"Millennial" Kids Are New And Improved Models

December 5, 2000 | By Neil Howe, William Strauss

These days, middle-aged Boomers constantly complain about teenagers. One side of the "culture war" drum-beats about how they need a massive moral revival, while the other side demands ever-more spending to solve various youth "crises."

From all the angst-ridden speeches and editorials, you'd think our schools are full of kids who can't read, who shoot each other, who couldn't care less who runs the country and wallow in a rancid pop culture. Some pundits(marketers, especially) dub today's teens "Generation Y" as though they are merely Generation X-squared- "South Park" idiots beyond redemption, the ultimate price for America's post-'60s narcissism. How depressing. And how utterly wrong. The real story is very different.

Today's kids are are far better behaved than the leading grownup " authority figures" who created such a mess in this first all-Boomer presidential election. Today's kids are the first in memory to be less vulgar, violent and sexually charged than the pop culture adults are creating for them.

Look at the most recent data:

The National Center for Health Statistics, the federal government's lead agency for vital and health statistics data, reported the teen birth rate in 1999 hit the lowest ever recorded amid a widely observed decline in teen sexual activity and the lowest teen abortion rate in a quarter century.

The agency's parent, the federal Department of Health and Human Services, documented yet another drop in drug abuse among kids under age 18. The 1999 figures mark a 21-percent decline since 1997. The department also noted the lowest rate of cigarette smoking ever.

The Educational Testing Service confirmed that, last year, SAT scores rose to the highest combined average in 25 years despite a greatly increased share of immigrants and racial minorities taking the test.

Teen crime continues to plummet-having fallen by over half since the mid-1990s. Homicides of and by teens have dropped nearly two-thirds.

Violent deaths on school grounds have fallen to around a quarter of what they were in the early '90s.

Congratulations are in order. To parents, schools, governments-and, especially, to the kids themselves.

Like every earlier American generation-the cautious Silent "teenagers" of the '40s, the raging Boomer teens of the '60s and the hardscrabble X-er teens of the '80s-the kids of today are rebelling by being not worse-behaved but better. They're turning around nearly every youth trend their parents, when young, sent rocketing in exactly the reverse direction.


The answer is not the robust economy. Youth trends improved during the Great Depression and worsened in the go-go '60s. Instead, the answer lies in the social rhythms of American history.

A new generation is dawning. The Millennial Generation. Its leading wedge, once the "Babies on Board" of the early 1980s, are this fall's high school class of 2000. Their oldest are just now entering college. By the time they're grown, these kids will change the shape not just of America but of the entire world.

By a large majority, they prefer to call their own generation "Millennial" (the start of something new) rather than "Y" (the end of something old). Our own poll of the Class of 2000 found that a large majority has a negative opinion of "Generation X." Small wonder. They know their story entirely contradicts the X-er stereotype. The generation they admire most are today's World War II- winning senior citizens.

Millennials are optimistic about their collective future. They have confidence they can plan for and achieve personal success and global progress. Nine in 10 say they will accomplish more with technology and politics than their parentsvs. only three in 10 who say this about religion or the arts.

Millennials are conventional in their values. A growing majority of teens say they "get along fine" with their parents, seek their advice and even enjoy their music. They're twice as likely as their parents to trust government to "do the right thing."

Millennials celebrate the team ahead of the individual. When asked what's behind America's biggest problems, teens blame adult "selfishness" and "not following rules" more than other causes.

Think Millennial, and the mysteries surrounding today's kids begin to dissolve. Like why the heroic themes of "Titanic" and Harry Potter strike such a youth chord. Like why bubblegum rock is big and swing music is making a comeback. Like why the new trend in kid-vid-from Barney to Power Rangers to Pokimon-is so energetically team- and action-oriented. Like why, when we notice kids in public places, they so often move in organized and supervised groups. Like why polls show two-thirds of high-school students to be "offended" by the abundance of sex and profanity that movie and TV producers assume kids crave.

Every rising generation reflects the society in which it was raised. The Silents were the product of a Depression- and war-era childhood, Boomers of the American High and the Gen X-ers of the Consciousness Revolution. Millennials are America's post-Consciousness Revolution generation.

Today's teens began arriving when adult attitudes toward children were reverting to protection, safety and structure. When "family values" began to rule. When child-friendly everything-toys, houses, communities, jobs, even divorces-became a new norm. When teachers and parents began subjecting the typical child's day to more structure, pushing homework up and TV watching down, along with "free" or "unsupervised" time (which dropped as much as 40 percent).

In politics and the media, nearly every issue has been recast in their terms: If it's good for children, do it-and if it isn't, don't. Even if the talk is too alarmist-hardly a week passes in which we do not hear some urgent pronouncement-the results are positive. Adult America is being urged to produce a better generation of children-kids who are more upbeat, better behaved and higher achieving.