THE BLOG

Don't Underestimate the Millennials

06/19/2014 03:19 pm ET | Updated Aug 19, 2014
  • Dr. Ricardo Azziz Regents' Professor, Augusta University (AU); former founding president, Georgia Regents University (now AU) and former founding CEO, Georgia Regents Health System

What do you think when you hear "millennial generation"?

If you're tuned in to either traditional or new media, the words that come to mind are probably not so good: perhaps self-absorbed, shallow, lazy, in debt, in trouble?

Though there is no single agreed-upon definition, the term millennial generation generally refers to today's mid-teens to early-30s adults. I have three younger millennials at home myself, and occasionally one or more of those descriptors may indeed apply.

But more so than past generations at that age? I don't believe so, and research is increasingly providing a more balanced and nuanced portrait of a generation of young people who are --ready or not -- poised to change the world.

Challenges

There's no denying the Great Recession has hit this generation hard. In 2012, 36 percent of Americans ages 18-31 lived in their parents' home, the highest share in at least four decades. Sixty-three percent had jobs, compared to 70 percent just five years earlier. A closer look at the generally positive Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) April jobs report shows unemployment in this cohort at 9.1 percent compared to the overall rate of 6.3 percent. When factoring in discouraged workers who have quit looking, it goes up to 15.5 percent. In the fourth quarter of 2012, about 15 million Americans under age 30 carried a combined $322 billion in student debt; in early 2005, 11 million Americans under 30 carried less than half that amount, $144 billion. And these economic realities have caused them to defer plans that previous generations took for granted: marrying, starting a family, buying a home.

With statistics like these, it wouldn't be surprising if millennials also topped out in Prozac prescriptions. Yet recent research reveals a generation in jeopardy mostly of being underestimated.

Who Are They?

A 2010 Pew research survey report described them as "confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and open to change." A new book co-authored by veteran pollster John Zogby claims they are "the best equipped of all to thrive and solve the problems of our shared world today and tomorrow." There are 70 million of them -- their sheer numbers alone mean they will heavily influence our collective future. So let's stop painting our young adults with a broad negative brush, and let's take a closer look.

Every generation becomes defined in part by transforming events and developments. The Zogby book identifies the 9/11 attacks and the Great Recession as among the most significant for millennials, and the Pew study adds that this generation is the first with 24/7 global connectivity.

These and other events have helped shape a generation nimble with new and fast-changing technologies, comfortable with public self-expression, skeptical of human nature, accomplished at multi-tasking, and markedly global in outlook.

They may balk at a typical 40-hour workweek, but that's at least in part because they are the first to grow up with the 24-hour connectivity that blurs work and home life for many of us. They are our most diverse generation, and our most socially tolerant. More have traveled abroad than any other age group, and they are much less likely to rate other cultures as inferior to ours. According to Zogby, two-thirds of them have passports -- compared to one-third of Americans overall.

And they are on track to becoming the most highly educated generation in our history. Partly because job scarcity has propelled more into graduate school, no doubt. But also, today's college diploma is as necessary as yesterday's high school diploma in our increasingly knowledge-based economy. As a recent Pew study made starkly clear, millennials see the relative value of a college degree first hand:

"On virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment -- from personal earnings to job satisfaction to the share employed full time -- young college graduates are outperforming their peers with less education. And when today's young adults are compared with previous generations, the disparity in economic outcomes between college graduates and those with a high school diploma or less formal schooling has never been greater in the modern era."

Educated, adventurous, tolerant, and connected -- sounds pretty promising. Our national leaders and nation's educators must work to better understand this generation's needs, approaches, and long-term goals in order to effectively craft our engagement with them, including our educational programming.