The Millennial Generation: Destined to Succeed

May 21, 2006 | By Amy McRary

Meet the millennials.

Stephanie Botica graduated from Knoxville Catholic High School last week with an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and an optimistic attitude for her generation’s future.

Joining the military “is a way that I can help and do things I think will have meaning and impact the way the world is going and hopefully make things better,” says Stephanie. “I need someplace that is going to push me and will give me an important say in the world.”

For University of Tennessee rising senior Andrea Nathaniel, 21, volunteering is breathing. The communications studies major from Jackson, Tenn., recently earned UT’s Volunteer of the Year award. “If I’m not helping someone else or serving or giving back, I feel like I’m not living up to what I’m supposed to be doing,” she says.

UT rising senior Jonathan Joyce of Memphis feels the pressure to compete in a world different than his parents’. “I think society somewhat places pressure on you. (Along with that), you are trying to set yourself apart from everybody else because you don’t want to be the average Joe.”

Stephanie, Andrea and Jonathan are part of the millennial generation, sometimes termed Echo Boomers or Generation Y. Historians Neil Howe and William Strauss call children born in or after 1982 millennials in their 2000 book, “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation.”

Exact dates defining this post-Gen X generation vary by researchers. (Generations generally span 18-25 years, but designating them is not an exact science.) Whatever the parameters, the group is vast. The 2000 U.S. census list 72.3 million children under age 18; many were or are being raised by baby boomer parents they are close to but are not like. And many of those parents are what Strauss and Howe term “helicopter parents” ready to zoom in to fix their child’s problems.

Civic-minded and confident

As infants, millennials rode in car seats secured in minivans decorated with “Baby on Board” signs. When they were still impressionable youngsters, their world shrank as live television showed the 1999 Columbine High School shootings and Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Leah Adinolfi, who works with teens as a Community Impact Associate with the United Way, believes the tragedies didn’t disillusion young people. Instead, they grew to “believe in heroes, believe in the power of the community coming together, that together they could make a difference,” she says.

Strauss and Howe predict these team-oriented, technologically savvy young people will make a difference. “Millennials are a generation raised to rebuild community,” Strauss said in a recent telephone interview. “They are being raised not to be selfish, not to go alone, not to be criminal, not to have civic distrust.”

This generation trusts institutions many boomers once protested against. Forty-seven percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the 2004 election, according to the Maryland-based Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. And community service like Andrea Nathaniel’s may be a millennial hallmark. Forty-eight percent of 300 teens surveyed in 2005 by the Knoxville/Knox County Youth Action Council regularly volunteer.

“I think our parents’ generation success was defined in monetary terms; if you were able to make money, you were successful,” says 2006 UT graduate Rahim Manji of Oak Ridge. “For us, success is determined by whether or not you make a difference in the world.”

Millennials are confident they can make that difference. “It’s not a big deal for them to talk to a county commissioner or to the mayor,” says Adinolfi of the teens she works with in the Youth Action Council. “They don’t get nervous; they will say whatever they think. That might come across as bad manners, but it’s just confidence and comfort.”

In touch with the folks

Raised with laptops and cell phones, this generation is comfortable with evolving technology. A 2004 Pew Internet & American Life survey found 84 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds owned a computer, cell phone or Personal Digital Assistant; 44 percent had two or more of those items. Cell phones help maintain an often close bond between young people and parents. Andrea Nathaniel talks by phone to her mother two to three times daily and often to both her parents at night. “My mom and I, we get along very well,” she says.

UT and Maryville College administrators acknowledge seeing that close parent-child relationship in summer orientation sessions for incoming freshmen and families. “We spend as much time with parents as we do with students during orientation, to assist them in going through this transition,” said Maryville College Vice President and Dean of Students Vandy Kemp.

“We acknowledge they are very connected to their children, and we respect that they are involved in their children’s lives. But we do introduce natural ways that they can back off and allow their children to gain a sense of independence,” says Kemp.

UT Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Tim Rogers urges parents to let their children “navigate through the trials and tribulations. Give them advice, encouragement and support, but don’t step in and do it for them. (When) parents are involved too much, often the children don’t make the transition beyond mom and dad and university life.”

Administrators see the reality of hovering helicopter parents. Twenty years ago it was “unheard of” for the parent of a student with a roommate issue to call the dean of students. “Now, that isn’t uncommon,” Kemp says. UT faculty members have gotten requests from students’ parents to raise the child’s class grade. “Unfortunately, it is not an uncommon request,” says Rogers.

Pressured to succeed

Growing up is never easy, and researchers say millennials may be a pressured generation pushed by society, parents and themselves to excel. For example, the community service many enjoy not only is standard in middle and high school but also is often required on college applications.

“Sometimes I think there’s a huge emphasis on productivity. You’re always measured in terms of how much you produce,” says Rahim Manji. “If you want to be sitting down and watching TV, it’s like, ‘Oh, you need to be productive.’ “

Karen Botica feels the internal and external pressures faced by her children—Stephanie; Kyle, a Knoxville Catholic 10th-grader; and Kristen, a Sacred Heart School eighth-grader. “You wonder if they have time to smell the roses,” Botica says. “It’s really tough as a parent because there’s a fine line between putting the bar too high and putting it where it really needs to be. Hopefully, you’re realistic. But I think either way, they’re going to feel pressure.”

The future of the millennial generation—pressured yet protected, confident team players with a sense of community—will be defined by “their civic purpose and their heroism,” says Strauss.