Reach Millennials by Helping Them Decode Life, Futurist Says

May 28, 2004 | By Marv Knox

Churches can reach Millennials—the conservative generation of Americans born since 1982—by helping them “figure out the code” to life’s profound questions, futurist Neil Howe advised.

Howe is a demographer, economist, historian and author of several books on U.S. generations, including “Millennials Rising: The Next American Generation.”

“We are constantly trying to predict what the next generation is going to be like,” he noted during a daylong lecture at Houston Baptist University, conceding, “Extrapolation—predicting that the rising generation will be like the current generation only moreso—always proves to be wildly inaccurate.”

For example, historians guessed the Baby Boomers, born between 1943 and 1960, would be more conformist than their parents, the Silent Generation, he said. But Boomers proved to be the opposite, questioning virtually all authority.

Based on how the Boomers lived, Generation X, born between 1961 and 1981, was expected to be even more passionate and ideological than their parents. “But they proved the present is not an extension of the past,” Howe observed.

Now that Millennials are coming of age, they are turning out to be quite different than anticipated, he said.

Extrapolating from Generation X, experts expected Millennials to be “more culturally cynical, collectively pessimistic about the future and prone to risk-taking activities like sex, drugs and crime,” he reported. “But once again, truth conflicts straight-line extrapolation.”

Howe cited an array of developments that document the Millennials’ conservative generational turn.

In the past decade, teen violent crime has declined by 65 percent, “the greatest reduction in history…down beyond imagining,” he said.

Sexual activity by high school students has dropped 20 percent in 10 years, and the rates of teen pregnancy, abortion and births have declined 30 percent to 40 percent.

Teens also are less likely to be loner “free agents,” he said. High schoolers involved in community service climbed from 27 percent in 1984 to 83 percent in 1999-2000.

Fifty-six percent of Millennials say they find explicit sexual activity and nudity offensive, a trend Howe called “the new modesty.”

Millennials also are the most ethnically diverse U.S. generation, he said. Non-Anglos account for 37.6 percent of Millennials, compared to 32.8 percent of Gen X and 24.2 percent of Boomers.

Geographical or regional factors could impact how quickly people see these trends, he said, explaining, “If any group is behind the trends, it is rural kids.”

The shifts that shape each generation should not be surprising, since the parenting generation responds to the weaknesses or challenges they experienced, Howe reported.

“It’s not that one generation rebels. The previous generation raises kids to complement themselves, not to be like themselves,” he explained. “New generations always are the answers to the problems of the older generation.”

For example, late Boomers and early Gen Xers, who grew up with the insecurity of divorce and parents who put careers ahead of kids, naturally compensate by lavishing attention and security on their Millennial children.

So, early Millennials grew up riding in minivans, the quintessential family cars, with bumper stickers touting, “Baby on Board,” he said. In their era, the markets flooded with books calling for raising children better and movies casting them in a positive light.

“It’s been a good thing to be seen as a kid,” he said. “The ‘90s was the first decade when per capita spending on kids grew faster than any other generation.”

Responding to all the forces upon them, Millennials have developed seven generational characteristics, Howe described. Millennials are:

  • Special. Millennials value stability over rapid change, he said. More of them want to have children than their counterparts in previous generations.

    They also expect society to be better when they take over, with significant numbers saying they intend to make improvements in technology, ecology, foreign relationships, government, arts and culture, and religion.

  • Sheltered. Noting that steps to care for children—such as child protection policies—have been in place all their lives, Howe said, “Millennials see protection as a sign that older people care about them and want to protect them to go out and do great things.”

    While 58 percent of their parents acknowledge they’re sometimes overprotective, 90 percent of Millennials agree on parental rules that are “strict and fair.”

    In 2002, 56 percent of high school students said they prefer to attend a college that is nearby, compared to 41 percent who said they want to go far away.

  • Confident. Among Millennials, 90 percent said they are happy, and 82 percent predicted they will be better off than their parents, he reported.

    Not coincidentally, the suicide rate has declined for Millennials.

  • Team-oriented. Sixty-four percent of Millennials agreed they will be seen as the “us generation,” Howe said, pointing out their emphasis shifted from the Boomers’ “I” to “we.” Also, 50 percent of Millennials said they trust institutions, compared to just 26 percent of adults.

    School innovations that “harness peer pressure”—such as uniforms and student juries that levy penalties for misbehavior—have been well-received by Millennials, he said.

    Millennials also are quick to point a finger at indulgent individualism, he noted. Students in kindergarten through grade 12 said the primary causes of social problems are selfishness, failure to respond to authority, wrongdoing by politicians, and lack of parental discipline and leadership.

  • Conventional. Millennials typically expect higher standards of themselves and others than do adults, Howe said.

    Also, ninety-four percent of children age 9 to 17 told researchers they trust their parents, and 82 percent of teens said they have “no problems” with any family member—the highest percentage since World War II, he said. Sixty-seven percent said they would raise their own children the way they have been raised.

    The “Harry Potter” book series is popular with Millennials because it emphasizes values they share—friendship, structure and the need to band together, he observed.

  • Pressured. Despite all the attempts to protect them, Millennials feel pressure more intensely than did their predecessors, Howe noted.

    An unprecedented number—84 percent—intend to attend college, he said. The same percentage see security as “very important” in their lives.

    As markers of how driven they are, two-thirds of Millennials don’t get enough sleep, and 88 percent reported they have specific five-year goals.

  • Achieving. “It’s cool to be smart,” Howe said of the young generation. Early Millennials posted the highest SAT college-entrance scores since 1974, and Millennials have chalked up increasingly high scores on standardized tests, particularly for math and science.

    Perhaps their desire is linked to their view of the future, he said, noting 75 percent of college students expect increased terror threats. But 93 percent said they believe science and technology will play an important role in responding to those threats.

Churches can use this information about Millennials to create models for ministry that are effective at reaching them with the gospel, Howe noted in an interview.

The first step is understanding that, like everything else about them, Millennials see faith and religion differently than their parents do, he said.

All their lives, Boomers have keyed on religious insight, on “focusing on the heart…changing you from the inside out,” he asserted.

“Millennials are much more interested in figuring out the code: What makes sense? How do religions work?” he explained. “Millennials are incredibly system-minded.”

They also want to know the “how” and “what” of religion.

“If you’re going to worship God, what do you do? Do you do some things every week? Practically speaking, what does that mean for changing your relationship to your parents, to society?” he said.

“Millennials also have a real interest in using the church as a focus of community involvement. They place a large focus on community service. But they also use the church as an extension of their social life—sort of a group.”

With Millennials’ emphasis on behavior and rules, the Christian faith can become an attractive foundation for their lives, Howe said.

“I’ve heard teens talk about churches being an answer to the relativism of the postmodern time,” he said. “This allows the church to create anchors of trust and faith to build a basis for acting in this world.

“This is a generation that wants to do things—to plan, act, build communities. So, it helps to have certain cornerstones.”

For example, ministry to Millennials needs to be “straightforward about doctrine,” he explained.

“Millennials are not as indirect as Boomers often are in getting at what religion means. Boomers often get off on what the experience is like, what it feels like. They get fixated on attitude.

“The Millennial doesn’t care about attitude. The Millennial cares about what I have to do; what behaviors are required. So, be direct. Tell Millennials what is required. Explain what it means. Then move on, telling them how they can be effective in this world.

“Millennials want to know how to build a better community, organize, socialize and have fun.”

And even how Millennials have fun is significant for churches that try to minister to them, he observed, describing a new trend—congregations renting skating rinks, movie theaters or laser tag facilities. “Obviously, it’s fun. But it’s also in tune with the whole Millennial approach to protection.”

Millennials also appreciate planning, he said.

“Millennials, much more than Boomers, want to plan their lives over time. What does that mean with regard to marriage, careers and education? I’m not sure how a church would do this, but in ways that are fun and interesting, it can help them focus on how to build a life that is significant.”

And with Millennials, significance matters.


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