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Generation We: It’s just a myth, say researchers

Kelly Dilworth

Is my generation greedy? Ask cash-strapped millennials what their goals are in life and they’re unlikely to say that it’s lending a helping hand. Instead, they rather just help themselves.

At least, that’s according to a recent, well-publicized study published last month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Researchers found that millennials rate “being very well-off financially” as more important and are less likely than the generations that came before them to join the Peace Corps or participate in community council meetings.

“Popular views of the millennial generation, born in the 1980s and 1990s, as more caring, community-oriented and politically engaged than previous generations are largely incorrect, particularly when compared to baby boomers and Generation X at the same age,” said study co-author Jean Twenge in a news release. “These data show that recent generations are less likely to embrace community mindedness and are focusing more on money, image and fame.”

I must be out of touch with my own generation because this doesn’t sound like the kids I went to high school and college with at all. Granted, that may be due to being around a self-selected group of people who share a similar mindset. But when I scroll through my Facebook wall, I constantly see updates about old friends who are volunteering in their communities, promoting or participating in some noteworthy cause and working in lower paid but important occupations, such as teaching public school.

I thought that was the mindset that distinguished millennials. Many of us were more eager to work in soul-satisfying jobs that made a difference to the world than make lots of money. Meanwhile, we spent hours in high school and college registering voters, canvassing neighborhoods and picking up trash on the highways.

In fact, I sometimes wonder if our cavalier attitude toward money — and what happens when you don’t have enough of it — is part of what got many of us into trouble with debt. If you care more about satisfying your soul than living in a penthouse, then working a low-paid nonprofit job makes sense (nevermind that it will take you a lifetime to pay off your student loans).

In the report, the researchers do acknowledge that millennials are more likely to have participated in community service. However, they take the cynical view that these higher volunteer rates are more likely due to high school community service requirements and a desire by young people to burnish their resumes. (Confession: I’m guilty of that one. I did volunteer work throughout high school and college. However, since taking on a full-time job, I haven’t volunteered for more than a few stray weekends.)

The study is also limited by the fact that it only covers surveys that students filled out when they were seniors in high school and freshman in college. So we don’t really know what those millennials would say now. That’s the study I’d like to see. What happens to a person’s values once they’ve left the nest and have been humbled by the real world?

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