More college freshmen committed to social, civic responsibilities, survey finds

August 31, 2009 | By Matthew Miller

Patrick Kindig thinks the defining movies of his generation are “ridiculous comedies like Step Brothers, Superbad or Knocked Up.”

His family has had a computer since he was born. He has never used a rotary phone.

His short description of the 1980s: “Lots of big hair and electronic music. That’s all I know.” That is likely because he wasn’t alive in the 1980s.

Kindig is a member of Michigan State University’s Class of 2013, most of whose members were born in 1991.

They are, to use the sort of broad generalizations that go with generational definitions, community-minded and politically engaged, sheltered by their parents and confident they’re special. They are driven to succeed but confident; success is a team endeavor.

If trends continue, this class will drink less beer than their parents. In a UCLA survey of last year’s college freshmen, 38 percent reported drinking beer frequently or occasionally in the past year. In 1982, it was 68.6 percent.

These students will smoke fewer cigarettes than their older brothers and sisters. Only 4.4 percent described themselves as frequent smokers last year versus 16.1 percent in 1997.

They will go off to college more thoroughly and constantly connected to their parents and peers than any generation before them.

Consider, for instance, that the average high school student sent and received a total of 2,899 text messages a month earlier this year. Or that more than 95 percent of 18- and 19-year-olds use social networking sites and most use them daily.

And, like generations of college students before them, they are confident they will make a major difference in the world.

“We’re more motivated to make a bigger change,” said Seth VanderMoere, an MSU freshman from Charlotte, “to make the world how we want it while we’re on the planet.”

Wired generation

Kailey Shelton, an MSU freshman from St. Mary’s County, Md., can remember the first time she used the Internet.

“It was in sixth grade, after a school dance. I came home and said, ‘I want to know about this song,’ so my dad showed me how to use Google.”

It hardly bears repeating that today’s 18-year-olds grew up surrounded by technology many of their elders still consider newfangled. And there’s no question it has influenced the way they connect with each other and the world around them.

“It used to be just newspapers and magazines,” Shelton said.

“Now, you can sign onto any search engine and look up breaking news from seven minutes ago. I can talk to my friend, a former foreign exchange student who lives in France, every day over Facebook. It would have taken a little longer in the ’70s.”

But there is still wide variation in just how wired in they are. A survey of undergraduates conducted this year by nonprofit group EDUCAUSE found 8.8 percent were on the Internet 40 hours a week or more. But, for another 30 percent or so, it was fewer than 10 hours. 

And, though 51.2 percent of college students owned an Internet-capable handheld device, such as an iPhone or an iPod Touch, “a very persistent third say not only don’t they own one, they don’t plan to, don’t see a need for it,” said Shannon Smith, a Fellow at the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research. 

What’s known as the innovation adoption curve, which runs from innovators and early adopters all the way through to laggards, “definitely still fits,” she said, “even among college students.”

That said, social networking sites “are integrated into their daily lives to a very high extent,” said Nicole Ellison, an MSU professor who studies the use of those sites, Facebook in particular.

And the ability and proclivity to stay in contact all the time and from anywhere—call it a hive mind in the making—has made this generation a puzzle for those who want to influence their behavior.

“You have a generation where, when you send a message out, if it has any impact or salience, it’s instantly discussed,” said Walker Smith, president of the Yankelovich Monitor, which tracks consumer and lifestyle trends.

“It presents a different kind of marketing challenge, which is to target the conversation instead of the individual. Marketers don’t know how to do this yet, quite frankly.”

Scary world

VanderMoere was 9 years old at the time of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He says the event changed him.

“It sparked my brain a little bit that life isn’t this big friendly thing,” he said. “It’s something to be scared of a little bit.”

Neil Howe is the author of several books on the Millennial Generation, those born between 1982 and 2002. He said the common theme running through many of the big events that have happened in their lifetimes—Columbine, 9/11, the war on terrorism—is “the inability of institutions to control crazy people from doing crazy things.”

And it’s led to a style of political engagement very different from Baby Boomers or Generation X, he said. Millennials don’t want to tear institutions down. They want to make them work better.

“It causes them to be very engaged in the mainstream,” Howe said.

That engagement was much in evidence during last year’s presidential election, in which two-thirds of Millennial voters voted for Barack Obama. According to the UCLA survey, which drew on responses from more than 240,000 first-year college students, 85.9 percent of them reported discussing politics frequently or occasionally in the previous year. In 1968, it was 33.6 percent.

Apt to volunteer

In high school, Shivan Sharma volunteered at a nature center and a nursing home. He also was a church usher, even though he’s Hindu.

“We volunteer more than previous generations, I think,” said the Troy 18-year-old, who starts this year at MSU’s James Madison College. “Some of my friends really believe in recycling. I see friends on Facebook joining groups to save Darfur, getting involved not just in things that are happening in the U.S.”

Walker Smith reads this generation’s interest in politics as a small part of a more general engagement in community issues, a desire to make a difference.

If there’s a difference from previous generations, he said, it’s in how that desire to do good fits with a widespread desire for material success.

In the UCLA survey, 76.8 percent of last year’s freshmen said being financially well off was essential or important, the highest number in the 43 years of the survey.
“I always say to our clients: ‘This is not an either-or kind of thing,’” he said. “They still want all the comforts of home and then they want to make a difference, too.”

Sheltered life?

Today’s college freshmen grew up in an era of minivans, play dates, graduated driver’s licenses and doting parents.

They have been sheltered, Howe said, and have exhibited “a huge move against the risk taking that was characteristic of Generation X.”

They drink less and are less likely to have had sex than the teenagers of the 1990s. They wear seat belts and use condoms more.

Kindig, who is from Lansing, doesn’t buy the “sheltered” label. His generation grew up in a barrage of up-to-the-minute news feeds.

“We might be desensitized to all of the horrors going on in the world, but I wouldn’t say we’re sheltered,” he said.

But Shelton said she does think the younger generations “are getting a lot of protection and I think that’s going to hurt them, not only when they go off to college, but when they start leading the world.”

The leading the world part, she’s sure of.

“I think we’ll do a fairly good job,” she said.

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