Today's young adults are more "Generation Me" than "Generation We," according to a new analysis, which found a decline over four decades in civic engagement and concern for others, alongside increases in such life goals as making a lot of money.
"The data analyzed here suggest that the popular view of millennials (those born after 1982) as more caring, community-oriented and politically engaged than previous generations is largely incorrect," wrote the researchers, led by psychology professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University.
While the rate of volunteerism appears to have increased among younger people, the researchers said this is probably due to schools instituting volunteer service requirements.
Twenge, who is the author of "Generation Me" (Simon & Schuster, 2006), and her colleagues were surprised to see that the desire to save the environment notably declined across the three generations studied — baby boomers, Generation Xers and millennials. For example, while 5 percent of boomers (born between 1946 and 1961) said they made no personal effort to help the environment, the proportion among millennials was 15 percent.
The researchers examined survey data collected since 1975 from high school seniors, as part of the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future project, and, beginning in 1966, from college freshmen, as part of the American Freshman survey by the University of California, Los Angeles.
Data on life goals showed a shift away from those related to intrinsic values — such as developing a meaningful philosophy of life — and toward more extrinsic ones, such as being well-off financially — over the three generations.
"Compared to boomers, millennials and Gen Xers viewed goals concerned with money, fame and image as more important, and goals concerned with self-acceptance, affiliation, and community as less important," wrote the researchers in a study published online March 5 by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
This shift may help to explain the generational increase in anxiety, depressive symptoms and poor mental health documented by other research, since an emphasis on extrinsic values over intrinsic ones has been linked with distress and declines in psychological well-being, they wrote.