Millennials: Realizing Our Generational Potential

Kaya Lovestrand is a First-year at Bennington College and has accepted an Emerging Leaders Internship at the Will Steger Foundation in conjunction with her January Field Work Term. Her series of blog posts focused on the Millennial generation and youth engagement will run through February 2011.

Millennials: Realizing Our Potential


Kaya Lovestrand, Bennington College student and Emerging Leaders Intern for the Will Steger Foundation, 2011

While here at the Will Steger Foundation, I’ll be spending most of my time researching youth engagement – why should we invest in youth? What’s their impact? How do you successfully engage them? This research will help provide a backdrop to the Will Steger Foundation’s mission and goals and inform the future of the Emerging Leaders program. Before tackling any of the questions above, I needed to start with the fundamentals: who are the young people of today? What defines our generation? Understanding the cultural differences between today’s youth as compared to other generations is crucial in understanding how to reach and access an amazing potential.


This generation, to which I belong, is most commonly known as the Millennial Generation (although it’s also called Generation Y, Generation Next, Net Generation, and Echo Boomers). The name comes from the fact that we will be the first generation to come of age in the new millennium, and generally refers to those born between 1980 and 2005. Most recently preceding the Millennials are Generation X, Baby Boomers, and The Silent Generation. By simply looking around at the people you know of different ages, it’s easy to pick out different characteristics that you might be able to say of all people that generation, and it’s generally believed that each generation more or less has it’s own personality. William Strauss and Neil Howe are well known for their theory about recurring themes in generations, and assigned archetypes to these repeating characteristics. These archetypes, characterized by “crisis” and “awakenings”, may or may not be completely accurate, but illustrate a nice example of the way our generations relate to each other and hint to what we might expect in the future.

So, who are the Millennials?

Graph_2According to Strauss and Howe, the Millennials are part of the “Hero” archetype: defined by self-reliance, yet team oriented optimism. One of the largest generational studies, done by the Pew Research Center, concludes that Millennials are “confident, connected, and open to change”. But what contributes to those generalizations? Millennials have been assessed in almost any category you could think of, but I’ll lay out the areas in which Millennials differ most from the previous living generations.


Even though the Baby Boomers first come to mind when thinking about size, because their name refers to rise in fertility when they were born, Millennials are the largest generation in American history. With 17 million more Millennials than Baby Boomers, we’re the largest by a long shot. It’s hard to discern any characteristics from simply looking at size, but it’s important to keep in mind because whatever impact Millennials might have (or are having) is going to be huge.


Graph_1Millennials coming of age are experiencing a great deal of economic difficulty because of the current recession. From 2006 to 2010 the number of Millennials who work full time dropped 9 percentage points, which is significantly more than older adults. And currently 10 percent of Millennials say they recently lost a job, versus 6 percent of adults 30 and older. Economically, Millennials starting careers are doing so in one of the worst economic times. Of the Millennials who are employed, less than a third say they earn enough to live the life they want, compared with over half of workers ages 46-64. Despite hard times, however, the Millennials remain optimistic. Of the 68 percent of Millennials that say they aren’t earning enough to live the life they want, 88 percent say they expect to in the future (only 76 percent of Generation Xers and 46 percent of Baby Boomers share that optimism), and overall Millennials are more optimistic than Generation Xers were at the same age.


So far, only 19 percent of Millennials are college graduates compared with 35 percent of Generation Xers, however this is mostly because Millennials are younger and haven’t had quite the opportunity to graduate yet. 44 percent more Millennials plan on graduating from college, and 21 percent are currently in school. Additionally, about half of Millennials in high school, college or grad school want to go on to earn a graduate or professional degree and 65 percent of young adults ages 18-29 not currently in school say they plan to go back someday. If Millennials graduate as expected, they will be the most school-educated generation in American history.


Graph_3Interestingly, Millennials are more optimistic than other generations about the way things are going in the U.S. today. 41 percent say they’re satisfied and 55 percent say they’re dissatisfied compared to 36 vs. 57 percent of Gen Xers, 23 vs. 71 percent of Baby Boomers, and 14 vs. 78 percent of the Silent Generation. This gap of satisfaction between young and old people is larger than it’s been since 1990, but historically young people have been consistently more positive than elders. The way Millennials differ is that among them opinions on the state of the nation remain consistent across race, in contrast older generations. Millennials also tend to be more democrat than previous generations and hold a 2-1 edge in party identification over republicans. In 2008, 66 percent of voting-age Millennials voted for Obama and only 32 percent voted for McCain. Among older people the votes were split relatively evenly, with 50 percent for Obama and 48 percent for McCain. According to the Pew Research Center, this is the highest disparity between younger and older voters in four decades of modern exit polling. Specifically with those who voted for Obama, Millennials accounted for 80 percent of his popular vote, at a time when less than half of us were even eligible. After the 2008 elections Millennials have become the lowest generation as far as consistent voter participation, but in 2020 they have the potential to make up more than a third of the electorate.


Of anything, what makes Millennials most distinct is our relationship to technology. We are “history’s first always connected” generation”. 75 percent have some sort of social networking account compared to 50 percent from Generation X, 30 percent of Baby Boomers, and 6 percent of Silents. Overall, 90 percent of Millennials use the Internet. The vast majority of Millennials think that technology makes life easier rather than more complicated (74% vs. 18%), and we have higher usage with Internet and cell phones than older Americans in nearly every way.

Environmental Issues

Despite the fact that Millennials are coming of age during a time when climate change, peak oil, and other environmental issues are of great importance, in a study by Generate Insight 69 percent of Millennials conveyed genuine interest in the environment, but admitted to lack of personal involvement in the issue. They lag behind every other generation as far as recycling from home and behind Generation Xers with buying “environmentally-friendly products” and organic food. There isn’t really a way to gauge how knowledgeable Millennials are about environmental issues, but 79 percent say they get their information from the Internet.

The most important thing to realize about the Millennials is their potential – whether due to size, or use of technology, or any of the other factors. As one of the most diverse and accepting generations, they have the opportunity to create a world that stretches farther beyond the racial and ethical separations of today. As one of the most optimistic generations, they could create a vision of the world that no one else thought possible. While the Millennial generation is one of the lowest in consistent voter participation, their impact in the 2008 elections demonstrated that they are most definitely capable of response, and key to making a significant impact. As the Millennials continue to grow older, the action we have seen thus far may be only the tip of the iceberg. Understanding the characteristics that define Millennials can provide valuable insight into opportunities to engage, empower, and authentically collaborate with a generation that has the potential to profoundly change the world as we know it. Some would argue they already have.

Want to learn more? Check out these informative resources:

The Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change.

Read the whole 149 study, the executive summary, or take a quiz to find out “How Millennial Are You?”

PBS Newshour: Generation Next

Watch a documentary about the opinions and beliefs of 16-25 year-olds throughout the U.S.


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