Five Myths
Challenging everything you think you know

Five myths about millennials

Mark Glassman is a journalist in New York and may be an early millennial, depending on your definition. He last wrote for Outlook about fines in the NBA.

If you missed this weekend’s exposé about millennials destroying America from their parents’ basements, updating their social-media status while neglecting to address their jobless status, and rejecting marriage in favor of the hookup scene, don’t worry. There’s always next weekend. Suffice it to say, millennials take it on the chin pretty often. Some of the criticism is deserved. Much of it isn’t.

1. Millennials depend on their parents and can’t find jobs.

We have all seen the satirical cartoons portraying millennials — also known as Generation Y and echo boomers, variously defined as young adults born sometime between 1978 and 2000 — moving back in with their parents after college or graduate school. It’s true that a larger share of young people live with their parents today than did in the ’60s. But the difference is not vast (36 percent today vs. 32 percent in 1968, according to a Pew Research Center analysis). And more of them live on their own or with a roommate than in prior generations.

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Parents report giving their 18-to-29-year-olds more financial support than they remember receiving in their 20s, according to a poll conducted by Clark University. But tuition and the cost of living are far higher now. The rise of the unpaid internship hasn’t helped, either.

Young job-seekers are at a disadvantage in today’s economy, but only the youngest millennials are really having a tough time. As of July, the unemployment rate for 20-to-24-year-olds was 12.6 percent — more than double that of Gen-Xers and far higher than the population as a whole. However, the rate for 25-to-34-year-olds was 7.5 percent — about the same rate as the broader population.

2. They’re the most self-involved generation.

A Time magazine cover story in May called millennials “The Me Me Me Generation” and, in smaller type, “lazy, entitled narcissists.” The story contended that self-absorption and self-aggrandizement are on the rise and that millennials represent the apex of a culture that cannot look away from the mirror.

The truth is that although millennials value and fret over their self-image, they also care about the world around them. They want jobs that affect social change, and they give what they can. A 2012 study found that three-quarters of young people surveyed gave to a charity in 2011, and 63 percent volunteered for a cause. More than half said they would be interested in making monthly charitable contributions.

Millennials also set loftier social goals than prior generations. Each year, a survey conducted by the University of Michigan asks high school seniors to rate their life’s ambitions. Data compiled by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark University, shows that millennials rated “contribute to society,” “correct inequalities” and “be a leader in the community” higher than baby boomers did when they were younger.

Family, too, is important to millennials. In a recent Pew study, 84 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds said adult children should be financially responsible for their elderly parents, the largest percentage of any cohort asked.

3. They aren’t interested in marriage.

The attitudes of millennials toward marriage have been distorted by “hookup culture” articles propagating the idea that young people have made such a routine of the loveless encounter that they’ve lost some or all of their motivation to seek out meaningful and lasting relationships.

It’s true that millennials are likely to stay single longer than prior generations, just as members of Generation X have tended to be older than baby boomers were when they settled down.

But 70 percent of unmarried millennials say they want to get married at some point, according to Pew, and most of the rest haven’t made up their minds. Millennials also tend to rank being a good parent and having a successful marriage among the most important priorities in their lives. (Though they are less likely than earlier cohorts to say marriage is a necessary condition for parenthood.)

“Young people are still intending to marry and have children in very much the same proportions that they used to,” says Robin Marantz Henig, a co-author of “Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?” “The real difference is that they’re marrying later and that many have cohabitated before they marry.”

4. Republicans don’t stand a chance with them.

There is no denying that young people turned the last presidential election. Had the legal voting age been 30 in 2012, the nation would have elected Mitt Romney.

But even then, there were signs that the Democrats’ advantage among millennials was eroding. In 2008, 66 percent of voters 18 to 29 chose Barack Obama. By 2012, support for Obama among 18-to-29-year-olds had fallen to 60 percent, the steepest drop of any cohort.

Today, it’s difficult to say that the right has a millennial problem. In a Harvard survey this spring of 18-to-29-year-olds, a quarter identified as Republicans, the same share as the broader population in a July Gallup poll. Young people identify as Democrats more than the country does as a whole (37 percent vs. 31 percent), but neither party carries a majority, on account of the independents. “Neither brand is particularly popular on campus,” says Alex Smith, the national chair of the College Republicans.

Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, has predicted that millennials, who will make up nearly 40 percent of America’s eligible voters by 2020, will help ensure progressive victories in the years ahead. But who wins the millennials in the long run may come down to how the parties and their platforms evolve.

5. They have an infinitesimal attention span.

Surely, the effort required to narrow the infinite stream of information aimed at millennials every day must be destroying their ability to focus on any one task. Right?

Really, we have no idea. No one has mounted a long-term, standardized study of attention comparing millennials to a previous cohort at the same point in their lives.

Michael Posner, a professor emeritus of psychology who studies attention and memory at the University of Oregon, says criticism of the millennial attention span is probably unwarranted. “The same people who say they have no attention span say they spend all their time playing video games, in which they show sustained attention,” he notes.

There is some evidence that multitasking — a hallmark of the cookie-cutter millennial — is associated with a decline in attention, but evidence also suggests that multitasking is on the rise among all age groups. When was the last time you had just one browser open?

By at least one measure, however, millennials may have a cognitive leg up. Jim Flynn, a psychology and political studies professor at New Zealand’s University of Otago who has tracked IQ scores across generations, says that scores have been steadily rising in the United States since 1947 and that, on average, millennials should hold about a six-point edge over the cohort 20 years their senior. He says the gains come mainly in vocabulary and logical reasoning and, “potentially, could help them make better judgments about the world.”

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