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 X-ers ("diversity, savvy, pragmatism") and our youngest daughter is a "millennial," a member of the cohort born between 1977 and 1994. One of the best researchers and generation-watchers, Ann Clurman of the 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, 78 million strong and the largest birth cohort in American history. Speaking at the American Magazine Conference last week in the Palm Springs, Calif., area, Clurman described 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.)
By pluralistic, Clurman 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. 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.)
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. Indeed, one research company, Packaged Facts and Silver Stork, recently predicted a 17 percent increase in the U.S. birthrate over the next 10 years.
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 X-ers 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, over 40 percent of boomers said they would be better off without their parents. J. Walker Smith, president of Yankelovich, says the drive toward reconnection with family and community was showing up in the data even before 9/11 and is exceptionally strong today.
Getting real. 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 millennials' closeness to their parents, statistics 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. The millennial affection for the authentic over the glitzy marketing product is marked by the rise of Avril Lavigne, "an ordinary looking, midriff-free, nondancing singer hailed as the anti-Britney," reports Brandchannel.com. Yankelovich makes the same point about Lavigne. 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 exploitative material.
Millennials are apt to trust parents, teachers, and police. Apparently they are likely to trust presidents, too. A Harvard poll released last week reported that President Bush has a 61 percent favorability rate among American college students. This may not mean much. The millennials are not a very politically active 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 . . . .