelling. They're not even sullen. "I grew up watching Peanuts, where you didn't even see the parents. They were that 'Wah-wah' voice. And MTV was always a parent-free zone," says MTV president Stephen Friedman, 43, who now includes parents in nearly all the channel's reality shows. "One of our research studies early on said that a lot of this audience outsources their superego to their parents. The most simple decision of should I do this or should I do that--our audience will check in with their parents." A 2012 Google Chrome ad shows a college student video-chatting all the details of her life to her dad. "I am very used to seeing things where the cliché is the parent doesn't understand. Most of my friends, their parents are on social and they're following them or sharing stuff with them," says Jessica Brillhart, a filmmaker at Google's Creative Lab, who worked on the commercial. It's hard to hate your parents when they also listen to rap and watch Jon Stewart.
In fact, many parents of millennials would proudly call their child-rearing style peer-enting. "I negotiate daily with my son who is 13. Maybe all that coddling has paid off in these parent-child relationships," says Jon Murray, who created The Real World and other reality shows, including Keeping Up With the Kardashians. He says that seeing regular people celebrated on TV gives millennials confidence: "They're going after what they want. It can be a little irritating that they want to be on the next rung so quickly. Maybe I'm partly responsible for it. I like this generation, so I have no issues with that."
Kim Kardashian, who represents to nonmillennials all that is wrong with her generation, readily admits that she has no particular talent. But she also knows why she appeals to her peers. "They like that I share a lot of myself and that I've always been honest about the way I live my life," she says. "They want relationships with businesses and celebrities. Gen X was kept at arm's length from businesses and celebrity." When you're no longer cowed by power, you are going to like what a friend tells you about far more than what an ad campaign does, even if that friend is a celebrity trying to make money and that friendship is just a reply to one tweet.
While every millennial might seem like an oversharing Kardashian, posting vacation photos on Facebook is actually less obnoxious than 1960s couples' trapping friends in their houses to watch their terrible vacation slide shows. "Can you imagine if the boomers had YouTube, how narcissistic they would've seemed?" asks Scott Hess, senior vice president of human intelligence for SparkSMG, whose TedX speech, "Millennials: Who They Are and Why We Hate Them," advised companies on marketing to youth. "Can you imagine how many frickin' Instagrams of people playing in the mud during Woodstock we would've seen? I think in many ways you're blaming millennials for the technology that happens to exist right now." Yes, they check their phones during class, but think about how long you can stand in line without looking at your phone. Now imagine being used to that technology your whole life and having to sit through algebra.
Companies are starting to adjust not just to millennials' habits but also to their atmospheric expectations. Nearly a quarter of DreamWorks' 2,200 employees are under 30, and the studio has a 96% retention rate. Dan Satterthwaite, who runs the studio's human-relations department and has been in the field for about 23 years, says Maslow's hierarchy of needs makes it clear that a company can't just provide money anymore but also has to deliver self-actualization. During work hours at DreamWorks, you can take classes in photography, sculpting, painting, cinematography and karate. When one employee explained that jujitsu is totally different from karate, Satterthwaite was shocked at his boldness, then added a jujitsu class.
Millennials are able to use their leverage to negotiate much better contracts with the traditional institutions they do still join. Although the armed forces had to lower the physical standards for recruits and make boot camp less intensive, Gary Stiteler, who has been an Army recruiter for about 15 years, is otherwise more impressed with millennials than any other group he's worked with. "The generation that we enlisted when I first started recruiting was sort of do, do, do. This generation is think, think about it before you do it," he says. "This generation is three to four steps ahead. They're coming in saying, 'I want to do this, then when I'm done with this, I want to do this.'"
Here's something even all the psychologists who fret over their narcissism studies agree about: millennials are nice. They have none of that David Letterman irony and Gen X ennui. "The positivism has surprised me. The Internet was always 50-50 positive and negative. And now it's 90-10," says Shane Smith, the 43-year-old CEO of Vice, which adjusted from being a Gen X company in print to a millennial company once it started posting videos online, which are viewed by a much younger audience. Millennials are more accepting of differences, not just among gays, women and minorities but in everyone. "There are many, many subcultures, and you can dip into them and search around. I prefer that to you're either supermainstream or a riot grrrl," says Tavi Gevinson, a 17-year-old who runs Rookie, an online fashion magazine, from her bedroom when she's not at school. It's hard, in other words, to join the counterculture when there's no culture. "There's not this us-vs.-them thing now. Maybe that's why millennials don't rebel," she says.
There may even be the beginning of a reaction against all the constant self-promotion. Evan Spiegel, 22, co-founder of Snapchat, an app that allows people to send photos, video and text that are permanently erased after 10 seconds or less, argues that it's become too exhausting for millennials to front a perfect life on social media. "We're trying to create a place where you can be in sweatpants, sitting eating cereal on a Friday night, and that's O.K.," he says.
But if you need the ultimate proof that millennials could be a great force for positive change, know this: Tom Brokaw, champion of the Greatest Generation, loves millennials. He calls them the Wary Generation, and he thinks their cautiousness in life decisions is a smart response to their world. "Their great mantra has been: Challenge convention. Find new and better ways of doing things. And so that ethos transcends the wonky people who are inventing new apps and embraces the whole economy," he says. The generation that experienced Monica Lewinsky's dress, 9/11, the longest wars in U.S. history, the Great Recession and an Arab Spring that looks at best like a late winter is nevertheless optimistic about its own personal chances of success. Sure, that might be delusional, but it's got to lead to better results than wearing flannel, complaining and making indie movies about it.
So here's a more rounded picture of millennials than the one I started with. All of which I also have data for. They're earnest and optimistic. They embrace the system. They are pragmatic idealists, tinkerers more than dreamers, life hackers. Their world is so flat that they have no leaders, which is why revolutions from Occupy Wall Street to Tahrir Square have even less chance than previous rebellions. They want constant approval--they post photos from the dressing room as they try on clothes. They have massive fear of missing out and have an acronym for everything (including FOMO). They're celebrity obsessed but don't respectfully idolize celebrities from a distance. (Thus Us magazine's "They're just like us!" which consists of paparazzi shots of famous people doing everyday things.) They're not into going to church, even though they believe in God, because they don't identify with big institutions; one-third of adults under 30, the highest percentage ever, are religiously unaffiliated. They want new experiences, which are more important to them than material goods. They are cool and reserved and not all that passionate. They are informed but inactive: they hate Joseph Kony but aren't going to do anything about Joseph Kony. They are probusiness. They're financially responsible; although student loans have hit record highs, they have less household and credit-card debt than any previous generation on record--which, admittedly, isn't that hard when you're living at home and using your parents' credit card. They love their phones but hate talking on them.
They are not only the biggest generation we've ever known but maybe the last large birth grouping that will be easy to generalize about. There are already microgenerations within the millennial group, launching as often as new iPhones, depending on whether you learned to type before Facebook, Twitter, iPads or Snapchat. Those rising microgenerations are all horrifying the ones right above them, who are their siblings. And the group after millennials is likely to be even more empowered. They're already so comfortable in front of the camera that the average American 1-year-old has more images of himself than a 17th century French king.
So, yes, we have all that data about narcissism and laziness and entitlement. But a generation's greatness isn't determined by data; it's determined by how they react to the challenges that befall them. And, just as important, by how we react to them. Whether you think millennials are the new greatest generation of optimistic entrepreneurs or a group of 80 million people about to implode in a dwarf star of tears when their expectations are unmet depends largely on how you view change. Me, I choose to believe in the children. God knows they do.
The original version of this article said that Jean Twenge is a professor at the University of San Diego. Twenge is a professor at San Diego State University.