Thursday, August 25, 2011

[Part III] The Author's Hour: Mike D. Hais and Morley Winograd Address the Public Perception of Millennials

If you are an author and interested in being featured in AEM's new series called, "The Author's Hour," please send me an email ( 

Mike D. Hais and Morley Winograd recently spoke to me about their forthcoming book, Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America (September 2011). This is the final part of our talk, and it is my last question. They are traveling across the country to share, so I encourage you to check out the dates and locations for their book tour (I'll be meeting Mike and Morley in Galveston, and am really looking forward to that). 

I think this final question about public perception of Millennials is really critical, and Mike's and Morley's answer - they make ten points - is great. I encourage folks to disseminate their remarks, because younger folks (and that includes those of us in our 30s) are really under attack through the use of institutional forces (there are individuals, too, but they wield power through institutions, so that's my focus in this critique).

Mike, Morley, and I are not alone in thinking, and agreeing, that there are troubling perceptions about Millennials. For instance, I spoke to a well-known author about the way older folks (not all of them, mind you) perceive youth - we talked about it over dinner on the first night I arrived in DC. The story she shared was anecdotal, but it hits on things that Mike and Morley discuss below. A good friend of hers thinks youth, well, basically suck. And they suck big time according to this older fellow.

At a time in which our social services for average Americans are being eviscerated, youth have become a menace (Henry A. Giroux, with whom I spoke several months ago, writes about this topic regularly). If you strip away services, and public education is one of those things, what happens to your society's youth? Their options, in many ways, have become incredibly limited already, and I fear it will only get worse. The ones who choose to go to college wind up graduating with mountains of debt that put the Himalayas to shame. (Then you have folks who go into the military to flee debt. A woman recently told me that she went to war to pay off her debt. She got her "head shot off," and finally got her loans discharged. She said jokingly, "that's a book right there"). So, if they don't go into the military - which is becoming harder to do - where do they go? What do they do? (And I am sure many of you are thinking about the recent events in London, just as I am). Those who are responsible for limiting their choices, and limiting it for millions of youth, start wagging their fingers, saying, "youth today . . . youth today are so selfish, entitled, and lazy." Yup. We erode social programs, leave folks with nothin,' and then point our fingers at those who are being screwed at every turn.

It ain't right, and that's what we have to change. That is yet another reason why Morley and Mike have given me hope.

On that note, let's here how they answered my final question.

CCJ: People (including reporters and journalists) oftentimes describe millennials as 'lazy,' 'politically-disengaged,' 'interested only in consumer goods,' etc., but what have your findings shown? Are these descriptions accurate?

Mike and Morley: As is often the case, the members of older generations make the mistakes of, on the one hand, believing that all generations develop in pretty much the same way and of being critical of younger generations when, in fact, they are different from their own. This has caused many older Americans to have misperceptions of the attitudes and behaviors of the Millennial Generation. Because we are asked frequently to deal with these misperceptions, here are of the 10 most common myths about the Millennial Generation:

1. Young people think and behave the same at all times. One generation is just like the one before it and the one that follows.

False: Each generation is different from the one before it and the one that follows. Today’s young people, the Millennials (born 1982-2003), are a 'civic' generation. They were revered and protected by their parents and are becoming group-oriented, egalitarian institution builders as they emerge into adulthood. Millennials are sharply distinctive from the divided, moralistic Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) and the cynical, individualistic Gen-Xers (born 1965-1981), the two generations that preceded them and who are their parents.

2. Millennials are narcissistic, self-indulgent kids who think they are entitled to everything. 

False: Millennials have a deep commitment to community and helping others, putting this belief into action with community service activities. Virtually all Millennial high school students (80%) participate in a community service activity. Two decades ago when all high school students were Gen-Xers, only a quarter (27%) did so.

3. Millennials volunteer and serve because they are 'forced' to or are trying to polish their college application resume. 

False: Millennials volunteer for community and public service in large numbers long after their 'required' initial high school experiences. In 2006, more than a quarter (26%) of National Service volunteers were Millennials, at a time when Millennials comprised no more than 15% of the adult population. By contrast in 1989 when all young adults were members of Generation X, only 13% of National Service volunteers were in this age cohort.

4. Millennials became Democrats and liberals because they are hero worshipers of Barack Obama. 

False: Millennials identified as Democrats and liberals well before Obama emerged as a major political force with significant name identification. In 2007, Millennials identified as Democrats over Republicans by 52% to 30% and as liberals over conservatives by 29% vs. 16% (the rest were moderate). At that time, Barack Obama’s name identification was barely 50%, well below that of Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, his chief competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination. These attitudes have, for the most part, persisted throughout the sharp political conflicts of the first three years of the Obama presidency.

5. Millennials will become more conservative as they age. 

False: Party identification and ideological orientation are formed when people are young and are retained as they age.  Prior 'civic' generations, with similar belief systems to Millennials, kept that philosophy throughout their lives, something conservative ideologue, Grover Norquist, recognized when he referred to the lifelong beliefs of the revered GI Generation as 'un-American.' The only two generations that gave John Kerry a majority of their votes over George W. Bush in 2004 were the first sliver of Millennials eligible to vote and the last segment of members of the GI Generation, all of whom were at least 80 and many of whom were casting their final presidential vote. 

6. Millennials, like all young people, are apathetic and uninterested in voting.   

False: Young people’s proclivity to vote or not is not based upon their age but their generation’s belief in the efficacy of voting. Millennials are members of an activist and politically involved 'civic' generation. They have voted heavily in the past and will continue to do so in the future. According to CIRCLE, an organization that examines youth political participation trends, 6.5 million people under 30 voted in presidential primaries and caucuses in 2008, double the youth participation rate of 2000. Fifty-three percent of Millennials voted in the 2008 general election (59% in the competitive battle ground states), up from 37% in 1996 when all young voters were member of Generation X. Even in 2010, a very poor year for Democrats, Millennial voter turnout was about what it had been in the 2006 midterm elections, a Democratic landslide. 

7. Like Boomers and Gen-Xers before them, Millennials are cynical and disillusioned by the problems facing them and America.

False:  In spite of the fact that they are far more likely to be unemployed and far less likely than older Americans to have health insurance, Millennials are more optimistic than older generations. A May 2009 Pew survey indicates that about three-quarters of Millennials in contrast to two-thirds of older generations are confident that America can solve the problems now facing our country. These optimistic attitudes have persisted throughout the Great Recession and political turmoil of the past two or three years.

8. Millennials care only about what happens in their own country, community, and lives and not on what goes on in the rest of the world. 

False: Most Millennials have visited foreign countries and through social networking technology, are connected to friends around the world. They are open to working with people in other countries to solve the problems of the world community. Millennials are far more likely than older generations to support free trade agreements like NAFTA (61% vs. 40%) and far less likely to believe in military solutions to international concerns (39% vs. 58%). Millennials are also about three times more likely than seniors to have opinions on major international concerns like Israeli/Palestinian relations.

9. Millennials, like all generations, are rebels who are hostile to civic institutions and government. 

False: Millennials have significantly more positive attitudes toward government and its activities than older Americans.  Millennials are much less likely to believe that if the government runs something, it is usually wasteful and inefficient (42% vs. 59%) or that the federal government controls too much of our daily lives (48% vs. 56%). They are much more likely to feel that government is run for the benefit of all (60% vs. 46%).

10. Millennials are more focused on trivialities such as celebrities than on the big issues facing America. 

False: Unlike some previous generations, Millennial celebrities and musical tastes are more acceptable to and compatible with their parents’ values because they reflect the generation’s love of teamwork and service to the community rather than rebellion. For example, a recent Pew survey indicates that rock music is the preferred genre of Millennials, Gen-Xers, and Boomers. Rock, the music of rebellion in the 1950s and 1960s, is now mainstream. Moreover even as early as 2006, two years before Barack Obama’s candidacy, more than twice as many Millennials had voted for president than had voted on American Idol. 

Related Links

Mike and Morley in NYC


Anonymous said...

Cryn, I deeply respect your work and am glad that you are doing what you can to change things. Labels (such as the ones mentioned in your article), however, whether they are given to the youth of today or to the youth of yesterday, drive me crazy: "divided, moralistic Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) and the cynical, individualistic Gen-Xers (born 1965-1981)." These statements are just as dividing and inaccurate as saying that all young people are ... . Why do we have to label?

The young, unfortunately, have always been demonized in rough times. Things were terrible for young people in the early to mid
80s for example. The young then experienced high unemployment that mirrors the numbers of today, and also had years of underemployment. Young people, of that time, the tail end of the baby boom, were told by people about 10 - 15 years their seniors, that they (the current early 20 somethings) "these self centered young people" didn't have a war and so cared about nothing except getting a job, any job. There was a difference in that the debt wasn't so terrible, but there also was no way for young people to get credit to buy cars or other needed items. Often parents, who had a hard time understanding the plight of the youth at that time, tended to be less sympathetic toward their adult children's financial problems. This meant for a number of young people that they were on their own.

It's human I guess to go for this them and us mentality, pitting one generation against another, or one race against another, or... It gives people something to misdirect their anger toward, but it doesn't move toward a solution.

Cryn Johannsen said...

@Anonymous 1:13 AM - you make valid points. If you have an opportunity to go to one of their talks on their book tour, I encourage you to do so. If not, I'd be happy to bring up your point when I meet Mike and Morley in Galveston this coming September. Let me know.


Anonymous said...

I'd also like to point out that community service is required for graduation at most high schools today, which may be why more young people have been doing community service. No, I won't be able to go to the session that you mention here, but it would be good to bring up this "them and us" mentality that seems to be incredibly pervasive. It's been done through history, but it really doesn't help get things done when we're busy stereotyping. Labels also change depending upon what is the current situation. It was only a few years ago that "Millennials" were being labeled by older people as the "greatest generation" since WW2.

Cryn Johannsen said...

@Anonymous 9:48 PM - I certainly will bring it up with them, and appreciate your feedback. I myself have been interested in the issue of generations, but approached it - as I said in part of the interview - as a historian several years ago. I did research on 19th-century German humor magazines. This project made me think a lot about generational divides, as there was clearly evidence that pointed to such divisions, especially when it came to perceptions of German society, roles people were expected to play, etc. It's not an easy subject to tackle, and it can be difficult to adequately define a generation (something you take issue with in Mike's and Morley's work).

From a historical perspective, the specific time in which you were born does play a role in how you and your generation perceive the world. There is a great deal of complex overlap as a result, and that is one reason why I don't see the unfolding of history as merely chronological. But when it comes to applying specific labels to generations, that becomes trickier.

Anonymous said...

Yes, times shape how we see things, but I don't believe that human beings fundamentally change. There may be outstanding or even horrible individuals who arise out of and because of a time period, but I don't see people in general as more altruistic or selfish or whatever depending upon when they happen to be born. Generation divides are also pretty tricky. A few years ago there was an interesting piece in NYT about how younger baby boomers, a time frame which includes our president, do not see themselves as baby boomers at all, nor do they see themselves as Gen X.

One Who Survived said...

In two parts due to space limitations:

Further re what "Anon" wrote above, two objections to two of the most tendentious of Mike and Morely's suppositions:

1. As an American born on the cusp of the putative "Baby Boom" and "Gen X" generations, my experiences have been more akin to the latter. I think it's a mistake to conflate the statistic of the 1946-64 birth rate with generational experience. The experiences that informed Gen X were those of coming of age during or after the Reagan administration; in this sense, Gen X began around 1960 or so.

Historical generations are analogous to historical centuries; they don't exactly match the calendar years. The cultural and material conditions of the (Western) historical 20th century existed mainly from around 1914 to 1989; those that we associate with the 19th century lasted longer, around 1789-1914; the 18th century, c 1714-1789; the 17th century was WAY off kilter c 1648 - 1714; the 16th century was unusually long c 1517-1648 (from Luther to Westphalia); 15th century began c 1431 with Joan of Arc and the end of the Hundred Years War...

...but then no one even thought about different historical "centuries" until the 1400s. ;-) Until the 1400s, the ideas of historically different "centuries", let alone "generations", had not yet been imagined in any high civilisation on any continent. (Other ways of thinking about symbolic eras, yes, but "generations", no.) And even today in many (what's the currently politically correct term?) well let's say "non-industrialised" cultures such as some surviving ones in New Guinea, chrononological time does not mean what it means to us. (Eg, in what remains of Australian Aboriginal culture - 40,000 years old in our years - all significant history takes place simultaneously, thus the Aborigine tendency to tell ancient history in the present tense.)

(Part two follows)

One Who Survived said...

(Continuing my above comment):

2. Re this bit: "Party identification and ideological orientation are formed when people are young and are retained as they age":

Several objections from within the context of our Modern/Postmodern Anglophone culture, especially its American branch (so we're all on the same cultural page):

a. "Party identification" is a relatively recent phenomenon in American history, mainly a 20th century one. (BTW America's so-called "two party system" did not exist until the Republican party became fragmented in 1912, consequent to which the system of national party conventions began.) There is no empirical evidence that it is an inherent part of Human Nature, nor even of American nature.

b. "Social science" is more concerned with generalities (almost always arbitrarily defined and thus confusing the difference between consequent deduction and induction), but in History the exceptions are more important than the generalities. (Contra Tolstoy, a good storyteller but a wretchedly tendentious historical "theorist".) Several exceptions from personal experience:

i. Not everyone cares about political "ideology". Many persons' minds are more informed by their religions or other non-political cultures/norms/heritages. One could argue that religion is inseparable from politics, and as a Catholic I would actually agree, as did St Augustine and Pope John Paul. ;-) (And Jesus was arguably a victim of politics.) However, it's very debatable whether religious faith is "ideological" in the commonly accepted political sense of that term.

ii. My father, an American WW II vet, was a Republican from age 21 to 30-something. He switched to the Democrat Party in 1960 because he admired JFK and despised Nixon. He reverted to the Republicans in 1980 because he was appalled by Carter (but he continued to despise Nixon, being a decent and sane man ;-) Nonetheless, even after Reagan won in 1980, my father told me he'd rather send me to Australia than see me get drafted to die for (in his words) "the bloody oil companies" - yep, even in 1980!

iii. My first registration in the early 1980s was Republican. While an undergrad student in 1984, I voted reluctantly for Mondale because I was appalled by the social injustice of Reaganism as well as by his stupid bloody illegal wars. I voted for Bush Sr in 1988 out of resentment for Dukakis pretending to represent the disadvantaged; for Ross Perot in 1992 because I distrusted Clinton from the start; left the country after 1992 and have not voted since then as I've not been a resident of any US state.

iv. As for my "ideology", in my college years I became a self-identified Marxist and atheist. In my middle age, after living for some years in a Communist country, I reverted back to my native religion of Catholicism. Today my political inclinations are a blend of Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson, Pope John Paul and Karl Marx.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, One Who Survives. This idea of being defined mostly in terms of when one was born is fairly recent from what I've read. I've also talked to many older people and they say they never thought of themselves as the "Greatest Generation" or whatever. My great aunt, a member of the so-called "Silent Generation," says she and her friends don't think about these things, and has never defined herself by something as arbitrary as generation at all. I'm two years older than my sister and three years older than my bother. We are considered completely different generations according to these definitions.

My mom was a conservative Republican when she was young and is now a liberal Democrat -- so much for belief systems settling into a forever pattern at a young age. Her basic religious beliefs did not change that much, but her understanding of the world grew more nuanced as she grew older. I'm still forming my beliefs, and they are likely to change as I grow and learn through life.

Still, the problem, as I see it, with lumping people into these boxes is that there is a human tendency for people to adhere to a them versus us mentality, which can lead to a "You don't get it" and I'm better than you because I'm a member of this tribe. It doesn't matter what tribe it is since older people can do this just as well as younger people can.