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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.