The 'Millennials' Come of Age

June 29, 2006 | By Sharon Jayson

Chris Barnard’s world is pretty typical for a 24-year-old single guy with a college diploma, a job and no landline.

He earned a sociology degree two years ago and moved back in with his parents, working as a temp as he tried to figure out his next step in life.

One of those temp jobs became permanent, and Barnard now works in Washington, D.C., in the membership department of a trade association. He lives with two roommates and keeps in frequent touch with friends and family.

“That’s not to say I’m dependent upon them,” he says of his parents, who live in Rockville, Md. “They did all they could to foster my independence. It’s of my own accord that I keep in touch with them and let them know what’s going on.”

Except for technology, Barnard says his life is pretty similar to his parents’ when they started out. But he and his generation are getting increased attention from researchers and social scientists. Those who study generational behavior, especially in young people, say this group is one to watch.

Demographers differ on just what ages they include in this next generation. Some include those born since 1980; others start with 1982 and go to about 2000. Most researchers have focused on the “first-wave” millennials—those roughly ages 16 to 25. Although there’s no one set of traits that everyone shares, research has suggested some commonalities in areas ranging from home life and education to workplace behavior and leisure-time interests. An overview:

  • At home: Everybody talks about the growing number of “boomerang” kids who move back home, but this generation is delaying other traditional measures of adulthood as well.

Findings published in the American Sociological Association journal Contexts in 2004 contrasted young people growing up today with those 40 years earlier. Researchers found that by age 30, a much smaller percentage today (46% of women and 31% of men) have finished school, left home, gotten married, had a child or reached financial independence. In 1960, 77% of women and 65% of men had reached those standard markers of adulthood by age 30.

But even if they don’t come home again, this generation appears to have closed the generation gap: A survey of young adults last fall by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research found more than 90% call their relationship with their mother close; 65% described a close relationship with their father.

  • Education: More students are enrolled in college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which shows that the number of undergraduates in 2004 (17.3 million) was almost double that in 1970 (8.6 million). But costs are rising. Average tuition and fees at four-year public universities rose 30% from 2002-03 to 2005-06, says the College Board.

Students also are taking longer to graduate. A 2005 study by the non-profit Education Trust found that only 37% of first-time freshmen at four-year schools earned their bachelor’s degrees in four years. Another 26% took up to six years.

  • The workplace: Members of this next generation don’t expect to stay forever in one job, so they’re not in a hurry to launch careers just out of college. Many travel and take jobs unrelated to their schooling. And researchers say they’ve been raised in a climate that emphasized the importance of high self-esteem, so they appear to challenge the boundaries of corporate behavior.

“When they have a problem in the workplace, they walk,” says Neil Howe, co-author of the book Generations and four other books about this group. Howe and co-author William Strauss in 1991 dubbed this group “millennials.”

“They don’t waste time trying to change things,” Howe says. “Our message for employers is you want to organize them in groups and structure the work and give them constant feedback.”

  • Leisure: Millennials have grown up with technology and use it constantly, not just for work, like many of their elders, but to maintain relationships. This is the group whose multitasking lifestyles rely on iPods, instant messaging, cellphones and social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.

Young people of this generation, who grew up with “diversity” and “multicultural” as buzzwords, are more tolerant and open-minded than previous generations, suggests an analysis of studies by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, part of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy.

Six in 10 teens say their friends include members of diverse racial groups, a study by Teenage Research Unlimited of Northbrook, Ill., finds. A Gallup Poll last year says 60% of 18- to 29-year-olds have dated someone of a different race.

  • Civic engagement: Millennials have a spirit of volunteerism and a hint of interest in the world around them, but they’re less inclined toward traditional media to keep up with the news, research suggests. A study of more than 260,000 college freshmen released this year by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute found that 66.3% of freshmen surveyed last fall said it is “essential or very important” to help others, the highest percentage to say so in 25 years.

Millennials have the potential to be a great generation, says Dave Verhaagen, a child and adolescent psychologist in Charlotte and the author of Parenting the Millennial Generation, published last year.

They will “rise to the occasion and show courage, character, determination, innovation and vision in ways that really make the country a better place,” he predicts.

“What happens in every generation is that older people say kids are worse than ever. ‘They’re so rude. Look at how they dress.’ It’s been going on forever. But I don’t think the data support that for the millennials.”

This group also is more educated and has had fewer barriers in terms of gender and ethnicity than their elders, says Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who has studied them in his work on “emerging adulthood.”

This group “has more opportunity than any generation in human history,” he says. But he warns against over-generalization. “For people who don’t get much education, the situation is worse than it was a half-century ago.”

Linda Walter has studied the age group and has lots of hands-on experience dealing with them in family-orientation sessions for freshmen at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

Despite all the positives she sees in the generation, Walter says she is worried about what she believes is a decline in their face-to-face social skills in a tech-dominated world.

“Even though they’re with their peers, they’re wrapped up in electronic conversations, and they lose track of body language and those signals that are around to what’s happening,” she says. “They sort of block them out.”

Michael Rosen, 17, a high school senior from Manhattan, is truly a techno-buff—so much so that he says he sometimes instant-messages family members when he’s “too lazy to get up and walk to the other side of the house.”

But he resisted social networking websites such as MySpace and Facebook as something he thought was a waste of time, a bit pretentious and an unnecessary way to tally friends. That is, until this month, when he signed up for Facebook to keep in touch with friends he doesn’t see in school.

“I’ve become one of the masses,” he says. Last fall, Facebook expanded its site from only college students to include high schoolers.

Rosen also is typical of many teenagers who volunteer for service projects, including a community service project in which he collects lacrosse equipment for poor schools.

Volunteering is rising, says Robert Putnam, author of the 2000 book Bowling Alone, which is about the breakdown of social connections and the decline of civic engagement. But he says civic involvement has been declining in every generation.

“Everybody who has worked in this field has talked about this increasing youth volunteering,” says Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard. “It’s not true of all other measures. It’s not true for voting, interest in politics or joining organizations.”

Barnard, though, says he reads newspapers and magazines and is very interested in politics and in voting.

Though he may be unusual in that respect, researchers would see much about his life as pretty typical of a generation in motion.

In his 2004 book Emerging Adulthood, Arnett discusses how often these young people move, based on a chart that shows rates of moving spike at 18, peak in the mid-20s and then sharply decline.

“This shows that emerging adults rarely know where they will be living from one year to the next,” he writes. “All of this moving around makes emerging adulthood an unstable time, but it also reflects the explorations that take place during the emerging adult years.”

Barnard’s life fits this model. During college, he changed dorms every year, and in his senior year, he moved to an off-campus apartment. After college, he moved home, then moved into his first apartment.

Now he’s in his second apartment but says he finally plans to stay awhile.

“This is going to be the longest stay I’ve had since I went to college,” he says. “I’ve sort of settled in.”


  • Facebook LinkedIn