Heather Harer and her daughter Brielle live on a country road outside Williamsport, Pa. Mom is wearing blue jeans and a purple V-Neck sweater while her daughter sports a cut-off shirt and athletic shorts. Sitting in their living room they reflect on the differences, wardrobe choices aside, between their generations.
"I know what's wrong with your generation," Heather said to her daughter with a chuckle. "Texting at the table." Brielle just smiled and nodded in agreement.
If only it could be that simple. But as two Focus on the Family researchers discovered, the differences between the Millennial generation and their Generation X parents run much deeper than their dependence on technology.
Glenn T. Stanton, director of Global Family Formation Studies, and research associate Andrew Hess, spent years researching Millennials for a report detailing the differences between the generations. The results didn't offer much encouragement.
As the largest generation in United States history, the Millennials also have the lowest percentage of marriage, employment, religious faith, political values and traditional family structure. On all accounts, they are a few percentage points behind their Generation X parents.
Stanton and Hess recall being most surprised by the mere 2 percent of Millennials in military service today, a shocking turnout for a generation in the "shadow of 9-11." Six percent of Generation X served in the military.
"We haven't tried to be negative; we have just tried to tell the story," Hess said.
The results of their research confirmed what other recent studies noted - traditional religious values and identification are becoming less important. It's the one thing the generations have in common. A study released earlier this month by two researchers from Trinity College, in Hartford, Conn., detailed the shift in religious and political affiliation among members of Generation X. Those who described themselves as Christians declined by 10 percent between 1990 and 2008. And they seem to be passing the indifference toward religion on to their children. The Focus on the Family researchers found that 43 percent of Millennials say religion is unimportant. Stranton and Hess agree that religion is growing less and less important, but their research found that Millennials are still willing to believe in a spiritual entity. Today's young adults primarily baulk against structured religion, the researchers said. Millennials and their parents prefer a religion they can control themselves.
Stranton and Hess draw from the studies of psychologist Jean Twenge and professor Christian Smith, a sociologist, whose recent study on Millennials show that young adults are less "generation we" and more "generation me."
Stanton and Hess attribute this to the Millennials' lack of critical thinking. Children are "spoon-fed" by their parents, latching onto cultural leaders instead of forming their own ideas, Stanton said.
Millennials are the first generation who, when asked what makes them unique, did not say work ethic. Instead, their answers ranged fro technology use, music and pop culture and clothes. The only other generation to view themselves as more unique than the Millennials, 61 percent to 66 percent, is the Silent Generation, born between 1925 and 1945.
The million dollar question is what this means for the future, Hess said. The trend lines are constantly decreasing, but this does not mean the future generation's fate is inevitable, Stanton said. But to reverse the trend, churches and Christian organizations must work to rebuild traditional family values, one of Focus on the Family's main missions. Despite Heather Harer's complaints about excessive cell phone use, she wasn't criticizing her daughter.
Brielle Harer finished her freshman year at Geneva College, in Beaver Falls, Pa., in May. Unlike many of her friends, she does not use texting or Facebook. At work, her friends ask her how she communicates without those two vital Millennial tools. She rolls her eyes and says she calls or writes instead. And face-to-face conversation is not out of the question either, she reminds them. Heather says Brielle is more like a member of Generation X, or even a baby boomer, than a Millennial.
Brielle absorbed her seemingly old-fashioned values from her family, a tight-knit group that regularly shares dinner and family devotions. Heather and her husband, Bob, frequently remind their children to weigh the rules of the world against the rules of the Bible. A common biblical base provides more similarities between generations, Heather said.
Brielle Harer's younger siblings, Laura, 6, and Isaiah, 8, play on the living room floor and joke with their older sister. They climb on her lap and whisper in her ear. She smiles and indulges their game. Laura is growing her hair long so it will match her sister's, and Isaiah is eager to volunteer for baby-sitting duties when Brielle has children, a continuation of the strong family ties likely to continue to the next generation.