In the United States, we love to group people into generations. Today, most adult Americans fit into one of four generations. There is the silent generation—born between 1925 and the end of World War II—which follows the “GI generation” (born 1924 and earlier) and “comprises roughly 20 million adults in their 70s and 80s.” The Baby Boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964, was, until very recently America’s largest demographic cohort. Generation X, born between 1965 and 1979 (full disclosure: this is where I fit), has about 65 million people. And, then there are the millennials, who the Pew Research Center tells us were born between 1980 and 1997 and, in 2015, surpassed Baby Boomers in numbers; they represent 75.4 million people.
Since 2009, the Case Foundation, in partnership with Achieve, has engaged over 100,000 millennials through surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one interviews with the goal “to accurately capture and comprehend” how young adults engage with philanthropy or giving—what Case and Achieve label “cause engagement.”
In their work, Case and Achieve employ a mixed-methods approach that combines focus groups, quantitative surveys, and ethnography. Their latest report, titled “The Power of Voice: A New Era of Cause Activation and Social Issue Adoption,” was released on September 19th and represents the quantitative “phase 2” of a three-phase annual report. It is based on survey responses from 3,000 people, and some interesting findings can be found in the report, including:
- Right track/wrong track: Only 29 percent of people surveyed said they believe the country is going in the right direction, while 39 percent felt the country was on the wrong track.
- Local/national: Only 19 percent reported supporting national causes, but more than twice as many—41 percent—indicated that they support local causes.
- Election impact: One result of the 2016 presidential election was to elevate fighting racial discrimination as a priority. As the report indicates, “The no. 1 cause/social issue millennials are most interested in is different than in 2016; within six months of the U.S. presidential election, civil rights/racial discrimination now tops employment (job creation) and healthcare.”
Sometimes, though, the authors stretch the data a bit too far. For example, take the claim that “a larger percentage of millennials (65 percent) reported voting in the 2016 presidential election than the percentage of the American public (55 percent).” While technically correct, this so-called finding ignores the fact that Americans of all ages tend to over-report voting. According to data compiled by the United States Elections Project, at least for those millennials under the age of 30, there is little evidence to suggest that young voters’ turnout was greater than their parents’ and, in fact, the turnout data show that consistently over the past two decades, as voters age, they vote more frequently.
Then, of course, there are the broader challenges that arise from the entire enterprise of generational analysis. First, of course, the boundary lines are arbitrary and definitions differ. Goldman Sachs tells us that the millennial generation is 92 million and includes folks from 1980 to 2000. Researchers Neil Howe and William Strauss, who are sometimes said to have coined the phrase “millennials,” posit a starting date of 1982 and an end date of 2004. And then there is the question as to what to call the post-1998 (or 2000 or 2004) generation. A wide range of names have been proposed, including Gen Z, iGen, Posts, Homeland Generation, ReGen, Plurals, the Navigators, the Regenerators, the Builders, the Bridge Generation, and MTV’s winner—and really, why shouldn’t a cable network play this parlor game, too? —the Founders.
It all gets a little confusing, albeit perhaps entertaining, as this is one place where you’re allowed to make gross generalizations that would hardly be acceptable if we were talking about race or gender or ethnicity. I recall attending a conference this past summer where a panel of three experts in their forties and above explained to a room in which at least a third of attendees were millennials what their generation was about. The millennials attending were not amused.
When Pew surveyed folks from all four adult generations in 2010 to learn what made them unique, it was encouraging to see that all four identified “smarter” as one of their generation’s unique traits. But since we do build knowledge, as Isaac Newton famously observed, on the shoulders of those who came before us, maybe each generation really is smarter than the last.
One of my favorite findings is that, as Pew writes, “with immigration adding more numbers to its group than any other, the millennial population is projected to peak in 2036 at 81.1 million.” Pardon me for thinking that the idea behind the “generation” concept involved common grounding cultural experiences. Or, as this article puts it, “Generational researchers argue tha