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NewsDec 17, 2018

Millennials aren’t all that bad

Student research project finds maligned generation is more engaged than stereotypes suggest

Close-up of a cell phone screen with social media icons displayed.

By Georgia Sparling

The reason millennials get a bad rap in the media isn’t because they’re lazy, narcissistic or coddled, living in their parents’ basements. Instead, it could be research bias from the baby boomers and Gen-Xers who study them, says a group of sophomore honors students.

The students, who are enrolled in instructor Mary Krebs’ Generation Next course, don’t believe that millennials fit the negative stereotypes frequently lobbed at their generation, and now they have data to back it up.

“This is the representation we’ve been getting from the media, and we wanted to say no to it,” said student Shiloh Atkinson.

In a presentation of their research, Atkinson and her classmates said they wanted to conduct their own research: “A study made by millennials, for millennials.”

Narrowing down the definition of a millennial was a challenge, however. The students found there wasn’t a consistent start and end date for the generation. They chose 1981 to 2000 after evaluating the broad range of dates other researchers have used.

The students hypothesized that they would find a link between social media use and community engagement, between social media use and political engagement and between social media and social capital — connecting with people of both heterogeneous and homogenous groups.

The students noted a negative perception about millennials’ reliance on social media, particularly by baby boomers, but said research so far has been inconclusive. One study found a correlation between increased social media use and a decreased emphasis on community service while others found no connection at all, and yet another found that social media gave millennials a false sense of connection to other people.

With this research in mind, the students crafted and sent an 11-question survey to their Lesley peers in early November. The questions evaluated civic engagement, trust in government, voting and activism, and asked how much time respondents spent on social media, how often they volunteer and more. They received 377 responses.

Social media made me do it

Sixty-five percent of participants said they use social media frequently and almost 50 percent believe it is somewhat true that “technology and social media can help people in their relationships and improves communication.” Nearly 42 percent said it is somewhat true that texting and email have improved their relationship with family members.

Regarding community service and defying stereotypes, the students found that 35 percent of those surveyed volunteered at least once in the previous year. The high percentage was a surprise, said Yuka Chen, a political science major from Taiwan.

The students were surprised, however, to find low political activism, with more than 50 percent of participants saying they had never attended a political rally, speech or campaign event.

“We thought we would be more engaged since our school cares more about social justice,” said Chen.

Regarding confidence in people and in the government, 43 percent of participants said they trust people some of the time and 53 percent most of the time. Seventy-two percent of respondents said they trust the U.S. Congress some of the time and 58 percent trust the Supreme Court, while trust in the president was low with 60 percent indicating that they never trust Trump. The researchers believe the large percentage of Democrats (64 percent) and the timing of the survey, during the lively midterm election season contributed to the results. In fact, when asked how likely they were to vote in a future election, the mean response was 4.33 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being most likely.

Rise of the millennials

Although the findings were based on a small number of participants from the same population, the students believe their research is evidence that millennials are much more engaged than baby boomers and Gen Xers believe. They say older generations always find fault with young ones, and that social interaction and community engagement are different than in their parents’ and grandparents’ youth but they aren’t nonexistent.

“Physical activism is important, but just because it’s been happening for so many years doesn’t mean it can’t transform into something digital,” said Shashwat Shekhar.

A native of India, Shekhar offered the #MeToo movement as an example.

“If that is not political engagement, then what is?” he said. “Millennials are really engaged with that.”

The results of the project have buoyed Charlotte Danis’s view of her generation.

“It makes me feel more hopeful,” she said. “A lot of what we hear in the research is very, very negative. We’re doomed. Nothing we can do about it. There is a group of us at least that are willing to work and try to make things better is really, really assuring.”