Do Millennials Exist? Generations, Social Science and the Trouble With De-Bunking

by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University 

The host of TV’s “Adam Ruins Everything,” Adam Conover is easy to identify by his quirky hairsyle and clothes, energetic presentation, and strong intellect.  His signature style is the use of humor and research to de-bunk common beliefs, angering some people while delighting and informing others.   I am tempted to label Conover a Lenny Bruce or George Carlin for the Millennial Generation, except for one problem:  Conover argues that Millennials Don’t Exist.  Nor do the Greatest, Silent, X, or Z generations which create so much buzz in our marketing and pop culture.  If true, this has important consequences for political science and the other social sciences.  But is it?  In fact, even a de-bunker like Conover sometimes needs to be (partially) de-bunked.  Conover makes some great points in his talk, but in the end, generational cohorts do exist, by whatever name.

Invited to give the keynote talk at a marketing conference, Conover was asked to explain what makes his generation tick.  Instead, Conover adopted his signature style, proceeding to de-bunk the entire idea of generations with jokes and facts.  His primary target was this Time magazine article, in which his was labeled the “me me me generation” and accused of having short attention spans, unrealistic expectations and a digital-screen addiction.  Time cited academic research which seemed to indicate that younger Americans are more likely to have narcissistic traits than do their parents or grandparents.  The article featured the predictable complaints about smart phones, social media and texting, college grads moving back in with parents, and of course, participation trophies.

Conover’s take-down was savage.  He correctly pointed out that in Western culture, older generations griping about younger generations dates back at least to Ancient Greece.  While Conover cited Hesiod, my personal favorite is Aristophanes, the playwright who ridiculed Socrates in The Clouds.  This comedy features a father, Strepsiades, ranting that his son, Pheidippades, has no work ethic and spends his time and money at the chariot races, while dad works hard to make ends meet.  Sound familiar?  The Clouds was written in approximately 419 B.C.E.!  Hesiod is even earlier, his work dated sometime between 650 and 750 B.C.E.  Apparently, older generations have been calling younger ones lazy, spoiled, and entitled this entire time.  There is nothing new here.

In addition, Conover made other important rebuttals, including that it is hard (and rather arbitrary) to establish the years which form generational boundaries, and that it is common for people’s interests, politics, and values to shift as they get older—regardless of when they were born.  Political scientists have long known about this issue, which is why our research distinguishes between life-cycle and cohort effects.  However, research indicates that even when life cycle effects are controlled, there are still notable, generational differences in our political views. That research includes the comprehensive study by the Pew Charitable Trusts which supplies most of the hyperlinks for this blog entry. Perhaps most notable is that the generations are shifting in different directions.  The Pew data show that two adjacent generations, both well into adulthood—Baby Boomers and Generation X—are moving in opposite directions from one another.  Boomers are often stereotyped as the generation of hippies, “women’s lib,” Woodstock, and Vietnam war protests.  Yet these images have always been misleading.  For example, over 10 million Boomers—including an estimated 40% of eligible males—served in the military during their youth, including many who saw combat in Vietnam.  Today, the Boomers are shifting toward being more conservative.

My experiences as a college freshman fit the popular image of Generation X.  Known for being snarky and cynical, our generation came of age in the shadow of Vietnam.  A political and news junkie since childhood, my early political memories include inflation, the Iran Hostage Crisis, and hearing my parents discuss Watergate.  The lesson:  you cannot trust government, they are a joke and cannot do anything right.  During my freshman year at Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State), a 1988 student newspaper poll found that three-quarters of the school’s students were backing George H. W. Bush over my candidate, Democrat Michael Dukakis.  My peers decorated their dorm rooms with a popular poster featuring an oceanfront mansion, exotic cars and a helicopter.  The tagline was  “Justification for Higher Education.”  The Reagan Generation did not want to “imagine no possessions” like that Boomer icon, John Lennon.  No thanks, we were here for our piece of the pie—a big one, please.  Perhaps it worked:  more-recent data show Gen X being the only generation to recover from the 2008 housing crash.

Today, Generation X is becoming more liberal.  This defies a common understanding that people shift toward being more conservative as they age, typified in a famous quote mistakenly attributed to Winston Churchill:  “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart.  If you’re are not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.”   First, there is no record of Churchill actually saying this.  Second, how on earth would this popular view of life-cycle changes explain why those of us in our 40s and early 50s are becoming more liberal?  Pew data show a cleavage between Millenials and Xers trending liberal, on the one hand, while Boomers and Silents move the opposite direction.  Additional data reinforce the finding that this is more than just life cycling.  As the Pew researchers note, “First-year job approval ratings for Donald Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama, differ markedly across generations. By contrast, there were only slight differences in views of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton during their respective first years in office.”

Returning to Millennials, perhaps the best description of them comes from Conover’s own talk.  As he points out, far from being narcissistic and entitled, Americans born in the late 1980s and the 1990s are in fact defined by less job security, including weakened labor unions (particularly in the private sector), low pay, and an expectation that college students and even graduates have to work at unpaid internships in order to get ahead.  He also shows America’s current young adults have more debt than their predecessors did at their age.  Not surprisingly, they have more anxiety about what lies ahead.  So-called Millennial narcissism may just be a tendency to for people to be more inward-looking when they are anxious about the future.  Also, forget those participation trophies:  the real cause of college grads moving back in with parents is skyrocketing housing costs.

Sorry, Adam.  Your talk is mis-titled.  It should have been called, “Millennials Exist, But Everything You Believe About Them Is Wrong.”  Just about everything else in his talk is spot-on, but as the Pew study shows, generational cohorts do exist.  They are an important part of political and sociological analysis.  Of course, one should never commit the ecological fallacy by generalizing the overall traits of a group back to each individual in the group (does any family really have 1.9 children?)  Yet overall, generational cohorts do have distinct identities, and those identities are worth watching for political and other social scientists.  Comedians, too.

 

Michael A. Smith

Michael A. Smith is a Gen Xer, Professor of Political Science, and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  His newest, co-authored book is Low Taxes and Small Government: Sam Brownback’s Great Experiment in Kansas (Lexington 2019)