New Moral Problems and New Approaches: Millennials Compared to Baby Boomers and Generation X

By Jathan Sadowski, Thomas P. Seager, and Evan Selinger (Authorship of this article is in alphabetical order)

A recent article in the highly ranked Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reports that, contrary to commonly held beliefs, the Millennial Generation is better cast as "Generation Me" than "Generation We." The study by psychologist Jean Twenge et. al. (1) analyzed the results of two nationally representative surveys, one administered since 1966 and the other since 1976. The surveys ask high school seniors and college freshmen a wide range of questions about life goals, concern for others, and civic orientation/social capital. The authors compared answers from across generations and determined that overall Millennials are more individualistic, materialistically motivated, and less civically engaged than the Baby Boomers and Generation X – despite the commonly held view that the current generation of college students is deeply concerned about social and environmental issues (e.g., 2).

One of the sharpest declines across the three generations is support for environmentally sustainable actions. For example, "Three times as many Millennials (15%) than Boomers (5%) said they made no personal effort at all to help the environment…" Millennials were also less likely to take measures to cut electricity use, and less likely to reduce heat usage during the winter to save energy (1).

These findings are at odds with the apparent surging interest among Millennials in sustainability. Even a cursory examination of college campuses will reveal that American universities are increasingly marketing to Millennials on a sustainability basis. Many offer degree and certificate programs in sustainability; they’ve created special administrative offices in sustainability; built LEED-certified and net-zero buildings; opened "green" dorms, instituted composting programs for cafeteria waste, and published campus sustainability reports. If Twenge is right, then many modern U.S. universities have badly miscalculated what interests their most important stakeholders.

On the other hand, it’s possible that longitudinal studies designed decades ago are no longer capable of capturing the characteristics, beliefs or moral attitudes that are salient today. As a consequence, what Twenge represents as moral decline may simply be generational incommensurability.

To take Twenge’s conclusions at face value risks ignoring three important observations:

  1. Although longitudinal studies focus on the individual as the proper scale of moral analysis, Millennials work in network groups to a much greater extent than any of their predecessors. Particularly with regard to sustainability problems, it may be that individual action is the wrong scale at which to consider moral obligation (3).
  2. Although Twenge’s interpretation equates actions with beliefs, we know from other studies that people often fail to live up to their own moral ideals (4). Consequently, it may be that Twenge is not measuring the narcissism she purports to have found, but the growing complexity that Millennials face when putting ideals into action.
  3. New technologies create new moral problems, and the Millennials are, to a greater extent than any prior generation, defined by the technology in which they are embedded. The moral questions that face the Millennials may be qualitatively different than those faced by previous generations, and as a consequence, be entirely unexamined by longitudinal studies.

The first observation about scale becomes important in the context of social interaction. The Baby Boomer generation may have conceived of moral action as an obligation the individual has towards society, without extending that obligation to include any responsibility for the actions of others. The old maternal refrain, "If Johnny jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?" is meant to reinforce the idea that the right action for one individual is independent of the actions that others take. But the increasingly interconnected world of the Millennials’ asks, "Did Johnny post on Facebook that he was going to jump?" The implication here is that we have an obligation to be sensitive to the emotional state of others (partly because these states are more public than ever) and that Millennials are, at least in part, responsible for the actions of others within their network. Dharun Ravi’s recent conviction on hate-crimes charges for secretly recording and sharing video of his gay roommate kissing another man reinforces this point. While Ravi’s public defense was, "I wasn’t the one who caused him to jump," the jury’s verdict suggests some culpability. To Millennials, posting, linking, blogging, and Tweeting may all be understood as moral acts, to the extent that these activities are meant to influence those beliefs, attitudes, or actions of others that to Baby Boomers may seem like "none of their business." After all, the use of social media is deeply intertwined with the events of the 2011 Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, both of which required an unprecedented use of technology to coordinate political action and civic engagement. According to Allenby (5), in a complex, interconnected world, "The choice of the process by which the individual becomes engaged in a dialog with the system, rather than each individual choice, is what becomes ethically critical."

The second observation speaks to long-standing evidence that people tend to overestimate their own capabilities (6). Compared to other generations, Twenge sees a decline in moral values that is based on a culture of rampant narcissism. Others point to a veritable epidemic of misplaced overconfidence (7) that has turned Millennials into the "self-esteem generation" (8). It may be true that Millennials indeed exhibit this tendency to a greater extent than prior generations, but at worst this would merely make them bigger hypocrites, not amoral beings. However, this conclusion disregards the increasingly complex challenge of putting moral ideals into action. Consider, for example, the problems of the environment and how they have changed since 1966. The Baby Boomers faced air and water pollution that was visible and tangible. Their environmental issues existed within the realm of human sensation, and progress towards environmental goals was rapid and measurable. By contrast, Generation X came of age under an ozone hole that could only be observed with scientific instruments and understood by advances in complicated photochemistry. Nevertheless, new policy prescriptions that phased out certain chlorinated hydrocarbons stopped the expansion of the ozone hole, and evidence is now accumulating that 25 years after the Montreal Protocol, the hole is shrinking (9). But the Millennials face the environmental problem of global climate change, which is not directly observable, even with sophisticated scientific instruments. Nor is science capable of directly modeling global warming with the reliability of previous environmental challenges, nor can science track progress towards a climate goal on a temporal scale that is meaningful to a single generation. Suppose the Millennials do care deeply about global climate change. What exactly should they do that would make an observable and convincing difference? The gap between moral ideals and moral action for Millennials may be larger than ever before simply because they are presented with larger obstacles.

Lastly, we must consider that technologies and their concomitant moral issues evolve more quickly than longitudinal studies. For example, the moral questions faced by the Baby Boom generation certainly included military conscription (i.e., the draft) and the birth control pill. By contrast, the all-volunteer Millennial military has fought America’s longest running foreign wars, where the critical moral question does not regard the military service of young adults – it concerns the use of drones. In reproduction, the moral issues are no longer whether women should be free to have sexual intercourse outside of marriage (although some conservative commentators no doubt are reliving the arguments of their own youth), but what constitutes paternity in cases of sperm donation, the legal status of frozen embryos (e.g., ownership), and cloning. Alternatively, consider civic engagement. Here, Twenge points out that the Millennials’ trust in government has declined considerably in comparison with their predecessors. However, this conclusion may conflate government with governance. Certainly, Millennials’ trust in Google (e.g., to curate personal data) or Wikipedia is extraordinary. That is, governance requires more institutions--systems of social order and cooperation that shape human interaction--than just government. It’s not enough to only ask questions that gauge attitudes towards the government because that misses out on all the contemporary institutions that help people manage their lives. A civil society includes corporations (profit and not-for-profit), markets, schools, and now social networks.

Although the issues we raise herein should clearly concern Twenge, it may not be obvious why the Millennials themselves, or the universities that serve them, should care at all. Nevertheless, consider that Twenge’s view of the problem evokes a particular kind of solution. If the Millennials are found to be morally deficient and are, by virtue of their place in history, nevertheless required to confront social problems like sustainability that have profound moral dimensions, then clearly universities have an obligation to attempt to correct the Millennial deficit. In Twenge’s view, this would require returning Millennials to the ideals and actions that properly characterized the Baby Boomers.

We disagree. If universities, and more specifically programs of ethics education, continue to focus on the moral issues that plagued previous generations, Millennials will no doubt be woefully unprepared to tackle the unfamiliar ethical dilemmas emerging from the technologies that define them. Effective ethics education must adapt to the networked way that Millennials address complex problems. It must empower students to use the technologies at their disposal to put their ideals into action, and it must take into consideration the moral problems these technologies create.

Acknowledgment

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1134943. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. The Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at Arizona State University also provided support.

Contributor Biographies

Jathan Sadowski is a research technician in the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at Arizona State University, Phoenix Metropolitan Area, AZ, USA. Thomas P. Seager is a professor at the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment and a Lincoln fellow of ethics and sustainability at Arizona State University, Phoenix Metropolitan Area, AZ, USA. Evan Selinger is an associate professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology, Henrietta, NY, USA.

References

1. Twenge, J. M., Campbell, W. K., & Freeman, E. C. (2012). "Generational Difference in Young Adults’ Life Goals, Concerns for Others, and Civic Orientation, 1966-2009. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.

2. Howe, N. & Strauss, W. (2000). Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. New York: Vintage.

3. Seager, T.P., Selinger, E. & Clark (Spierre), S. (2011). "Determining Moral Responsibility for CO2 Emissions: A Reply to Nolt." Ethics, Policy & Environment 14(1), 39-42.

4. Sadowski, J. (2011). Experimental Analysis of the Gap Between Moral Beliefs and Moral Actions. B.S. Thesis. Rochester Institute of Technology: USA

5. Allenby, B. (2006). "Macroethical systems and sustainability science." Sustainability Science 1, 7- 13.

6. Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

7. Klink, W. (2010). "Don't I Wish My Professor Was Hot Like Me." Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies. 32: 431-446

8. Bahr, N. & Pendergast, D. (2007). The Millennial Adolescent. Camberwell: ACER Press.

9. Crow, J.M. (2011). "First signs of ozone-hole recovery spotted." Nature. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110516/full/news.2011.293.html

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