Still to Come: Millennials as America's Parents and Leaders

November 16, 2009 | By Neil Howe

To the Editor:

I'd like to thank The Chronicle for publishing "The Millennial Muddle" (October 11), Eric Hoover's impressively wide-ranging essay about how colleges are trying to address the needs of today's rising generation—and about those of us who advise colleges on how they should respond. I enjoyed reading it. Along the way, however, Mr. Hoover leaves the reader with several impressions about generations and about my own work that deserve some clarification and correction.

Mr. Hoover's essay implies, without actually saying so, that the whole topic of "generations" is a recent pop-culture innovation with little historical pedigree. Nothing could be further from the truth. Reflections on generational change go back to the very origins of civilization—for example, to Herodotus, Homer, and the Old Testament ("There arose a new generation that knew not the Lord"). Most of the famous intellectuals who gave birth to the modern social sciences over the past two centuries wrote often about generations: How they arise, how long they are in birth years, and how they are shaped by, and in turn shape, history. These include Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill, Émile Littré, Wilhelm Dilthey, José Ortega y Gasset, and Karl Mannheim. François Mentré coined and precisely defined the term "social generation" in a book by that name in 1920—decades before the invention of "deconstruction" and many other terms so popular today across the human sciences.

The concept of generations is not only ancient but firmly entrenched among today's social scientists and historians. A search of their journals will come up with literally hundreds of thousands of references to this or that "generation." Quite simply, members of the same generation share a common "age location" in history. During their formative years, the prevailing social environment shapes them differently than members of other generations, and those differences—in attitudes, behaviors, and collective awareness—can later be tracked empirically (by studies which distinguish the effect of birth cohort from the effect of age) over the rest of their lives. Just as belonging to a nationality or gender in part shapes who we are, so too does belonging to a generation.

It bothers some of Mr. Hoover's interviewees that a generation is a category that pushes everyone into a labeled box and is subject to stereotypes. But of course this is true about every category invented by social science to sort people—by race, ethnicity, class, income, religion, and so on—all of which generalize, all of which are subject to stereotypes, and all of which show definitional fuzziness at the edges.

To be sure, every social category, including a generation, contains all kinds of people. Yet every social category also possesses a center of gravity. And all individuals, however unique they may regard themselves personally, must in some ways reckon with that center of gravity. Coming to terms with your own generation is not always easy. According to Martin Heidegger, "The fateful act of living in and with one's own generation completes the drama of human existence."

If "generational change" has now attained a certain pop-culture resonance, it is probably because people so often need to invoke the concept to explain changes in the world around them. The renowned sociologist Robert Putnam uses it to explain America's declining habits of social trust and community (the passing, he says, of our "long civic generation"). Historians routinely use it to explain the social and cultural movements of the 1960s (yes, Boomers, we're t-t-talkin' about your generation). And today President Barack Obama uses it to explain why he regards himself as a "post-Boomer" (or "Joshua Generation") leader, who wants to do more and argue less. Mr. Obama's own explanation for this change: He was a child of the divorce revolution and came of age when the passions of "the movement" had already died down.

Like earlier-born Americans, Millennial youth (born from 1982 to around 2004) are also beginning to make their mark as a new and distinct generation.

Millennials, for example, are much more focused than Boomers or Gen-Xers were at the same age on teamwork and community, which explains their unprecedented rates of community service and rapidly rising rates of voter participation. Millennials have turned digital IT (which Boomers and Xers had assumed would push us ever further toward individualism) into something akin to a high-tech group hug, facilitated by IM, texting, Facebook, and GPS-enabled mobile devices. They are closer to their parents and families than any postwar youth generation, leading to the "helicopter parent" phenomenon noticed on virtually every college campus. They demand more feedback and structure, and are more averse to competition and the possibility of failure, than earlier youth generations. This trend is reflected in the rapidly rising share of college graduates who get their first full-time jobs with same companies they interned for before graduating.

I also point out—and this does get me into trouble in Mr. Hoover's essay—that over the past 15 years, Millennials have been responsible for a dramatic reduction in just about every major indicator of youth violence and risk-taking. Violent crime, property crime, teen pregnancy, teen abortion, suicide, accidental injury, unprotected sex, drinking while driving, and tobacco and alcohol use—all of these indicators, which rose steeply during the Boomer youth era, have fallen steeply during the Millennial youth era. The spectacular recent drop in violent crime by teens (down 70 percent since 1994 as measured by the National Crime Victimization Survey) is probably without precedent in American history. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks dozens of "youth risk behaviors." Of those that have changed since the early 1990s, nearly all are down. The one major exception—obesity—itself says something important about the Millennials' increasingly sheltered lifestyle.

Apparently some people are bothered by the good news. One objection is that these positive overall trends hide negative trends among disadvantaged subgroups such as minority urban kids. Yet here I have more good news to report: On a percentage basis, risk-taking among urban minorities is falling even faster than among the white suburban middle class—and scores and participation rates for college achievement exams are rising even faster. If there is a lagging subgroup within the Millennial generation, it's not urban minority kids but rather rural, mostly white kids, where many trends (especially with drug abuse) are stubbornly resistant to the positive national youth direction. I emphasize this point whenever I speak to a college with a largely rural student body.

Another objection is that, regardless of the trend over time, there are still vast numbers of alienated and underserved young people—and that any good-news talk will lead to complacency and less willingness to help them. I agree there are still lots of young people in trouble. But I emphatically disagree that good news leads to apathy, or that endless negativity will eventually galvanize our nation into action. I have discussed Millennials with a great many school- and college-related audiences, including counselors, faculty members, and the public at large. I have found, overwhelmingly, that the most important reason people give up on young people is not complacency but despair—a sense that youth trends are so persistently and linearly negative that there is really no hope. When they learn that a new generation may be reversing these trends, and may actually want to be helped, they often become excited and re-engaged. They desire to be part of a generational dynamic which promises to change history in a positive and nonlinear direction.

More broadly, for the majority of this generation that is not in trouble, some educators may worry that any optimism about Millennials diminishes the importance of their own efforts. That is certainly not my intention. To the contrary, I always emphasize that educating Millennials is extremely hard work, since, in order to flourish, they require so much more structure, protection, planning, encouragement, and feedback than earlier youth. If Gen-X'ers were a "low sweat" generation, these Millennials are definitely high maintenance.

Am I arguing that Millennials are better than other generations? Of course not. There is no such thing as a "good" or "bad" generation. Every generation develops a legitimate response to its own time, shaped by its own location in history. And every generation brings with it certain strengths that are accompanied by matching weaknesses. For all the compliments I hear on campus about how well Millennials can build teams, form a consensus, achieve tasks, and avoid risks, it is worth noting the compliments I tend not to hear—for example, about their boldness, resilience, vision, or originality. In the decades to come, as Millennials take over as America's midlife parents and leaders, I suspect those deficiencies will become more conspicuous. And it will be up to the Millennials' own children to deal with those.

"Historical generations are not born," writes the historian Robert Wohl, "they are made." Since institutions of higher education play an important role in the making of generations, they need to understand why and how generations develop. With that understanding, they will be better at educating today's rising generation of young people—better able to leverage their strengths and better able to teach them how to curb their own weaknesses. Our future may depend on it.