The Common Good

How Do We Engage Young Millennials?

As part of the rollout for "Millennial Values Survey" from Public Religion Research and the Berkley Center, I sat at Georgetown University and listened to a very long list of what pollsters think makes up college-age millennials. I’m in the right age bracket, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what a difference just a few years makes.

I’m part of the millennial generation, albeit at the high end of the spectrum. At 29, my attitudes and behaviors look completely different to those on the lower end. Part of it, of course, is phase of life. I’m a professional, married, with a few life experiences under my belt. Most of the respondents of the survey are in college or recently graduated—half live with their parents.

In discussing the survey results with a 23-year-old friend, we worked through both obvious and subtle differences. Some key characteristics of this cohort, and perhaps the beginning of ideas to engage them, surfaced. 

1.    Their lives are shaped by 9-11.

I watched the Twin Towers fall with my friends huddled around a TV  in my freshman dorm. I was already an adult of sorts, finding comfort in friends and professors instead of my parents. I had the thought capacity to try to understand the implications of the event myself. While 9-11 changed my life, I remember life—and politics—before it.

Young millennials were in primary-to-middle school on 9-11. Their parents grappled with ways to explain terrorism to them. They don’t have a “good ole days” of politics. Their first foray into political discussions centered on threat levels and preemptive war and weapons of mass destruction.

If you knew nothing of politics pre-9-11, what would your political activity look like?

2.    They’re highly self-critical.

The “Millennial Values Survey” asked the respondents to compare their generation to their parents. An overwhelming number of responses (40 percent) were negative. They described themselves as lazier, less moral, selfish, entitled, and more.  Only 19 percent of the responses were positive.

I don’t know what it is about the older end of the generation, but my contemporaries love themselves. Others may call us lazy and selfish, but it would take a lot to convince us. The younger group’s self-deprecating mentality is vastly different than what we’re used to, but it’s very telling.

One attendee at the survey release asked if this negative characteristic correlated with the fact that half of the respondents live with their parents. (Touché.) But whatever the reasoning, this has implications across the board, from how we engage this group politically to how we present the Gospel.

3.    They’re coming of age in a broken economy.

This is one of the more obvious realities of this generation. While it was certainly difficult for me to get started in my career path post-college, I largely attributed it to the fact that I chose journalism.

The under-24 crowd has all kinds of cards stacked against them. Forget getting a position in their career field; it was probably difficult for them to find an unpaid summer internship.

According to the survey, 45 percent of young millennials say that the American Dream—the idea that if you work hard, you’ll get ahead—no longer holds true. One in ten say it was never true.

If someone believes that no matter how hard you work, you won’t necessarily get ahead, what does that do to their work ethic? While I won’t say they have none, I believe this group of young people is struggling to find a new definition of success.

4.    They live in an environment of religious pluralism.

Their best friends are Hindu. Their classmates are Catholics from Mexico. Their roommates worship Allah. And they all have lunch together.

One of the more telling portions of the event was when college sophomore Abigail Clauhs said her generation has “a complicated relationship with religion, but we know how we feel about people.”

This group craves community but doesn’t establish it along the traditional lines of faith and ethnicity. What happens when you try to teach the one-way-to-heaven Gospel in this complicated environment? We can’t dilute the doctrine, but maybe we need a new approach.

These are just a few of the many interesting characteristics of college-age millennials. It will take a lot of thought and deep examination to sift through the implications, both for churches and for the political process.

What is clear is that new modes of thinking are essential to approach a generation that has been devastated by their examples of Christianity and political leadership. 

Sandi Villarreal is Web Editor for Sojourners. Follow her on Twitter @Sandi.

Image: Young Millennials, Brocreative/Shutterstock.com

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