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Millennial Generation Stands Apart from X-ers and Boomers

October 26, 2003

Ours is a four-generation family. I am a Silent or a Mature, born before 1946 (“duty, tradition, loyalty” are the watchwords to professional generation watchers, who like to find three nouns for each group). My esteemed spouse is a Baby Boomer (“individuality, tolerance, self-absorption”), our first two daughters are Generation Xers (“diversity, savvy, pragmatism”), and our youngest daughter is a Millennial, a member of the cohort born between 1978 and 1994. One of the best researchers and generation-watchers, Ann Clurman of Yankelovich Partners, suggests “authenticity, authorship and autonomy” as the three nouns for the emerging Millennials, also known as Generation Y or the Echo Boomers.

The comic overtones of dividing and labeling everyone this way are hard to miss, but there is some sense to it too. The sharp break between the Silents and the Boomers, obvious to all, has fueled the search for clean dividing lines between the generations that came after.

Now the focus is almost entirely on Millennials. Speaking at the American Magazine Conference last week in the Palm Springs area, Clurman described the Millennials this way: They are family oriented, viscerally pluralistic, deeply committed to authenticity and truth-telling, heavily stressed, and living in a no-boundaries world where they make short-term decisions and expect paradoxical outcomes. (The sense of paradox means that every choice results in some good consequences, some bad: Air bags save lives, but kill people too.)

Authenticity and integrity are prime values. Millennials want very much to succeed in life, says Clurman, but “integrity trumps success.” (Enron should have hired Millennial executives.) By “pluralistic,” she means that distinctions of race, ethnicity and gender are of little interest to Millennials — they tend to overlook differences and treat everyone the same. Part of the fallout is that opposition to gay marriage, strong among older Americans, is low among Millennials.

Yankelovich and other researchers have been picking up a renewed emphasis on family for years. The yearning for a good marriage is a dominant value among Millennials, Clurman says, and 30 percent of those surveyed say they want three or more children. Interest in child-bearing is so strong that one research company, Packaged Facts and Silver Stork, recently predicted a 17 percent increase in the U.S. birth rate by 2008.

Clurman says that as a group, Boomer parents are spending a lot of time getting close to their Millennial children. These are better relationships than the Gen Xers had with Boomer parents, or than Boomers had with their own mothers and fathers. According to Gallup, more than 90 percent of teens say they are very close to their parents. In 1974, more than 40 percent of Boomers said they would be better off without their parents. J. Walker Smith, president of Yankelovich, says the drive to reconnect with family and community was creeping upward in the data even before 9/11 and is exceptionally strong today.

Brandchannel.com, an online marketing site run by Interbrand, issued a Gen Y report last week that echoes Yankelovich. Gen Y is not turning out to be the edgy, cynical, ironic cohort many expected, the report said. In addition to Gen Y’s “near-zero” generation gap, stats on sexual activity, violence and suicide rates are down, and concern with religion and community are up. Evidence on drinking and drugs is more mixed, but smoking, drinking and drug use among eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders fell simultaneously in 2002 for the first time, according to the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. The Millennial affection for the authentic over the glitzy marketing product is marked by the rise of Avril Lavigne, “an ordinary looking, midriff-free, non-dancing singer hailed as the anti-Britney,” says Brandchannel. Yankelovich makes the same point about Lavigne. Walker Smith says the Millennials will watch over-the-top cultural products like reality TV and the movie “Kill Bill,” but they stand apart from them and look around for more genuine, less exploitive material.

Millennials are apt to trust parents, teachers and police. Apparently they are likely to trust presidents too. A poll released last week by the Harvard Institute of Politics reported that 61 percent of American college students support President Bush, compared to 53 percent of all voters. This may not mean much. The Millennials are not a very political generation. But they are clearly able to resist programming by their professors, 90 percent of whom seem convinced that Bush is either Hitler or a moron. The Millennials are a very interesting generation. Now if they could just walk one block without carrying a bottle of water and making four phone calls …

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