The Surprising Strength of the Millennials

Millennials, perhaps our most insulted generation, have taken quite a heavy beating, both in the media and parts of academia. They are “the snowflake generation,” (fragile and overprotected)’ the dumbest generation” (Mark Bauerlein) the “most narcissistic generation” of all time (Jean Twenge in her book Generation Me), “lazy” and “entitled” (in a Time cover story), and “the trophy generation” for all those participation medals (Ron Alsop in his book The Trophy Kids Grow Up). Alsop warns that after graduation, Millennials are “job-hoppers” who are never content in their careers unless they are constantly cajoled, pampered, and promoted.

Much of this is just untrue. Having taught undergraduates for more than thirty years, I am weary of experts who claim to understand more about our students than those of us in the classrooms. In fact, like many of my colleagues, I believe that the current cohort of students is the most respectful, the most hardworking, the most loyal, the most confident, and the most engaged cohort we have ever encountered in the classroom. But there is one caveat: today’s students seem more anxious than ever.

Related: Why Millennials Are So Fragile

We are often told that Millennial students have grown up in a world that is “fundamentally different from that of previous generations.” Of course, and that can be said of every generation. Generation X — those born after 1965 — arrived on campus in the late 80s and 90s, bringing with them a sense of independence and resilience that we had not seen before. Unlike the Baby Boomers, Generation Xers were more likely to come from what we then called “broken families” as the American divorce rate peaked in the early 1980s. Most of their mothers entered the workforce during their childhood years and many of them became part of the first “daycare generation.”

Others became what began to be called “latchkey kids” because they came home from school to empty houses. Most of them learned to be independent at an early age, but some felt abandoned. In the classroom, they were slightly more cynical about social institutions including the government, the family, and the Church. They were skeptical and a bit more difficult to please than the Millennial generation that succeeded it. But, they were a joy to teach because Generation X politics were less polarized, and the gender culture wars had not yet begun.

Indeed, for those of us who are searching for ways to best serve our students, it is helpful to move beyond anecdotal musings, and instead, look closely at longitudinal sociological survey data collected from college students themselves. The UCLA Higher Education Institute (HERI) provides valuable insights into the beliefs, values, goals, and opinions of today’s first-year students in their most recent publication of The American Freshman: National Norms.

Based on responses from 137,456 full time, first-year students at 184 U. S. colleges and universities, the HERI study concludes that “political polarization on campuses is the most extreme it has been in the study’s 51-year history.” The student respondents to the 2016 survey were born in the late 1990s and came of age in the aftermath of 9/11. In some ways, they have been shaped by that pivotal event, just as the Boomers were shaped by the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution. It has all had an effect. The Chronicle of Higher Education concludes that “Today’s college freshmen are more likely to participate in a student-led protest than each of the nearly five decades of classes that preceded them. That includes the college freshmen of the late 1960s and early 70s, an era storied for its on-campus political activism.

Unlike previous cohorts, only 42.3 percent of first-year students in the 2016 survey characterized their political orientation as “middle of the road”—the lowest figure since the survey began in 1966. Meanwhile, 35.5 percent considered themselves liberal or far left, and 22.2 percent said that they are conservative or far right. The report also revealed the survey’s largest ever gender gap in terms of political leanings. An all-time high 41.1 percent of women identified themselves as “liberal” or “far left,” compared with 28.9 percent of men.

Beyond politics, the current cohort is much more consumed with making money than any previous generation. When asked about their life goals, 82% of the respondents replied that “being very well off financially” was “very important” or “essential.” This is compared with only 47 % of the 1975 cohort of respondents who believed that “being very well off financially” was “very important” or “essential.”

A far more pragmatic generation, only 47% of the current cohort views “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” as “very important” or “essential” in 2016. This is compared with 68% of the 1975 cohort of respondents who believed that it was “very important” or “essential” to “develop a meaningful philosophy of life.” Still, 75% of the current cohort believes “helping others who are in difficulty” as “very important” or “essential” as compared with only 68% of respondents in 1975, and only 63% of Gen X respondents in 1995.

Related: Teaching Millennials Not to Think Stupid

Only 56% of the 1975 respondents to the survey believed that “raising a family” was a “very important” or “essential” life goal. The importance of family is much clearer for the current cohort: 72% of Millennials claim that “raising a family” is a “very important” or “essential” life goal. More than any previous generation studied in The Freshman Survey, Millennials value family life and want to replicate that with their own families in the future.

But, despite their conventional and civic-minded attitudes, organized religion continues to decline in importance for the current cohort. This was the first year that students were given the option in the HERI survey to select agnostic or atheist as religious affiliations and nearly 30% of incoming freshmen indicated that they were agnostic, atheist or had no religious affiliation.

For the past three decades, the longitudinal survey asked incoming freshmen to report how many hours per week they spend doing a variety of activities. As social media grew in popularity, HERI introduced a new item in 2007 about students’ use of online social networks. From 2007 through 2015, about 25% of students consistently reported spending six or more hours per week on social media. But, in 2016, the proportion of students using social media for at least six hours per week jumped to 40.9%, nearly 14 percentage points higher than the previous high of 27.2% reached in both 2011 and 2014.

Nearly half of all female respondents spent at least six hours per week using online social networks, compared with only about a third of male students (33.6%); and there are dramatic differences by sexual orientation. While 40% of heterosexual students spent at least six hours per week engaging with online social networks, 51.4% of those students who identify as gay, and 49% of those who identify as lesbian, spent at least six hours per week. Fifty-five percent of those students who identify as queer spent at least six hours per week on social media.

Finding Meaning in Life

Anxiety is a major concern for the current cohort. This was the first year that the HERI survey measured how frequently respondents felt anxious in the past year, and more than one-third (34.5%) of incoming first-time, full-time college students indicated that they “frequently felt anxious.” In this area, some of the stereotypes are confirmed. Tightly scheduled as children, with more hours of homework and fewer hours of free time than any of the previous generations, the current cohort feels pressured to succeed. They worry about disappointing their parents, their teachers, and their peers. A 2016 survey of more than 500 University Counseling Center Directors revealed that for the seventh year in a row, anxiety has been the most predominant concern among the current cohort of college students.

Anxiety overtook depression as the number one concern on college campuses in 2009. This year, 51% of students who visited a counseling center presented with concerns about anxiety, followed by depression (41.2%), relationship concerns (34.4%), suicidal ideation (20.5%), self-injury (14.2%), and alcohol abuse (9.5%). On average, 26.5% of students seeking services take psychotropic medications.

Sociologist, Frank Furedi has suggested that the emotional fragility expressed by so many undergraduates is the outcome of the prevailing ethos of socialization that infantilizes them. He believes that the socialization of young people has become reliant on therapeutic techniques that encourage them to “interpret existential problems as psychological ones.” Furedi points out that “they often find it difficult to acquire the habit of independence and make the transition into forms of behavior associated with the exercise of autonomy.”  He concludes that “there has been a perceptible shift from instilling values to the provision of validation.”

Colleges and universities would do well to encourage independence. But with 35% of incoming freshmen indicating that they “frequently feel anxious,” and an ever-expanding psychological campus counseling industry, colleges cannot even consider removing these supports. The contributors to anxiety require complex solutions that address the issues identified in the 2016 HERI study: the time spent on social media, the declines in religious affiliation, and the apparent inability of the current cohort to find meaning in their lives.

Emile Durkheim identified the result of declines in religious affiliation as leading to a lack of meaning in one’s life which in turn, can lead to a state of anomie, a kind of normlessness. Without the social capital that religious affiliation or membership in meaningful social groups—beyond online social media—once provided, anxiety often precedes loneliness and despair. Encouraging more community building (beyond identity politics), increasing the availability of meaningful religious experiences on campus, and providing opportunities for students to explore the need to find meaning in life, would be a start.


  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is a professor of sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.  She is the author of Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education (Transaction Books) and The Politics of Deviance (Encounter Books). 

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