Millennials Totally Not Into Meaning, or Any of That Other Hippie Junk

Katherine Mangu-Ward

A new study about generational differences has been attracting headlines (including The Atlantic Wire's own: "Millennials Are Like 'Meh' About the Environment and Stuff") for its finding that the kids these days aren't exactly stoked about rinsing out their cans and turning off lights when they leave a room.

Less discussed in the same paper, by San Diego State psychologist Jean M. Twenge and her colleagues: A shift away from civic engagement and toward family and personal concerns. From the paper,* which appears in the current issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: 
Millennials and GenX'ers rated being very well off financially, being a leader in the community, living close to parents and relatives, and having administrative responsibility for the work of others as more important than Boomers did at the same age. They rated developing a meaningful philosophy of life, finding purpose and meaning, keeping up to date with political affairs, and becoming involved in programs to clean up the environment as less important.

I just missed the Millennial cutoff -- the authors pin it at 1982 -- which means that pure generational chauvinism tempts me to join the rest of the press corps in a lament the state of America's youth. But the shift described above -- essentially a move in the direction of individualism -- actually sounds pretty good to me.

The signature Boomer combination of meaning-seeking and political activism leads all too often to seeking meaning in politics--or worse, seeking salvation in the success a single politician. The study found that participation in political campaigns (past and expected future) has been on a steady decline, with 68 percent of Millennials saying they did not expect to work for a campaign, compared with 44 percent of Boomers.

Millennial disengagement from politics means that change in government might be more difficult or come more slowly, but the tradeoff is a decreased likelihood that people will look to Washington for answers or guidance. (Not that they are looking for answers much anyway: One of the steepest declines was in the "developing a meaningful philosophy of life" and "finding purpose and meaning" categories.) The business of the Millennials, it appears, is business.

So what's a self-centered GenX'er to do with these findings, which show my generation drearily described as a way station on the downward sloping lines between Boomers and Millennials? Celebrate the few blips in the data:

The only other civic item in which Millennials consistently outscored GenX was discussing politics.

Note that this is a measure of talking, not doing. GenX'ers are still logging more phone bank and leafletting time than their younger siblings. But at least dinner with my generation means you probably don't have to talk about Sarah Palin.

(Note to those tempted to view these findings through a recession-tinted lens, the data end in 2009.)

*See what I did there? I linked to the actual study. Not the AP report on it. Because it's available online for free.