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Do You Think All Millennials Go to San Diego State?

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By Morley Winograd & Michael D. Hais on March 16, 2012

A professor at SDSU, Jean Twenge, who has made a career of attacking the Millennial generation, seems to think so. This week she published a research paper supposedly proving her assertions that people under 30 are narcissistic and filled with a sense of entitlement.

That claim is based on a survey she did of 182 of her undergraduate psych class students. She took the results of this completely unrepresentative sample and used it to try and show that answers to the American Freshman (AF) survey, which has been given since 1966, reflect this psychological profile of the generation that only she has been able to find.

Most social scientists recognize that behavior is a better indicator of a person’s core values than their attitudes as expressed in a survey. When asked about specific actions, as opposed to attitudes, even the AF survey data shows a clear increase in the percentage of college freshmen who “did volunteer work in high school” from 74% among X’ers to 83% among Millennials. When confronted with this contradictory evidence, Twenge attempts to explain it away by suggesting that the primary reason for this increase is that community service participation is a high school requirement and useful on college applications.

And, yet, in larger number than older generations, Millennial community service continues even after high school.  In the AF study, the percentage who “expected to volunteer in college” rose from 22% for X’ers to 26% for Millennials, an attitude reflected in actual behavior as measured by the Corporation for National and Community Service. They reported a 20% increase in college student volunteering between 2002 and 2005 as ever greater numbers of Millennials arrived on campuses.

Millennial participation in the most basic of American rights and civic actions—voting—is also greater than for previous generations of young people. According to census data reported by CIRCLE, an organization that researches political participation by young people, 49% of those 18-24 and 51% of those 18-29 voted in the 2008 presidential election. With one exception, this was the highest youth participation in any presidential election since 1972. It was well above the numbers in 1996 (36% for 18-24 year olds and 40% for 18-29 year olds) when the “youth vote” was entirely Gen-X.

Twenge does acknowledge the high Millennial turnout in 2008 but tries to explain it away by making an analytical mistake that few freshman political science students would be allowed to get away with. She points to a decline in youth voting in the 2010 midterm elections, suggesting that demonstrates Millennials really aren’t that into voting after all. But, turnout falls sharply in midterm elections across all generations. Making an apples to apples comparison, CIRCLE data indicates that even in 2010 youthful voting participation was higher than it was in other 21st century midterms and that the youth share of the electorate was greater that year than in any year since 1994.

In voting behavior, as in community service, actual behavior trumps attitudes every time. It’s possible that if you asked only people in San Diego about the Padres best ballplayer in franchise history, Tony Gwynn, they might tell you that they think he was a better player than the Giants’ Willie Mays. But that wouldn’t make it true. And nothing that Professor Twenge writes in her latest attack on Millennials based on that kind of methodological error makes any of her claims true either. Millennials remain a “we” generation interested in improving America’s civic life, not the “me” generation that Twenge, perhaps reflecting her own psychological profile, has tried to make them out to be.

Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are co-authors of the newly published Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America and Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics, named by the New York Times as one of its ten favorite books of 2008.

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