Generation Next

March 11, 2010 | By Nancy Gibbs

Come back with me 40 years to the rabid spring of 1970. President Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia, and campuses exploded. Kids who had never picked up a rock in their lives were occupying the classrooms they used to study in. When National Guardsmen shot four unarmed students at Kent State, virtually the entire system of higher education shuddered and stopped. The fabric of the country seemed to be tearing; everything about the older generation was contaminated, corrupt. Asked in a Gallup poll if there was a generation gap, 74% of the young people of that era said yes.

And now? Today's kids aren't taking up arms against their parents; they're too busy texting them. The members of the Millennial generation, ages 18 to 29, are so close to their parents that college students typically check in about 10 times a week, and they are all Facebook friends. Kids and parents dress alike, listen to the same music and fight less than previous generations, and Millennials assert that older people's moral values are generally superior to their own.

Yet even more young people perceive a gap. According to a recently released Pew Research Center report, 79% of Millennials say there is a major difference in the point of view of younger and older people today. Young Americans are now more educated, more diverse, more optimistic and less likely to have a job than previous generations. But it is in their use of technology that Millennials see the greatest difference, starting perhaps with the fact that 83% of them sleep with their cell phones. Change now comes so strong and fast that it pulls apart even those who wish to hang together--and the future belongs to the strong of thumb.

But we miss the point, warns social historian Neil Howe, if we weigh only how technology shapes a generation and not the other way around. The Millennials were raised in a cocoon, their anxious parents afraid to let them go out in the park to play. So should we be surprised that they learned to leverage technology to build community, tweeting and texting and friending while their elders were still dialing long-distance? They are the most likely of any generation to think technology unites people rather than isolates them, that it is primarily a means of connection, not competition.

That hunger for community further distinguishes them from the radical individualists of the baby-boom years. In fact, in some respects the Millennials emerge as radically conventional. Asked about their life goals, 52% say being a good parent is most important to them, followed by having a successful marriage; 59% think that the trend of more single women having children is bad for society. While more tolerant than older generations, they are still more likely to disapprove of than support the trend of unmarried couples living together. While they're more politically progressive than their elders, you could argue that their strong support for gay marriage and interracial marriage reflects their desire to extend traditional institutions as widely as possible. If Boomers were always looking to shock, Millennials are eager to share.

But they are also unconventionally conventional. They are, for example, the least officially religious of any modern generation, and fully 1 in 4 has no religious affiliation at all. On the other hand, they are just as spiritual, just as likely to believe in miracles and hell and angels as earlier generations were. They pray about as much as their elders did when they were young--all of which suggests that they have not lost faith in God, only in the institutions that claim to speak for him.

The greatest divide of all has to do with hope and heart. In any age, young folk tend to be more cheerful than old folk, but the hope gap has never been greater than it is now. Despite two wars and a nasty recession that has hit young people hardest, the Pew survey found that 41% of Millennials are satisfied with how things are going, compared with 26% of older people. Less than a third of those with jobs earn enough to lead the kind of life they want--but 88% are confident that they will one day.

"Youth is easily deceived," Aristotle said, "because it is quick to hope." But I'd rather think that the Millennials know something we don't about the inventions that will emerge from their networked brains, the solutions that might arise from a generation so determined to bridge gaps and work as a team. In that event, their vision would be vindicated, not only for themselves but for those of us who will one day follow their lead.

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