The Kids Are Alright: Millennials Want Meaningful Jobs That Fix Social Problems

Today’s high schoolers are less materialistic and more community-minded than their predecessors. But don’t get too excited: it may just be because of the recession.

If your only source of information about millennials comes from articles about millennials written by the generation that directly preceded it, an image of a person aged roughly 18 to 30-years-old might look like a self-absorbed monster—a kid on a couch whose dead brain cells leak through his nose and onto his iPhone while he refuses to get a job. Illustrator Matt Bors recently published an excellent piece summing up why these generational generalizations say more about the people writing them than the people written about, but there are real ways to track generational values. And for what it’s worth, some of the kids might be alright.

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles looked at Monitoring the Future, a long-term, nationally representative survey of 12th graders (66% to 80% of schools participate) that has most often been used to measure drug attitudes since the mid 1970s. The researchers were curious to see what kind of effect the recession has had on social consciousness (based on a theory developed by UCLA psychology professor Patricia Greenfield), and predicted that kids who graduated high school during economic hardship (2008 to 2010) generally might be more community-minded and place less emphasis on materialism than those who graduated before (2004 to 2006).

Their hypothesis was confirmed. Researchers found that concern for others—as measured by questions asking students to rank the importance of "working to correct social inequalities," "having a job that is worthwhile to society," "eating differently to help starving people," and "thinking about social problems"—declined significantly between the 1970s and the prerecession, but then jumped when the employment rate and median income fell. They saw a similar pattern with environmentalism. Recession-era kids were more likely to save energy in their homes, take other "personal" environmental action, and use bikes or public transit to get around than their predecessors. Researchers’ findings echoed another global survey we recently wrote about, in which a sample of 12,000 millennials revealed concern with social inequality and optimism about the prospect of bettering their local communities.

"If there’s scarcity in the environment of things we need, people become more concerned about it," Greenfield, the UCLA psychology professor and one of the authors of the study, tells Co.Exist. "Those behavioral changes become expressed in conscious values. Sometimes behaviors change first and sometimes values change first. But they’re very closely related."

Kids who came of age during the recession ranked buying nice cars, vacation homes, and having lots of money as less important than their counterparts in the '70s and immediate prerecession. But Greenfield’s study didn’t disprove the narcissism hypothesis. Positive self-views, where students ranked themselves above the abilities of their peers in terms of intelligence or school ability, continued to rise throughout the recession. Greenfield attributes this to an increase in the use of personal technology, which sort of brings us back to the snot-nosed iPhone user analogy, though with significant modifications.

If community-mindedness and environmental awareness rise in times of distress, would they also decrease during a recovery? Greenfield anticipates things will go back to the way they were, unless we keep experiencing economic and environmental discomfort (which is very possible). "Our year by year correlation indicates that community feeling will decline, care for the environment will decline. Overall correlation indicates when there’s greater wealth in a society, individualistic values go up and communal values go down," she says.

That sort of puts a damper on things. "It could be also that there’s a critical period or sensitive period developmentally where your values are formed, and that could end at young adulthood," Greenfield adds.

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  • Bobby Campbell

    interesting research....I've found our Millennial work force to be engaging talented and driven.  The more we challenge them the more they step up,  let them be idealistic there is already plenty of cynicism to go around in world.

  • Guest

    Many things are generation based, and it reflects in society.  People that were adults in the 1960's and 70's rebelled against their 1950's conservative families.  Their behaviors, movies and music reflected this.  In the 1980's and early 90's, their kids were rebellious towards authority (lots of anti-parent/anti-authority moves at that time), Millennials hated seeing their parents stuck in jobs, so Millennials tend to change jobs often.  They heard stories from their parents about inequality and how companies treated them poorly in the last ten years (tanking economy), so now, the millennials want to improve that.  What will happen in the next generation is anyone's guess. 

  • David Goff, MD, PhD

    Data, as it may be instructive, is not something we should
    surrender to, it is something that we use to make informed decisions and
    actions.  If the recession is a factor in why the millennial
    generation is more community-minded, then let’s not wait for economic improvement
    to change their outlook – let’s support their social conscious while we can.  Let’s engage them in meaningful careers like
    improving public health.


    Whether a public sector job or something based on social
    entrepreneurship, careers in public health are precisely what this generation
    is looking for – one with growth opportunity and solution oriented to
    addressing the social, environmental and even political challenges facing
    communities locally and around the world. 
    So let’s stop using research as a crutch to support our
    cynicism about the millennial or any other generation. Let’s use it as the foundation
    for how we can better engage our youth and provide them the direction and
    opportunities they desire.

  • Guest

    David brings up a good point.  Is the public sector ready for all of these people suddenly interested in government?  In my experience, it's not.

  • jburrett

    If I hear one more well meaning person say they are "working to (insert lofty goal)" I am going to hurl, not that that will help world hunger. 

  • also

    My favorite... "eat differently to help starving people"...  what self-indulgence, my god....

    Seems to me the Millennials are no different than the generation who declared success with a couple "Free Tibet" stickers on the car their parents bought them... 

  • also

    40 years ago the arrogant 60's generation thought they needed to "fix" the world as well.  And look what we have today ... worse education, more welfare (less self-sufficiency), more racial divide, more broken families...

    What makes anyone think the Millennials have anything more to offer, just because they say they care ?  It's a joke.  Pandering to them like this article does just illustrates the confusion ---  

  • Ivy

    I'm not sure how a condescending comment offers positive anything to the world either. 

  • Chris Kelly

    I wonder if theres anything in biology or neurology that would explain this in more detail? Maybe its the communial-ness of the downtimes that creates the follow boom times(?)