There's Something About Millennials — Or Is There?

May 8, 2014

Much has been written about the “millennial” generation — also known as Generation Y — who are currently between the ages of 18 and 34.

Studies show that their main focus is money, and while they’re the most educated generation, they may be deeper in debt than their parents. They also are cynical about most American institutions and are less likely to participate in midterms elections.

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson and Harvard senior Matthew Warshauer join Here & Now to discuss the millennial generation and their role in society.


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And we just heard a part of our series on millennials. And the topic has been generating a lot of conversation at and around the country after a provocative column by David Brooks of the New York Times this week in which he said that millennials are highly confident, but feel that life is harder than it was for their parents, and they're more focused on making money than spirituality.

We want to take a deeper look at the generation of 18 to 34 year old with Derek Thompson, senior editor at The Atlantic, who has also written a lot about millennials. Hi, Derek.

DEREK THOMPSON: Hi, it's good to be here.

HOBSON: And we're also joined by Matthew Warshauer who is a Harvard senior who was involved with the Harvard Institute of Politics recent national poll on the political views of millennials. Matthew, welcome to you, as well.

MATTHEW WARSHAUER: Thank you. It's great to be here.

HOBSON: And Derek, let me start with you. You've taken issue with that David Brooks column that we mentioned, and about coverage of millennials in the media in general. Tell us what your problem is with all that.

THOMPSON: I did. Jeremy, you read my Twitter feed. That's good to see.

HOBSON: Yes, of course.

THOMPSON: Here is the upshot about David Brooks's column. On the one hand, he might be right. You know, this survey seemed to suggest that millennials are more concerned about money, more concerned about jobs, less concerned about their inner life.

Here's the problem. It's one thing to say that our inner life is decaying in some moral way. I'm not sure that a survey could possibly reveal that. But fine. He's responding to survey answers. What do you compare the 2000s and 2009 to the 1960s, it's a huge difference that shows itself rather immediately, which is that in the 1960s we had rising wages, we had extremely low unemployment in the fours and fives.

In 2009 and 2010 when this survey was asking millennials what was most important to them, the unemployment rate for young people was in the high teens. And people between 16 and 24 are, in fact, the only group for whom real wages dropped between 2007 and 2011. So it's only reasonable to worry about money and jobs when there's high unemployment and very slow wage growth.

HOBSON: Robin is nodding her head.


I am nodding my too high, because it is true. I mean, David Brooks did say that in his article as well, though, that there was a time when you expected to get a job, you graduated from college or you left home and you knew you knew you were going to get a job. And he acknowledged that.

But again, you know, I want to ask both of you--all of you, all three of you, what's happening is there seems to be sort of a debate between generations. Hasn't this always been the way? The generation that grew up during the Depression told their kids, you don't know what starving is. Eat everything on your plate. But those kids became the greatest generation. They fought World War II.

They told their kids in the '60s, you're a bunch of hippies and losers, and then those kids helped passed civil rights and ended a war. And they told the next generation, you're a bunch of slackers. Isn't this kind of something that's always happened?

HOBSON: Well, and we got a note from somebody yesterday after the first part of our series who said I'm Gen X. Why are you talking about all of this conflict between millennials and boomers. Derek, your thoughts?

THOMPSON: Generations are really, really useful constructs to talk about circumstances that are ongoing. They're not useful constructs to come up I think though with single adjectives that describe 80 plus million people. There are 86 million people considered millennials. That means born between the years of 1982 and 2000. It would be patently absurd, of course, to suggest that something happened in the human DNA, in the human genome between 1981 and 1982 that fundamentally changed people.

We're different. We seem different because we grew up in different circumstance. The boomers were very much shaped by the fact that they inherited an extremely rich country. And so wonderful wage growth, and you know, fought the Vietnam War, which happened not of their choosing, but because of events around the world. We happened to grow up in a period of tremendous technology, but even though we're the most educated generation in American history, we also happen to graduate into a great recession.

These are the circumstances that are shaping us. So I think it's most important to look at not the individuals, but rather the circumstances swirling around those individuals to truly understand generation to generation.

HOBSON: So we don't want to make sweeping generalizations. So let's make some generalizations here. Matthew Warshauer, you've been doing some polling on this. What did you find about, for example, what millennials do when it comes to elections, whether they vote as much as other people?

WARSHAUER: Well, so one thing that think is important to say that I think Derek's absolutely right about is millennials is a big word for a lot of people, and it's a lot more complex than that. If you look within sort of the age group we study, you see very different behaviors from younger millennials to older millennials, say 18 to 24 year olds to the 25 to 29 year olds.

The older half of the generation currently is reasonably more democratic than the younger parts of the generation. This has maybe came along with the fact that they were coming of age as Obama was coming into office, and now they're older, it's six years gone by, and they're sort of facing a different world than they were then.

I think another important, really important situation, circumstantial factor that drives a lot of millennial feeling is that 64 percent of millennials believe that the income gap, the gap between the rich and the poor, has increased since they were born. They feel very, very tangibly like this inequality is growing and that they're at the bottom end of it. And I think that drives a lot of their perception.

YOUNG: They're kind of right. I mean, you know, stats would bear that out. You know, there has been an income gap. But what else are you seeing?

WARSHAUER: Well, I guess when it comes to politics, we're seeing that they're a lot less likely to engage politically just even over the past couple years. They're down to 23 percent of young Americans say that they're going to vote in these mid-terms which is down quite a bit from what this was at the same time before the 2010 mid-terms for the same age group. And it's even down almost 10 points from what it was even in the fall about voting in this upcoming mid-term.

They're pessimistic. They're pessimistic about politics. And I know we're trying to avoid making generalizations by making lots of generalization.

YOUNG: I was just going to say that, because in the very calm conversation we had in our office about this this morning, Jeremy...

HOBSON: It was not calm, by the way.

YOUNG: But, you know, there are a lot of people objecting to just what we're hearing, this idea of saying how can you say that people my age don't vote. You know, but there has to be some benchmark. There has to be some way to gage, and it sounds like Matthew, you're saying that you have research that can show that. That's difficult to hear.

WARSHAUER: I think the problem, and this is a problem I have, and I work with a group of great students under--with a great pollster named John Della Volpe. And we work on this project and we sit around in a room and discuss the questions we want to ask and the data we're studying. And we say, but we all vote.

But what we forget is that first there's a pretty big bias in the fact that we're a group of people who choose to spend our Monday nights working on polling. And second, that just like those congressmen we just talked about, 23 percent of millennials is still tens of millions of voters, right. That just doesn't mean, it just means it's a small fraction of a giant generation.

HOBSON: Derek, I want to come back to you and ask about the economic part of this. Because one of the things that I've found in looking at reporting about millennials is people are complaining about millennials being, you know, tuned out of politics. Well, they're a generation that's being saddled with a huge amount of debt that they had nothing to do with.

THOMPSON: That's exactly right. One thing I want to make clear first is that our disengagement from politics is happening at a time when every other generation has dramatically declining favorability of institutions. In fact, if you poll each generation right now, Pew has down polling for decades about views of Congress. And now they're at all time lows for every generation.

But you know what generation has the highest, most favorable opinion of Congress? It's actually millennials. I mean, barely, it's like 30 percent.

HOBSON: That is interesting.

THOMPSON: But boomers, silent generation, gen x actually have lower views of Congress. So our disengagement from politics is happening at a time where there's a lot of frustration with the political system on the economic side. I think this is shaped by three clear trends. The first trend is that we're the most educated generation in history, the highest share of people who have graduated which Bachelor degrees are the millennials.

Number two, the most indebted generation when it comes to student loans, that's important. And three, we graduated into an economy that didn't have a lot of jobs.

HOBSON: Right.

THOMPSON: And so there's the frustration, this social promise of if you get a college degree, you can make it in the workforce, and the jobs weren't there waiting for us.

HOBSON: We're going to have leave it there, but this conversation continues at our website Derek Thompson, senior editor at The Atlantic, and Matthew Warshauer, a Harvard senior involved with the Harvard Institute of Politics, thanks to both of you.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

WARSHAUER: Thank you.

HOBSON: And HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston. I'm Jeremy Hobson.

YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW.

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