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Whassup? A Glimpse Into the Attitudes and Beliefs of the Millennial Generation

Melissa H. Sandfort, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Jennifer G. Haworth, Loyola University Chicago

Melissa Sandfort is an Assistant Dean of Student Affairs and Director of Academic Advising and Retention at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Mel earned a Ph.D. in higher education at Loyola University Chicago, a M.S.Ed in art education and college student personnel at the University of Kansas, and a BFA in studio art at Truman State University. Professional presentations and invited keynotes given on the topics of Class of 2000/2001: Attitudes and Beliefs of the Millennial Generation and Bridging the Generation Gap in the Workplace.

Jennifer Grant Haworth is Associate Professor and Faculty Scholar in the Department of Leadership, Foundations, and Counseling Psychology at Loyola University Chicago. For citation request, please email to: MSandf@Artic.edu

After declining for nearly 15 years, the teen population is on the rise. It is estimated that 12-19 year olds will exceed today’s 31 million to a record high of 35 million by 2010 (U.S. Department of Education, 2000). Accordingly, public high school enrollments are expected to increase 15 percent and college enrollments 12 percent between 1997 and 2007 (U.S. Department of Education, 1998a). An important factor in the rise of college enrollment is the projected increase of 18 to 24 year olds who are expected to comprise 60 percent of the college population by 2008 (U.S. Department of Education, 1998a).

As boomers (aged 39-56 in 2007) begin to consider retirement, a new millennial generation will step up to mark their entry into adulthood—in a big way. And yet, little research to has focused on this next generation of American college students. For example, what are today’s adolescents’ views on family? On religion, education and work? Politics and community service? What do they expect from their future? Given the lack of research on this generation, it is important that scholars begin to ask questions of this sort in order to understand who the millennials are and what they are all about. College and university faculty and administrators, in particular, need to have a clearer sense of this generation if they are to provide meaningful and appropriate educational experiences and services for this new wave of college students. Given the sheer size of the millennial cohort, as well as the changing context of American higher education in which they are coming of age, their presence cannot be ignored.

Purpose of the Study and Research Questions

The purpose of this exploratory study was to identify and describe the attitudes and beliefs held by individuals at the front-end of the millennial generation (high school students, primarily 16-18 years old). Specifically, this study sought to develop a preliminary understanding of how 75 members of the millennial generation made sense of their own and their peers’ attitudes toward religion, family, education, work, community service, politics, and their future. Toward this end, the following research questions guided this inquiry:

What attitudes and beliefs do millennials hold toward family? Religion? Education? Work? Community service? Politics? Their future?

What events, issues, or developments do today’s adolescents identify as influencing, or shaping, their generation? Why?

Mode of Inquiry

We interviewed 75 students at nine different high schools for this study. Using purposive sampling techniques (Creswell, 1998; Bogdan & Biklen, 1992), high schools that varied in terms of their location or geographic setting (rural, urban, suburban), type of control (public or sectarian-private), and percentage of low income students enrolled1 were selected for inclusion in the study. The final sample consisted of three schools each from urban, rural and suburban areas, five public and four private sectarian schools, and three schools each reporting high, average, and low percentages of low income students.

Various purposive sampling criteria were also used to inform the selection of student participants. Approximately 75 students, grouped into two focus groups of approximately four to six students at each of the nine high schools, were interviewed between September 1999 and December 1999. Students varied in terms of gender, race/ethnicity, academic achievement, and year in school.2 Group interviews lasted approximately 60 to 90 minutes and were tape recorded and transcribed verbatim.

A variation of the constant comparative method was used to analyze interview data. Put simply, the constant comparative method is best described as a continuous interchange between analysis and data collection in which interview transcripts are reviewed to draw out patterns that describe the population being studied (Denzin & Lincoln, 1998). Data analysis in this instance was accomplished in four phases. The first phase entailed reading and coding all the interview transcripts in light of the study’s research questions and interview protocol. In the second phase, common themes were identified that cut across the focus group interviews at each high school and, in phase three, themes were identified, documented, and compared that cut across the 17 focus groups at all nine high schools. Finally, in phase four, themes were refined within each specific category.

In this article, we draw upon interview data that cuts across the categories of religion, family, education, work, community service, politics, and the future. Specifically, our analysis generated several key themes that participants believed represented not only their views but also the attitudes and beliefs of the millennial generation as a whole. Support for these themes was found in the responses of at least half of the students interviewed.

A Glimpse into the Attitudes and Beliefs of the Millennial Generation

What attitudes and beliefs did these high school students have toward family, religion, education, career, community service, politics, and their future? In this section, we draw upon these students’ words to describe and illustrate each in detail, including perspectives about how they–and, perhaps, other members of their generation–had come to hold these beliefs.

Attitudes and Beliefs Toward Family

What is a family these days? You have your original nuclear, you have single mothers, and more frequently now single fathers. You have divorced, blended, and premixed families. You have your grandparents and now gay couples [as parents]. These are huge changes from before with the Cleavers. (rural male)

Fifty years ago, the stereotypical American family consisted of a married heterosexual couple who produced children and lived happily ever after (Barna, 1990; Gallup, 1984). At the dawn of the new millennium, the family unit looks and behaves quite differently. Statistics compiled by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, for instance, indicate that thirty-four percent of U.S. adults were divorced in 1996 compared to only 17 percent in 1972. Likewise, in 1998 one out of every two children grew up in two parent, in-tact families, whereas in 1972, three out of every four children were reared by two parents (NCHS, 1998).

The students interviewed for this study were very aware of these differences. In general, they believed today’s family rarely resembled the nuclear ensemble typical of their parent’s childhood. In fact, the few participants whose families conformed to the traditional family unit believed their situation was atypical and, often, a source of wonderment for their peers. As two students told me:

I think we have an appreciation now for people who have one family unit– not a mixed family, not a blended family, not a separated family. I think people really look at the nuclear family and think, “Wow! That is so uncommon.” (rural female)

It seems now that with a lot of families when they were growing up it seemed strange to be divorced. Now it seems strange to stay married. (rural male)

Besides “looking” different, most students also believed that their families “acted” differently than those of their parents. For instance, interviewees repeatedly stressed that their generation spent less time together as a family. Many especially noted that eating meals at home as a shared family experience happened less frequently. As Kay, a senior at a suburban high school, put it:

I don’t know very many people who have dinner with their family every night or even once or twice a week. I think overall people are so busy–parents are working and kids are so involved that it just kind of gets separated in the shuffle.

Students attributed these behavioral differences to a variety of things. For instance, Karen, a junior at a rural high school, said:

I think it has to do with how the generations have changed–how things are now that all 16 year olds have cars. They are more free to do things on the weekends. There are more places to be. Who wants to stay home?

Other students believed technology– especially the invasion of TVs and computers into their homes–had adversely affected the emphasis families put on family in their generation.

Participants were split over whether their generation valued marriage and family. Approximately one half of those interviewed believed that millennials, as a whole, valued both considerably less than previous generations. In general, those who held this view suggested that the high rate of divorce–and the ease with which divorces could be obtained–had eroded the value of marriage and family among their peers. As Tommy, an urban high school senior, clarified:

I think the family as an ideal is devalued by the fact that there are more single parents and by the fact that parents are not as accessible as they were in the past. I do not feel very close to my family. I don’t think it is a big priority nationally. I think people in terms of the future and thinking about whether or not they are going to have a family see that it is a choice now where in the past it was an expectation.

Many of those who believed that their generation devalued marriage and family likewise stressed that the emphasis adults placed on work and/or career had affected members of their generation. Indeed, in 1998 nearly 60% of families consisted of dually employed parents, an increase of 18% since 1978 (“Peril and Promise,” 1999). The impact of dual-career families was felt by many interviewees, who often said that their parents had little time or energy to devote to them and their family. Amelia, a rural high school senior, voiced this perspective, stressing that currently “A lot of parents are becoming more career oriented, so they don’t get together with their kids that often.”

Although not the norm, some of the participants expressed a sentiment that millennials might not marry and have families at all. For instance, Beverly, an urban senior, contemplated:

I think we will be less likely to marry. My mom is divorced, my sister is divorced, my brother is divorced, and my aunt is divorced. I don’t even want to get married. I think a lot of people my age aren’t even considering marriage.

These views notwithstanding, the other half of participants interviewed for this study believed that their generation still valued marriage and family, but their views had been tempered by the realities of the society in which they were raised. Luke, a senior at a suburban high school, expressed the view of many interviewed when he hypothesized that his generation’s desire for “better and enduring marriages” would likely prevent many from “rushing to the altar.” Along these same lines, Kay, a senior at a suburban high school, offered an equally tempered view of family:

I think our generation recognizes that it is not like it used to be and maybe they will strive to make it more like it used to be when we raise families of our own. For me personally it will be a high priority to maintain family togetherness.

Amelia, a rural high school senior, also hoped that her generation would move away from the trend of placing career before family. As she told me:

Our parents have little time for us. When they do find the time it is like, “Oh I haven’t seen little Johnny in a while so I should talk to him.” But little Johnny doesn’t want to talk because he thinks they are talking to him because it is their job, not because they want to talk to him. We don’t want to be like that with our own kids if we have kids. We don’t want to make our jobs our whole life. I think if we look at our parents we see that you have to sacrifice family if you want to have a successful job.

Accordingly, time, or the lack thereof due to work demands, was viewed as a major source of family interference. Although the majority of participants in this study expected to work outside the home after college, they believed or at least hoped that collectively their generation would place less of a priority on career than previous generations.

Interestingly, Hispanic participants shared a common voice on the subject of marriage and family. Overall, these students did not believe that members of their generation valued family any less than their parents and grandparents. All held a strong commitment and appreciation for family. Ray, an urban junior, stressed that within his community family is “very important” and “very strong.” His friend Teresa added: “I think we value it as much as our parents. It has been passed down to us. They show us the same thing their parents did.”

Although participants held divided opinions regarding whether their generation as a whole valued marriage and family, 85 percent of those interviewed personally ranked family as their first or second priority in life. This was an interesting disconnect in the data, with participants placing a stronger value on marriage and family in their own lives than they generally believed held sway for members of their generation. While we found no shared explanations among those interviewed to account for this, perhaps students’ confidence in themselves–and their future personal lives–contributed to their more sanguine personal views, whereas their understandings of the social context surrounding marriage and family in millennial America made them less apt to believe that their generational peers would embrace and enact similar values.

As it stands now, the state of the American family is in flux and will probably continue to redefine itself well into the next century. The millennials interviewed for this study hoped their lives would be different from those of their parents. While the majority recognized that economic and career pressures would continue to impact how the family operates in future years, many believed that marrying later provided a viable alternative that would help their generation stress the importance of family.

Attitudes and Beliefs Toward Religion and Spirituality

I see a difference too between being religious and being spiritual. Being spiritual is like what you believe yourself and church doesn’t really matter. (rural male)

Historically, America has had a strong religious heritage. Despite this, the 20th century witnessed a serious eroding of relevance and loyalty to such traditions. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, membership in American churches and synagogues declined significantly (Gallup, 1984). Now as we enter the new millennium, organized religion is giving way to movements in personal spirituality. This research suggests that students not only realize this shift, but accept it regardless of their affiliation with the traditions of old. Luke, a senior at a rural high school, captured this sentiment well, noting that his “generation is much more spiritual than religious”: “We want to figure things out on our own.”

Accordingly, most participants in this study wholeheartedly believed that their generation valued organized religion less than previous generations. Most saw their spirituality as not lesser to but different from the religion of their parents and grandparents. When asked what they believed had contributed to their generation’s movement away from organized institutions, participants volunteered four reasons: the irrelevance of established practice to their lives, a continual feeling of being ignored by the church, the evolution of science, and the seeming rejection of organized religion among their baby boomer parents.

To begin with, many students believed that a significant factor behind the shift towards an experiential faith set apart from the doctrines and dogmas of organized religion was the search for practical, inclusive, and yet personal forms of religious expression. In this respect, most no longer deemed churches and synagogues relevant for contemporary America. Despite their affiliations or lack thereof, most believed that contemporary religious institutions not only rejected different ideas, but people who held those ideas as well. Natalie, a suburban high school senior, reflected the views of many of her peers when she said: “I think some of the church’s ideas are really outdated and they are not growing along with society. So we relate more on a personal level rather than on a community level.”

Some participants were also disappointed that their churches and synagogues had not attempted to relate to and draw in young adults like themselves. Their responses indicated that some were still open to such institutions, but felt ignored by religious leaders. As Teresa, a senior at an urban high school, told me: “In a sense the church doesn’t relate to people our age, so we have to go out and find our own religion. I am disappointed with the church.” Likewise, Maria, another urban high school junior, commented, “I see it as that a lot of people think that religion doesn’t really address what is going on in their lives. I don’t consider myself religious. When I did go to church, I didn’t see a basis for anything in my life.”

A number of participants referred to the impact that science (and, more specifically, scientific theories of evolution) had on their decision to forego organized religion. For instance, Gabrielle, an urban high school senior, viewed science as a deciding factor in why millennials were leaving the church:

I don’t think nationally religion has as much influence on people’s lives as it used to. I think because of all the scientific [discoveries] and the more logical way to think now it is more difficult for us to accept. I think the number of people who are truly devoted has decreased.

Interviewees also believed that millennials were less bound to organized religion because many boomer parents held laissez-faire attitudes toward religion and raised their children accordingly. Jose, a rural high school senior, illuminated this point further, stating:

I think part of the problem is that with our grandparents everyone went to church every Sunday. Now I think some of their kids who are adults now don’t want to go to church and so their kids are saying, “since mom and dad aren’t going to church there is no reason for me to go to church.”

Essentially, participants in this study believed that as a generation millennials were leaving the church or synagogue en mass. In its place, they asserted that millennials were searching for a personal spirituality often free from the constraints of organized religion.

In this respect, most–although not all–of the students interviewed acknowledged a belief in God. That said, they saw a distinction between being spiritual and being religious (although they often used the words interchangeably in dialogue). On the one hand, most defined spirituality as a personal journey in which one mixed and matched religious beliefs and practices that ultimately resonated with their own life experiences. Being religious, on the other hand, represented membership within an organized religious community, most often one in which they were raised and their parents still belonged. Zahir, a senior at a suburban high school, captured his peers’ distinction between spirituality and religion this way:

I think that in a hundred years organized religion will be obsolete in this world. I think although we say, “I am Christian, I am a Jew or Muslim,” or whatever, I think most people find it for themselves. I don’t think we can relate to the old books as well as people before did. We may have beliefs based on them but it is more personal. We believe in what we want to believe in.

Spirituality for this group had little to do with a formal association with a church or synagogue. It also had little to do with adhering to established religious doctrines, dogmas, or teachings. Regardless of whether millennials described themselves as religious, spiritual, or agnostic, most believed the physical act of going to church was obsolete. In this respect, Michael, a senior at a rural high school, represented the view of many of his peers when he said, “I am not the most religious person. I don’t go to church every Sunday but I have my convictions and I try to stick by them.”

An interesting footnote to this discussion of religion was offered by a small minority of students (primarily those living within rural communities) who believed religion, particularly evangelical religion, was on the rise among today’s teenagers. Take, for instance, a comment made by Tim, a rural high school senior: “If you look from the outside it appears we are not very religious at all. But in the last couple of years I have noticed a big push towards Christianity groups.” Although this belief wasn’t solely held by participants in rural areas, Tommy, an urban senior, aptly summarized his peers’ overall views toward religion when he observed, “I think there is a big split. I think a lot of people have gotten more religious and a lot have gotten less religious, sacrilegious, or even anti-religious.”

Exploring priorities is one way of measuring the significance of either religion or spirituality in the lives of the 75 students interviewed for this study. Only one fifth of those interviewed ranked religion as their highest priority. Indeed, for most religious/spiritual intentions were of considerably lesser importance than family and education. In light of this, it appears that faith matters were not a compelling consideration in the lives of most students included in this study.

Attitudes and Beliefs Toward Education and Career

It is simple, you go to college, you find a job you like, you make money and you stabilize your family and future. The other way is to struggle your whole life and not like what you are doing. (urban male)

The link between education and income, namely that higher levels of education led to better jobs and increased income, became widely accepted in American society during the latter half of the 20th century (Altbach, 2000; Boyer, 1987; Levine, 1980; Levine & Cureton, 1998). At the dawn of a new century, this belief in higher education as the ticket to status attainment is broadly embraced. According to a recent study by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education (Wilgoren, 2000), for instance, the overwhelming majority of Americans view a college degree as the ticket to middle class standing. Furthermore, nearly 60 percent of parents believe that a college education is “absolutely necessary” for their children (Wilgoren, 2000).

Participants in this study did not buck these dominant societal beliefs. Indeed, they stressed four key beliefs surrounding education and career that thoroughly supported them. First, almost all regarded a baccalaureate degree as the minimum degree necessary to find entry-level employment. Second, most believed that a bachelor’s degree led to financial stability. Third, despite their desire to be financially solvent, most participants said that they also wanted to find personal satisfaction and fulfillment in their work. As the mantra goes, they wanted to “work to live” not “live to work.” And fourth, the general consensus among the interviewees was that boomer parents and the broader society placed considerable pressure on millennials to attend and succeed in college.

The push for higher education.

I think that a lot is expected of us. In the past it was a major decision if you were to go to college. If you decided to tackle that, it was seen as a big responsibility. But now it is not really a question of if you are going to college. Most people say yes, they are going to college and don’t spend a lot of time deciding if they are going to do that or not. It is like, “I am going to high school–I am going to college.” (rural female)

Today, more than 90% of high school seniors expect to attend college, and more than 70% expect to work in professional jobs. This is a significant increase from the 55% of 1950s youth who expected to attend college and the 42% who anticipated entering professional careers (Schneider & Stevenson, 1999). Consistent with studies focused on contemporary college students (Levine & Cureton, 1998), the high school students interviewed for this study unanimously believed that the primary (if not sole) reason for attending college was to prepare for a career. Moreover, they viewed the baccalaureate degrees as the only way to secure financial stability.

Almost every student interviewed for this study told us that they intended to attend college and most already had a specific career in mind. Furthermore, 24 percent ranked education as their number one priority with another 31 percent ranking it as their second highest priority. As Amelia, a rural high school senior, told us, she and her peers have “always been told that if you don’t go to college you won’t get a job. It is college or McDonalds.” “You have to have it,” exclaimed Tim, a rural high school senior. “You have to get into a good college and if you don’t get into a good college you are screwed.”

Students often saw financial security as the primary outcome of a college education. Most viewed money pragmatically and idealistically as both a means to stay out of debt and to ensure happiness. These students were very aware of the differential wages paid to high school and college graduates, and it appeared this awareness strongly shaped their views toward college–and how it could considerably enhance the quality of their lives. Not only did they look to their own work experiences (the majority held part-time jobs), but many also spoke about friends or relatives who worked in what they described as “futureless jobs,” stressing that they had no intention of doing the same. As Beverly, an urban senior, told us: “I have friends who didn’t go to college and now they are working at Hollywood Video. If you want to work, if you want to have a career, if you want to be happy, you go to college.”

Building on this point, many students stressed that the problem with “dead-end,” low education jobs was not just that they often paid poorly, but that they also seldom provided personal fulfillment. The possibility of working endless hours in a meaningless job just to make ends meet was beyond their comprehension. Indeed, while these students expected to work hard, and they wanted to make money (which in its own right produced some level of happiness), they also expressed a deep desire to make a living doing what made them happy.

In light of the general views students held toward college and the critical role they perceived it would play in enhancing the future quality of their lives, it is not altogether surprising that many felt pressure from their parents both to attend college, and to major in fields that would “pay off” nicely in the future.

Show Me the Money: Parental Pressures. Today’s parents have high expectations for their children. Just as students’ educational expectations rose over the past two decades, so have parents’ expectations for their children. Most expect their children to graduate from college, find employment, and generally do better financially than they did. National studies completed in the 1990s underscore this point (Ingels, et al, 1994; Schmidt & Riley, 1998).

Maria, for example, represented the views of many of her peers when she said that she felt obligated to attend college. “It’s an expectation set by my parents,” she confessed. “I am not sure what I even want to be. I want to take a semester off first, but I know that I have to go to school. It is a goal my parents have set for me and I don’t want to disappoint them.”

Every student interviewed offered personal examples of this pressure, and all wholeheartedly believed that most members of their generation felt parental–or societal–pressure to attend college. Accordingly, for many, parents played a considerable role not only in their decision to attend college, but also in their choice of what college to attend and what, ultimately, to study. Danielle, a suburban senior, spoke about her parent’s expectations for her:

I can’t even imaging going up to my mom and saying, “I want to be an actress.” She would be like, “No way!” Or if I were like, “I want to be a teacher.” she would say, “That is really nice, but do you know how much money they make?” It is a little stressful.

Zahir expressed similar frustrations:

I want to do what I want. I want to do anthropology and study culture. But I can’t do it because of my parents–they are like, “What are you going to do–dig things in Egypt and make no money?”

Carmen and Joy, both suburban seniors, summarized what most interviewees in this study believed (as well as what they thought other members of their generation experienced) when they offered these explanations for why parents were applying so much pressure. “For a lot of parents,” explained Carmen, “becoming a lawyer or a doctor and making a lot of money equals happiness.” Joy added, “Since our parents were successful [financially] they expect us to be successful. We are being pressured to compete with our parents’ success.”

Coinciding with perceived parental pressures to succeed financially, students discussed the anxiety that surrounded the college admission process and their prospects of getting accepted to the school of their choice. Most saw this as a highly competitive process because they assumed that almost everyone their age anticipated going to college. Thus, many believed that good grades were no longer enough to get into their first choice college. Brian and Stacy, both seniors, spoke to this point:

[Brian]: Colleges are now looking for diversity. Back when our parents went to school, they got in on legacy. It is so competitive now.

[Stacy]: Yeah! Colleges now want you to be good or well rounded in all these different areas. We have to be better in more things.

Students said that they felt a lot of pressure, not just from their parents, but also from themselves to earn high grades and compile impressive co-curricular “portfolios” to enhance their prospects in the college admission process. This pressure, in turn, caused a bit of frenzy among many interviewees and their peers. Danielle, a suburban senior, described the millennial generation as “crazy” when it came to earning good grades:

Most of us are so anal when it comes to grades. It is unbelievable. It is the mentality–when you go to college, when you go to college–that we were raised with that makes us this way. It was never an option not to go for most of us. It has been a constant pressure our whole lives.

Those interviewed, then, emphasized that the value of a college education rested primarily in its ability to help them prepare for and eventually gain employment. Almost all felt that by and large their generation was pressured from an early age to build a strong college portfolio. An increasingly popular component of such a portfolio was participation in various community service projects. What attitudes did interviewees hold toward community service?

Attitudes and Beliefs Toward Community Service

I think there is a big movement toward service because everyone is a lot more touchy-feely. Everyone now cares about everyone else’s feelings and the best way to care about people’s feelings is to go out and rake a yard. (rural male)

The millennial generation’s high school experience may, in many ways, be significantly different from that of their parents. As many participants told me, today’s teenagers use high school to build an academic record that will make them more viable college applicants. Moreover, students now purposefully and thoughtfully select extracurricular activities to build their college admission portfolios. Alongside athletics and leadership positions in clubs, community service is becoming a popular, if not mandatory,3 way for many students to build their high school resumes.

Nearly 96 percent of the high school students interviewed for this study performed some type of community service within the last year. Almost half indicated that they regularly participated in altruistic activities. Interestingly, while participants believed that the number of volunteers in their age group was growing, many questioned the motives behind students’ interest in volunteerism, noting that they saw a split between those who volunteered for philanthropic reasons and those who volunteered for personal gain.

On the one hand, a number of interviewees firmly believed that members of their generation held strong civic commitments. Mary Ann, a suburban high school senior, offered this opinion:

I think it is big and not just because it is required here. I do a lot of extra stuff just because I enjoy doing it. I see my friends in public schools doing it when they don’t have to. We want to use what we know and have to help others.

Carmen, also a suburban senior at different schools, added:

I think right now a lot of us are interested in helping those less fortunate. I don’t think it is just here at this school. I think our generation is trying to help and reach out to people more.

When pressed, interviewees elaborated on why they believed their generation as a whole was so civic minded. Liz, a rural junior, represented the views of many when she said:

Our generation is not “Let’s just fix it for a few days and see how it goes.” We are like, “Let’s fix it and fix it right and follow up on it.” I think we have gotten more into it as we have gotten older. We are more compassionate than our parents were.

On the other hand, several students believed that much of the growth in community service among members of their generation could be explained by new high school graduation requirements and more competitive college admissions standards. Both Matthew, a senior, and Jeff, a junior, at different rural high schools expressed this view:

[Matthew]: I say we are a society of takers and we want what is best for us. Sure we’ll work for an organization but it’s because it looks good on a college application. I just think there are always underlying reasons. I do think that even though there are other motives [to volunteer], it still helps.

[Jeff]: There are always some who do it [volunteer] because they have good moral standards and they want to do it. But for most, it is because they have to get something out of it in return.

Although most interviewees believed community service provided both a sense of personal fulfillment and strengthened their college applications, most expressed an underlying resentment about being “forced” to volunteer. Maria, an urban junior, described her high school’s community service requirement as a “punishment,” saying, “If we were encouraged to do it instead of forced to do it, it would be better. No generation likes to be forced to do things.” Eden, another urban high school senior, explained, “I don’t resent community service. I think most of us view it as something we have to do but is not necessarily bad. I think we resent that it is required.”

These students may be on to something. The Condition of Education 1998, a databank of education statistics published by the National Center on Education Statistics, provides compelling evidence that the key to encouraging and inspiring students to perform community service is simply to provide these opportunities–not necessarily mandate them. Specifically, authors of the report cite data that the rates of volunteerism in schools that provide and arrange but do not mandate service projects are nearly as high as those schools that require and arrange volunteer activities (U.S. Department of Education, 1998b).

Although an overwhelming majority of students performed some sort of service activity regularly and believed this was a positive trend among members of their generation, study participants held differing opinions about the motivation behind these deeds. Regardless of whether their generation was volunteering for personal gain, personal fulfillment, or to fulfill a requirement, most students believed that such acts would ultimately improve their communities and the broader society. Interestingly, and as we will see in the next section, although participants saw themselves–and their millennial peers–as civic minded in this sense, most did not believe this sense of responsibility extended to the political arena.

Attitudes and Beliefs Toward Politics

I think that the problem is not that we can’t do anything about it, we just can’t see what we can do about it. Lately, I really want to get involved in politics and I want to write letters to my congressman about issues and how I feel about it. I just turned 18 and can’t wait to register to vote. It is like they say, “The little things you do make a difference” and if we would just get together and vote we could change stuff, but it is hard to see that now. (suburban female)

Whereas most students were disappointed in and apathetic toward the current political system, the vast majority believed their generation possessed a spirit of activism and leadership that would ultimately serve them well as a group. That said, at this time in their lives these students indicated that they had resigned themselves to remaining detached–but not ignorant of–the political process, often owing to their belief that they were unwanted in a political scene dominated by their parents and grandparents.

Disappointment in the system.

Politics seems like a big joke. Our President blatantly lied. I would like to believe that our government would not blatantly and purposefully lie to us. It’s pathetic. (suburban female)

Frustration with the American political system is not unique to this group of young adults. Documentation of political disappointment and disillusionment exists for nearly every generation of American youth (Strauss & Howe, 1997). Like so many of their forbearers, participants in this study opined that the current political structure ignored the young as well as turned them off. When asked students why their generation seemingly avoided politics their responses included simple observations such as Hannah’s (“It seems too dishonest…we are too young to vote and we have no say anyway”) as well as more complex views, such as the one expressed by these high school seniors:

[Steven]: I think government as a whole really messed up this country. They should have listened to George Washington’s warning about the full party system. Nothing gets done because they just bicker and argue like little children. We look at that and think, “Why would I want to be a part of that?”

[Tommy]: I think there is an undercurrent of cynicism, especially towards our leaders. Basically our generation views its leaders as idiots. If you look at the issues, what happens is that there is a very narrow base of issues and it is like voting for the lesser of two evils. Our democracy is very superficial because it is a republican society not a democratic society. What we do is vote for who is voting for these guys. We throw in our votes but it is all superficial. Basically we have two candidates but did we have any say in picking that candidate–not really. I just feel very removed from the process. There is such a cynicism in the whole government that people like Warren Beatty and Donald Trump can run on the basis of celebrity.

Students’ apparent disgust and disillusionment with the political system led many to question the role they would eventually play in it as future members of the electorate. Most were aware, for instance, that the largest declines in voter participation in recent years had been among members of the 18-24 age group (Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, 1999). They acknowledged generation X’s poor voting record and generally agreed that their generation would probably continue the trend (65 percent ranked politics as their lowest priority and 19 percent ranked it as their second lowest priority). Paradoxically, despite this obvious lack of interest, all of the 18 year olds with whom we spoke indicated that they intended to vote in the upcoming election.

What explanations did interviewees offer for the apparent tide of political apathy among members of their generation? First, students stressed that an increasingly cynical political climate fostered by the politicians themselves had turned them off to politics. Most said that they did not trust the abilities or character of political candidates. As Sonia, a rural high school senior, told me: “It [politics] is overrated. The people who are in it–all they want is money. They don’t care. It is a popularity contest. It is not about helping the nation. It is all about money.”

Second, many students believed that members of their generation had grown indifferent toward politics because politicians–and the political system–were indifferent to them and their concerns. Robert, a suburban senior, echoed the views of many of his peers when he remarked: “We don’t have faith in the system. It is a bunch of old people who have nothing to do with us.” Jenna, a rural senior, likewise observed:

Once we get a little older we may change our minds [about politics]. Right now it’s all focused on issues that don’t affect us like euthanasia. The only reason we are in favor of that is because we are not old. Seriously, as you get older you don’t like euthanasia because it is going to happen to you. Because old people run everything, they only focus on issues that affect them. They don’t care about what we want.

Even in the wake of these explanations, however, many students still held strong interests in enhancing their communities outside of local and national politics and elections. It appears that while these students were generally disillusioned about American politics, they were upbeat about the leadership roles they could play outside of it.

Activism, leadership and change.

We’ve been told our whole lives we are going to have to be the ones who fix it [the country]. Herbert Hoover said it best, “Blessed are the children for they shall inherit the national debt.” It is a little bit of pressure but I think we have the potential to change it. (rural female)

It appears that for this newest generation–the majority of whom are too young to vote–being ignored has given rise to a new form of activism. This activism focuses on volunteerism and community efforts–both of which are alive and growing in our nation. A 1996 study conducted by Independent Sector found that in 1995, 13.3 million young people between the ages of 12 and 17 spent 2.4 billion hours volunteering. That number represents a 7% rise in the number of teens volunteering and a 17% increase in the number of hours volunteered in 1991 (Zoba, 1999).

Participants in this study reflected the broader national trend among youth toward volunteerism and community service. When asked why they chose to participate in these efforts, but backed away from political involvement, many said that they felt they could make more of a difference in their communities. “I think we make a difference not in politics–[but] maybe in community service,” remarked Kristen, a rural high school senior. Dominick, also a senior but at a suburban high school, agreed: “I see volunteerism being the way we get things done rather than the national political system. You see more get done locally than you do nationally.”

Through these conversations, we learned that these millennial youth not only wanted change, but they also expected to be agents of change in their own way and time. Kristen, a rural high school senior described her generation as the “actual laborers,” meaning that her generation would put ideas into action. She added: “I think other generations think about the problems that lay in the future. Our generation acts upon those problems and does things to fix or prevent them.” Matthew, also a rural high school senior, offered a similar perspective. He believed that millennials would, “grow up and see the problems” and then “try to fix them. We won’t ignore things.” And finally, George, a suburban junior, summarized many of his peers’ views about their generation when he asserted, “I can’t see why we wouldn’t be the generation that changes things. I agree with everyone that we will want to change things and make it more intimate–more of what people want.”

Given these remarks, it is not surprising that a large percentage of interviewees described themselves and their generation as hopeful with respect to change. Although none believed that any type of societal or political change would be easy, most thought that as a generation they would come into their own and make their mark. Teresa, an urban senior, captured this sentiment well when she said, “I hope I will change things. We are trying to change things now but it is hard because we are seen as young kids who don’t know any better. I think we have the potential.”

While generally optimistic about their abilities to “make a difference,” few of the millennials interviewed felt they could change the political system. From their perspective, American politics was so corrupt that it was beyond repair. As Nancy, a rural high school senior, told me:

I think that because it [politics] has been this way for so long that it will be really hard to change it. I think with the political stuff, we’ll keep going along like we always have. At this point, I don’t think we [the millennials] can change it.

This pessimism notwithstanding, the vast majority of students believed their generation was one of leaders. Although none of the participants could pinpoint what kind of leaders they would become or in what areas, several explained why they would be leaders. As Felicia, an urban senior, put it, her generation’s “curiosity” would inspire leadership: “There are going to be a lot of millennial leaders because we want to know what is happening and we want to do something different.” Taking a different slant, Jose, a rural senior, and Danielle, a suburban senior, pointed to their generation’s early exposure to leadership training in the classroom and its positive effects on their peer group:

[Jose]: We’ll be leaders because of the way that work and leadership has been pushed on us. We will be leaders.

[Danielle]: When I think of people my age–we have just had so much training in leadership and stuff like that, I can’t see us not as leaders.

Gabrielle, an urban senior, likewise believed that the education she and her peers had received would bear much leadership fruit. “As time passes I think there will be more millennial leaders,” she told me, “because of all the technology and education available. I think that makes a difference.”

Few of these students were so naïve to think that all members of the millennial generation would willingly step up and take charge, and conceded that there would always be “those who lead and those who follow.” What was interesting, however, was that while these students recognized that some of their peers would remain indifferent to what occurred politically in the country, not a single one viewed him- or herself as a follower. All were self-described leaders, or “agents of change.”

Not trusting the country’s leaders or institutions, participants believed that they and members of their generation had been forced to seek ways outside the traditional political structure to make their political mark. Their willingness to volunteer and assist others stands in stark contrast to their projected low turnout at the polls. Accordingly, for these students–and the generation they represent–political action appeared to be based upon their belief that they could make more of a difference in their communities through volunteer efforts than formal participation in the political process. Despite being disillusioned by and disengaged from the political system, the majority of participants were highly optimistic about their future, viewing themselves as leaders and advocates of change.

Attitudes and Beliefs Toward the Future

I think we are a pretty optimistic generation. We don’t see the problems as all encompassing, we see them as something to climb over. (rural male)

The teenagers in this study invested considerable time and energy speculating about their future. As we learned, most held conflicting concepts of the future. On the one hand, participants were optimistic about the future and their role in it. On the other hand, they displayed high levels of anxiety and concern that something unfavorable loomed in their future that would keep them from achieving their goals.

A bright future, but…

I think there is definitely a sense of optimism. We can change the world to the way we want it to be. Yet, I think there are definitely going to be some ups and downs in store for us. (suburban female)

The millennial students interviewed for this study wanted good jobs, financial stability and meaningful relationships. They viewed themselves as fully capable of obtaining these goals as well as possessing the drive to make society and life in general better. A hesitation existed, however, which kept their aspirations rather pragmatic: most were fearful of reaching too high and wanting too much. As Mary Ann, a suburban senior, told us:

It is kind of scary. There are too many variables that can happen. You don’t want to get your hopes set on something. I think we are realists. Someone once said, “Two men look out through the same bars, one sees the stars and the other sees mud.” I think that the realist sees the horizon right in the middle. We know what we want to do and are optimistic about it but, at the same time, we know our limitations.

Manny, an urban senior, also believed his generation held back: “You always have to have some hope, but you can never let your hopes get too high. What happens if it doesn’t come true? It is like a failure thing.”

In response to this hesitancy, we asked students whether they believed their generation, as a whole, was optimistic or pessimistic about the future. The vast majority stressed the former, indicating that millennials were upbeat about their ability to achieve specific goals. These goals typically included attending college, finding employment, and making money. Interestingly, only a few could articulate where this optimism came from, citing a belief in their generation’s potential and their faith in the nation’s continuing prosperity.

While generally upbeat, it quickly became apparent that these students were cautiously optimistic about their future. Some, for instance, questioned if optimism was such a good thing. Consider, for instance, this comment made by Tommy, an urban senior:

In terms of the future there is an optimism because our country has become very complacent because we haven’t had any wars. We are very optimistic in terms of effectiveness and diplomacy, but I think that there should be more pessimism because everything seems to be heading towards some big explosion.

Alongside the potential threat of war, participants also believed millennials were uncertain as to how advancing technology might impact the job market. Many wondered if computers would eventually “take over,” eliminating a substantial number of jobs. Fatima, an urban senior, expressed hers and many of her peer’s fears when she said, “I am scared because so many things are changing like with the Internet. They don’t need people to sit at desks anymore–in terms of jobs. I just wonder if there will be jobs out there.” Haddi, also an urban junior, took his peers thoughts a step further, adding, “I think some might be scared because of technology. I think technology will eliminate the middle class and we will have two classes a high and a low. Where will the people who work at places like Jewel-Osco go?”

Not surprisingly then, participants actively voiced their anxieties concerning the future. Specifically, they believed millennials worried that the rug would be pulled out from under them, just as they came into their own. As a group, they fully realized how easy their life had been so far, growing up in a time of relative peace, a booming economy, and an open job market. Despite their gratitude for these positive aspects, they feared it was too good to last. As Peter, a rural junior, related:

I think we have had pretty good lives. There hasn’t been a war during our generation. But when you think about the stock market being so high and the economy being so good–it is kind of scary that it might fall.

Indeed, students stressed repeatedly that while they believed good times were ahead of them, most understood that they lived in a world wrought with massive social changes and economic and labor conditions that could change in the blink of an eye. Despite their anxieties and fears, these students remained hopeful, believing they would persevere. As two urban students concluded:

[Eden]: I guess I am a little scared. Every generation has its issues that have scared them and you know we’ll work it out or at least try to work it out. We are not going to all die out. Everybody has problems and they all deal with them. That is what will happen with us. We’ll all move on with our lives and deal with it.

[Hassan]: Things will probably have to get worse, but I am hopeful.

Perhaps Tommy, an urban senior, summarized this attitude best when he described how millennials could be both optimistic and pessimistic about their future. In his words, “You have to be somewhat pessimistic if you want to change things. You can’t be like, ‘Everything will turn out fine.’ You have to have the pessimism or skepticism to solve the problems that we have.”

The millennial generation is just now starting to mold its own identity and values. Considering that the oldest members are barely 20, it is too soon to have a clear understanding of just who this generation is and what they are all about. Early signs, however, suggest that they may redefine the very foundation of purposeful living based on their unique experiences, environment, and life opportunities. While they believe strongly in the rather traditional values of education, family, service, and opportunity, the ways in which they integrate those values into their lives is certainly different than what has been done among previous generations.

Implications for Practice

In some respects, the millennial generation resembles the three generations that have proceeded it. For instance, a common characteristic between members of the silent, boomer, X, and millennial generations is that each has surpassed their parents’ education. And, although different in degree, each of the four generations has believed that a college education held the key to social status and economic prosperity (Coleman, 1980; Gross & Scott, 1990; Holtz, 1995; Jacob, 1957; Jones, 1980; Larkin, 1979; Miller & Nowak, 1977; Schlesinger, 1969; Strauss & Howe, 1997). And yet millennials also possess some characteristics seldom documented in the literature (for instance, the parental/societal pressures placed upon them to achieve academically and attend college). Certain characteristics have persisted throughout the last four generations while others have come and gone. Millennials then, are familiar, yet strange.

It is inevitable that college and university faculty and administrators will have considerable interaction with millennials in the very near future. As they encounter this newest wave of college youth, it is important that faculty remember that the millennials will view and respond to the world in ways that are both similar to and different from that of previous generations. Accordingly, findings from this study suggest several implications for policy and practice as well as ideas for how to maximize faculty, staff, and administrators’ interactions with millennials.

Strategies for General Policy and Practice

Despite the media hype on everything from body piercing to youth violence, few scholars have examined the attitudes and beliefs of this upcoming generation of college students. With little time to waste, colleges and universities must not wait to read about who is on their campuses, but rather should aggressively go out and meet the students they now must serve. “Whether we like it or not,” writes Dehne (1997):

Colleges and universities have a responsibility to meet students where they are, rather than wish for another kind of student. Institutions must respond to the kinds of students they are dealing with now, be aware of who they are, how they think, and how they feel. (p. 1)

Hence, knowing more about the millennial generation is vital if colleges and universities are to provide relevant and appropriate student services.

The millennial generation is projected to be the largest generation to date. As such, record numbers will be entering our nation’s colleges and universities over the next 10 years. After two decades of declining enrollments with the much smaller generation X cohort, many institutions decidedly cut programs aimed at traditionally aged students. During this time, new programs were invented and bolstered to serve older adult populations (namely boomers returning to school). While these programs will still serve a growing constituency, campuses can expect to once again be bombarded with traditionally aged students looking for traditional services (i.e. on-campus housing, student organization/activities, registration, and advising). These services, however, may be anything but traditional in their delivery format. Registration is an example of such a service. Acknowledging that millennials have grown up on computers and the Internet where services and information are readily available day or night, it is a reasonably safe assumption that they will prefer–if not expect–to register on-line anytime, anywhere. Campus library services provide another example. Just as students are going on-line for their courses, so too will they expect to be able to access their course readings on-line.

Anticipating such trends, campus administrators would do well to continue offering such services but on students’ terms and within the context of the environment in which they have been raised. Accordingly, aggressively seeking input on how to best meet students’ needs is vital. This could be accomplished through surveying incoming students either during the admission process or later through orientation. Keeping abreast of changing student needs is important not only for retention reasons, but also for assuring that the services we provide are of use to students.

Although this study focuses on larger generational characteristics, faculty and administrators need to be reminded that a generation is always made up of individuals, each with his or her own story, issues, and expectations. Accordingly, faculty, administrators, and staff would do well to maintain a critical stance toward broader media–and other generalizations that are likely to become attached to millennials, and to base their understandings of this generation more on their daily interactions with students.

Conclusion

After examining findings from this study as well as the few already in the literature, what conclusions can be drawn concerning members of this newest generation? In broad strokes, participants in this study believed that millennials are spiritual, yet lack formal associations. As a group they anticipate marrying and having children later in life, if at all. Overwhelmingly, participants believed their generation viewed education as a catapult into professional careers. Although as a group they were disillusioned and disenchanted with politics, most believed millennials were fully capable of achieving their goals. That said, their general optimism was nonetheless tempered by fear.

The new millennium will, in large part, be shaped by this new–and large–generation of youth. That is why now is a crucial time to study and question our assumptions about teenagers as well as to develop more useful and appropriate ways to think about and interact with the young.

This study, although exploratory in nature, has contributed to an understanding of the attitudes and beliefs held by a small number of members of the millennial generation. To be sure, findings from this study leave questions still unanswered. The potential for future research is significant because so little work has been done involving this generation.

Endnotes

  1. Three indicators were used to select schools on this criterion: 1) a free or subsidized school lunch program, 2) the community’s percentage of children under the age of 18 living at or below the poverty level, and 3) recommendations given by knowledgeable faculty/administrators of schools with high, average, and low percentages of low income students.
  1. Although forty-three students of color were originally enlisted to participate, only twenty-three ultimately chose to be interviewed. All totaled, the final sample included 12 Latino/a, 52 Caucasian, 7 Asian/Pacific Islander/ 3 Multiracial, and 1 African American. The composition of the final sample included 37 males and 38 females of which 25 were juniors and 50 were high school seniors.
  1. Six of the nine schools included in this study required students to complete community service hours to graduate.

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