July 19th, 2018


Millennial Mongers: The crackpot social science of generational analysis

Andrew Ferguson

By Andrew Ferguson

Published Sept. 22, 2014

Millennial Mongers: The crackpot social science of generational analysis

As far as newspaper corrections go, it was a whopper. On August 24, the editors of the New York Times sucked the air out of a windy essay that had blown through its pages a few days before. The original article bore the headline "Generation Nice." It was adorned with color photos of fresh-faced teens and twenty-somethings. All of them looked nice. In case Times readers were confused (they're not getting any younger), the subheadline drove the point home: "The Millennials Are Generation Nice." And that was the theme of the article, too. The millennials-all those people born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s? You've never met a nicer bunch.

"An article last Sunday about the millennial generation's civic-mindedness included several errors," the editors wrote in the correction. The writer of the original story, a Times staffer and "public intellectual" named Sam Tanenhaus, had illustrated the selflessness of millennials by citing the dramatic upswing in applications to AmeriCorps, the government agency that hires young people to volunteer to do good works. The correction pointed out that the agency can't document such an increase, presumably because there isn't one. Tanenhaus had also told his readers about the millennial-fueled surge in applications to the Peace Corps and Teach for America, a teacher-training group that finds jobs for recent college graduates in poor schools.

"Applications to the Peace Corps recently have been in decline," the correction read, "with a 34 percent decrease from the peak in 2009, and applications to Teach for America decreased slightly last year; neither organization has seen 'record numbers of new college graduates' applying for jobs." 

Published corrections carry a sly implication, as many newsmen have pointed out. The admission of error, and the display of conscientiousness, together suggest that every other assertion in the story is pristinely factual. And sure enough the revised article survives in the Times archives, the sutures barely visible where the misstatements were removed. But it is a slender and much-diminished thing, for the correction deprived the article of the only real-world evidence the writer had presented to support his thesis. Now that we have the correct application figures-which seem to prove that millennials will dive out a second-story window rather than face a Peace Corps recruiter tapping at the front door-should we continue to call them, as the Times still does, Generation Nice?

Yes! That's the wonderful thing about the millennial generation. They are nature's gift to "generational analysts," those big thinkers who are able to grasp entire national cohorts in their meaty arms, lift them up, turn them upside down, and shake them till every last cultural insight falls from their pockets. Generational analysts can make any assertion they want about the 80 million people they identify as millennials and then dare somebody to disprove it, though hardly anyone ever tries. Since the Times story on Generation Nice, I've thrashed my way through much of their work. In a single morning the other day I read that "millennials would dump a friend to get ahead at work," that they have a "deep sense of entitlement," and that they "will take credit for other people's work"-three assertions from three articles based on three different social science studies. I learned that bad millennial behavior arises from their "selfishness" and "narcissism," which also causes them to overestimate their own "specialness" and "uniqueness." Generation Not Nice! At All! 

I read on. Long experience playing online video games with faraway strangers has inspired in millennials the desire to "create communities built around shared interests," although their millions of hours slumped in front of the TV playing online video games with strangers has left them feeling isolated and atomized. Reality TV has stoked their hunger for wealth and fame as ultimate virtues. They are the least materialistic generation in American history, thanks to the diversity in their ranks. The great recession has left them anxious and depressed and pessimistic, and their faith in technology makes them far more upbeat about the future than earlier generations. Overprotective child-rearing has crippled them socially, and a lifetime of self-esteem classes means they interact across the generations with tremendous ease. Technology has aggravated their tendency to be self-involved; social media have deepened their fellow feeling. 

You thought the stock market collapse of 2008 was bad? It is seared in the souls  of millennials. As a consequence they fear risk-taking. A crumbling economy has instilled in them a sense that they have nothing to lose, leading them to take lots of risks. They are fiercely libertarian and entrepreneurial, and want the government to regulate business and raise taxes to provide a job for everyone who wants it. They are alienated from all of society's big institutions, especially government, which owing to the failed Bush presidency they consider an overgrown anachronism, except when it's giving people jobs and free medical care. The judgmentalism of organized religion chased them away from church and synagogue, even as the sterility of secularism is pushing them back to organized religion. 

Plus, they have tons of sex. They're rabbits, these kids.

You have to give it up (as baby boomers say) for these generational analysts, these millennial mongers. It's not easy to piece together a unitary cliché from such a dog's breakfast of conjecture, research-trolling, and poll sifting. And maybe it's not fair to single out Tanenhaus, certainly not for his factual errors-my own mistakes in print would make your hair stand on end. But life isn't fair. His millennial thumb-sucking presents us with a perfect illustration of the monger's method.  

All that's required is a catchy theme-"Generation Nice" is perfect-and a thick filter to block distractions or contrary evidence from entering in. As corrected, Tanenhaus's story begins by denouncing the common charge of millennial narcissism. It is a canard, he insists, a cheap shot. How does he know? 

"Exhibit A may be LeBron James," Tanenhaus writes. During four years as a basketball star in glamorous Miami, he "developed a vocabulary of civic obligation and social responsibility." Now he has packed up his vocabulary and ditched the nightclubs and the palm-dappled lidos and the topless beaches and returned home, to the postindustrial drab of Cleveland-because that's the kind of thing millennials do, sacrificing self for the greater good, especially if they're getting paid $21 million a year. It indicates their deep-seated moral sense. Note too, Tanenhaus continues, that when the simian billionaire Donald Sterling was exposed as a racist lout, "tellingly, James reacted forcefully on Twitter."

James is just one (very large) man, of course-and even a millennial monger needs more than a single millennial to instantiate an entire generation. Tanenhaus also offers quotes from those fresh-faced young folk who were brought in and photographed to illustrate his Times article. (A monger never has to reach far for material.) Again the moral sense overwhelms. In their conversations, he writes, "empathy was the theme." The empathy the millennials were eager to talk about was their own. A typical remark: "One said he hoped to succeed because 'the better you're doing, the more you can help other people.'?"

Pollsters call this "self-reporting"-a respondent characterizing his own intentions and tendencies and states of mind. It is a staple of generational analysis. A respondent tends to look pretty good when he describes himself; pollsters rarely hear a respondent say, for example, that when it comes to other people, he really doesn't give a damn. ("And you can quote me!") Indeed, for the generational analyst, the quickest way to determine how empathetic a millennial is, is to ask him. Most of the piles of data analysts use to prove the vastness of millennials' social conscience comes from the mouths of the millennials themselves. 

Now, a cynic might note that all this self-reported selflessness could as easily be counted as evidence of the famous millennial narcissism that Tanenhaus denies. Saints always consider themselves the most accomplished sinners, and vice versa. This is why the surge in Peace Corps applications was crucial to Tanenhaus's original portrait of Generation Nice: It betokened behavior in the real world rather than mirror-gazing. But the need to quantify is like a fever in the generational analyst. So Tanenhaus reaches for a basic text of millennial scripture, a 149-page report from the Pew Research Center, "Millennials: Confident, Connected, Open to Change," published in 2010. It is the summit of millennial mongering, a definitive exemplar of generational analysis. In it Pew claimed to unveil the "personality" of millennials, through polling data: They were "confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat, and open to change." Generation Really Nice.

The report's authors never make clear precisely how they were able to discern this personality in so many individual Americans, tossed together using nothing more than two arbitrary dates as boundaries-anyone born after 1980 but not after 1992. It is a cohort that embraces both the 32-year-old gay chemist who grew up orphaned in Compton, California, the divorced 26-year-old Iraq war veteran enrolled in a rural community college, and the 17-year-old pipehead sitting in his parents' $22,000 home theater in Scarsdale. Generational analysis is a lot like astrology. Personal traits are determined by date of birth. The categories aren't Libra or Capricorn or Aries but Generation X and the baby boom and, of course, Generation Nice, and the guides aren't bejeweled Gypsies behind beaded curtains but Ph.D.s in offices gleaming with flat screens and natural light. 

The Pew Research Center employs many sober-minded demographers, and the report contains hints here and there that they recognized the arbitrary absurdity of generalizing about unsearchably vast collections of individuals, simply by calling them a generation.

In a seldom-cited section called "Some Caveats," the authors first defend "generational analysis" as "often highly illuminating." And yet, they go on, "there is an element of false precision in setting hard chronological boundaries between the generations. . . . [T]here are as many differences in attitudes, values, behaviors and lifestyles within a generation as there are between generations." And even assuming such categories as "generations" exist in any identifiable sense beyond a chronological accident, "we can never disentangle completely the reasons generations differ."

These aren't caveats; they're disavowals. If the category called "a generation" isn't really a category, and if human life studied within the noncategories is too various to afford generalization, and if we can't know whether the nongeneralizations were caused by the arbitrary labeling of the categories, then .??.??. isn't this all rather pointless? Can't we just pack it in and go home? 

Well, no. Generational analysis is a journey, the Pew authors write. "We believe the journey is worth taking." At Pew, social scientists get paid by the mile. 

Mongers who rely on the Pew report never mention the Pew caveats, of course, so Tanenhaus doesn't either. Still, he must quantify, quantify. He cites more studies, studies that are little more than citations of other studies. Generational analysts live in a cozy little world; everybody helps everybody else, like Hobbits in the Shire. Tanenhaus invokes the heavyweight authority of the Brookings Institution, which manages to hold onto its reputation for intellectual integrity despite publishing "governance studies" such as "How Millennials Could Upend Wall Street and Corporate America." Like the Pew study, the Brookings paper identifies and explains what it calls "the unique millennial sensibility," thus burying with a single phrase two assumptions that are almost certainly untrue: that there is a meaningfully discrete entity called the millennial generation, and that it has a unique sensibility.

It's never pretty when journalists cross-pollinate with academics. The hacks, clutching "data" and "studies," take on the bogus authority of the eggheads, and the eggheads, startled by the thought that somebody might at last pay attention to their work, reach for the mindless sensationalism of the hacks. Entire segments of Good Morning America and the NBC Nightly News often result. Things only get worse when the academics and the journalists collide with marketing consultants, each of them appealing to the authority of the others. The sharp-edged world in which people live and act slips away, and a gauzy world of focus groups and surveys takes its place. 

Tanenhaus quotes Brookings as Brookings quotes the marketers. Again the theme is the selflessness of Generation Nice. Tanenhaus writes: "?'Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of millennials said they would rather make $40,000 a year at a job they love than $100,000 a year at a job they think is boring,' the Brookings Institution recently noted in a report."

From this odd but quite popular statistic we are to conclude that millennials reject the crass materialism of earlier generations for a simpler, humbler life. Unfortunately, on examination, the number yields nothing about the world or the millennials' relationship to it. It just tells us that an unspecified number of young people, at an unspecified time, were asked a strange question, and two thirds of them answered one way and not another. We don't know whether the respondents will in fact decline a $100,000 job in favor of another paying $40,000, and we don't know why they would do so if given the chance. We do know that two-thirds of them believe they might do so someday, or at least are willing to tell a pollster they believe it. A truer measure of their idealism and otherworldliness will come when they are actually faced with the unlikely choice. Until then the statistic may indicate nothing more than the youthful capacity for self-delusion. 

Or maybe not. Who knows? Where did the Brookings scholars get such a silly statistic anyway?

From what I can tell, generational analysts seldom follow the footnotes in the studies they cite, for the same reason that I never ask what's in a Nathan's hot dog. The Brookings scholars credit this statistic to an article in the Columbus Dispatch, which in turn cites a "study" by the "Los Angeles-based Intelligence Group, which studies generational trends." The Intelligence Group says its methods of producing its data are proprietary, so we will never know how it discovered that 64 percent
of millennials want to top out their careers at $40,000. But we can say a few things for certain about Brookings's go-to source for social science. Its name notwithstanding, The Intelligence Group is a branch of Creative Artists Agency, a talent agency for show business personalities. It has a chief strategy officer who says this: "Millennials want to make meaning, not just money"-and other sentences just like it. Its chief sociological discovery, after much research, is that millennials are "venture consumers."

Not to be outdone, the scholars at Brookings use the term "spend-shifters" to describe millennials. Neither coinage has solid meaning. Indeed, the true lesson of millennial mongering lies in how seamlessly the think-piece by a public intellectual in the Times blends into the scholarly study by a once-great think tank that relies for its data on a firm that uses phrases like "fauxsumerism" to attract corporate clients. None of them any longer speaks the language of cultural criticism or even of social science-it is the language of advertising, buck-hustling, commerce without end. They are Exhibit A, as Tanenhaus might say, of the tragic figures of our time, people paid to say something when they have nothing to say.

But what else did we expect? They’re all baby boomers. You know how they are.

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Andrew Ferguson is senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College.