Researchers studying the attitudes and behaviors of college students got a surprise when they analyzed surveys completed by this year's incoming freshmen. The Millennial Generation is more selfish, less interested in the well-being of others and less concerned about the environment than previously thought.
Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and one of the study's authors, told the Associated Press she did not expect the findings to turn out the way they did: "I was shocked. We have the perception that we're getting through to people. But at least compared to previous eras, we're not."
Twenge and her team based their study on two long-term surveys, the American Freshman project and the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future project, given to youth for the last 40 years. Despite the Millennial Generation's reputation for altruism, the study revealed that today's young adults are more interested in being wealthy, less interested in politics, and less interested in protecting the environment than past generations.
Although the study did not address the reasons behind the results, two Christian educators blame young adults' inward focus on the economic downturn and on a disconnect from adult society encouraged by technology that connects them more closely to each other.
According to the survey results, young adults' inner values have been declining for four generations. The study compares responses from youth of the same age from the baby boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1961, Generation X, born between 1962 and 1981, and Millennials, born after 1982. The results show that each new generation places less importance on life goals, concern for others and civic issues.
The American Freshman survey, given to students every year since 1966, showed that the number of students who placed an importance on being wealthy increased from 45 percent of baby boomers to 70 percent of Gen Xers. Among Millennials, the emphasis on wealth rose to 75 percent.
Political interest among youth fell from 50 percent for boomers to 39 percent for Generation X. Interest among the Millennial Generation further declined to 35 percent, a significant drop from the boomer generation. Interest in eco-friendly programs also dropped from 33 percent among boomers to just 21 percent for Millennials.
Responses to a question about the importance of "developing a meaningful philosophy of life," showed the biggest drop - 73 percent of boomers thought it was important, compared to just 45 percent of Millennials.
Although the study's authors found the results surprising, David Gordon, a religion professor at Grove City College, in Grove City, Pa., did not. The Millennial Generation "simply doesn't care about much other than its own pleasure and well-being. Self-interest is the mirror opposite of public-mindedness," Gordon said.
But Jeff Doyle, dean for Student Learning and Engagement at Baylor University, in Waco, Tex., called the study both surprising and discouraging and described Millennials as upstanding citizens and students.
"[Millennials are] some of the friendliest, rule-abiding, and hard-working students I have been around in my career," said Doyle, who has worked in Christian higher education for six years and secular higher education for 14 years. Doyle argues that what appears to be self-focus among Millennials could just be the result of trying to survive in a difficult economic climate.
Today's students are living in a hyper-competitive environment, and many leave college with serious debt, Doyle said. College students from the 1960s and 1970s, often got jobs simply because they had a degree, he said.
"College students of the past two decades have increasingly been engaged in a battle to outshine their peers for the right to jobs after college," he said. "The hours spent working could cut down on their ability to meaningfully engage in political demonstrations or ponder the meaning of life. This may result in a focus on many of the extrinsic values that Twenge states are increasing in Millennial students."
Gordon, however, attributes the Millennial Generation's lack of involvement to digital media, which many thought would make today's youth the most broad-minded, thoughtful, intelligent generation ever. Instead, it has arrested their development, Gordon said: "When they are 'podded up' they do not hear adult conversations. When in a room with adults, they are texting other adolescents who are not present. They are stuck in childhood, because they have so little acquaintance with adults and adult concerns."
Instead of connecting to the world at large, Millennials connect to other youth, leaving them "utterly cut off from the broader culture that antedated them." Gordon said.
But after working with both Christian and non-Christian students, Doyle believes faith makes a difference.
"From my professional experience, the Christian students I have worked with are not immune to the same temptations and challenges facing non-Christian students, but they seem to have a buffer that reduces their likelihood of beliefs and behavior that are indicative of selfishness," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.