Ten Years of Millennial Research: What I'd Do Differently

Ten Years of Millennial Research: What I'd Do Differently

It's finally here — the final Millennial Impact Report, the culmination of a decade of research conducted by the Case Foundation and research teams I led into cause behaviors of the generation born between 1980 and 2000.

Any project of that magnitude — we interviewed more than 150,000 millennials, held hours and hours of focus groups, compiled and analyzed reams of data, and wrote volumes of narrative — begs the question: Would we do it all over again?

Absolutely — albeit with some tweaks based on what we've learned.

When we launched the project in 2008 — and over most of the next ten years — making assumptions about millennials seemed to be a favorite pastime of many of the people we interviewed or spoke to. We heard that millennials were lazy and more entitled than any  generation before them. They believed they deserved big salaries right out of college, and when reality hit they moved into their parents' basement (still the most enduring cliché about young Americans in this age group).

Put it all together and you got the biggest assumption of all: there was no way millennials would want to get actively involved in causes.

When we set out to learn about millennials, it wasn't to prove (or disprove) our own assumptions; it was to better understand their real motivations and behaviors. So we designed the research process to be an ongoing journey of discovery. I wouldn't change a thing about that.

But in looking back at our journey, there are some things I wish we had explored further:

We ignored stereotypes  but did we miss part of the picture? Although we all were aware of the often superficial things said and published about millennials (how could we not be?), and maybe disagreed (or agreed) with some of it, we did our best to ignore the most egregious assumptions and clichés. While the data we collected disproved most of those stereotypes, we know millennials heard and were paying attention to them; in fact, they often were repeated  back to us in surveys and focus groups when we asked millennials how they thought others perceived them. Looking back at some of those sessions, I can't help but wonder whether and how much millennial stereotypes actually helped influence millennials' approach to causes and cause-related work.

Here's an example: we discovered that many survey respondents and focus group participants believed millennials were careful to discuss issues and causes only with close friends and, concerned that doing so could lead to tense conversations or nasty disagreements, were reluctant to share their opinions about such things with family or colleagues. Was that actual behavior they had observed, or were they simply recycling the stereotype of millennials as conflict-averse? And to what extent were non-millennials' perception of millennials influenced by exposure to such stereotypes? Today I not only wonder how much generational dynamics influenced the responses we collected, but how they might have affected the willingness of survey respondents and focus group participants to share their views — or "hear" the viewpoints of others.

We didn't examine how generations influence each other  and they do. We looked at what was happening in the moment and not necessarily how generations had influenced each other to arrive at that moment. The reality, of course, is that every generation is affected by and affects other generations.

Boomers, for example, didn't one day decide that they needed to work crazy hours to get ahead; they grew up with parents and grandparents who themselves had grown up during the Depression and imbibed that earlier generation's work ethic.

Gen X, labeled cynical and unfocused at first by parents and older siblings who didn't understand them, grew up and became entrepreneurs and passionate volunteers committed to more causes than any generation before them.

It shouldn't come as a surprise, therefore, that millennials were slapped with unflattering labels right out of the gate by career-focused boomers and entrepreneurial Xers. Members of both of those generations worked hard for their successes — even as they created new work cultures and ideas about work-life balance that millennials took advantage of.

We tracked behaviors  but didn't track who and what was influencing those behaviors. Nearly everyone possesses a certain degree of empathy, the very human impulse to help others. Whether we suppress this impulse or act on it often is a function of other aspects of — and people in — our lives. Over the ten years of the project, we inquired and tracked many cause-related behaviors, but we could have delved more deeply into the influences — or absence thereof — that drove them. 

If we are to create real, meaningful social change, it is important we understand the influences that shape (and challenge) our actions and engagement. That's why the research we're involved in now, Cause and Social Influence, is looking beyond individual behavior into the who, what, how, and why of influence. I look forward to sharing our findings in October!

In truth, no generation has ever lived up to the initial public persona foisted on it by previous generations, and generations being critical of each other is nothing new. Expressions like "In my day, we had to [fill in the blank]" or "We were lucky to [fill in the blank]" will always be part of the inter-generational conversation because...well, that's just human nature.

But thanks to the research we've been doing, we are beginning to understand that these generational generalizations are detrimental to the conversations we need to have if we are to advance the kind of change we all want to see. Millennials were never too lazy or self-centered to be politically aware and active, to volunteer for and give to causes, or to passionately want to create change that helps others live healthier, happier, and more fulfilling lives. And now, as they enter the most productive years of their lives, we can only begin to imagine what that change will look like. I, for one, can't wait to find out.

I encourage you to download the final Millennial Impact Report, Understanding How Millennials Engage With Causes and Social Issues: Insights From 10 Years of Research Working in Partnership With Young Americans on Causes Today and in the FutureAnd to stay abreast of our new research on influences, follow us at causeandsocialinfluence and @causeinfluence.

Derrick Feldmann (@derrickfeldmann) is the author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, the founder of the Millennial Impact Project, and lead researcher at Cause and Social Influence.

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January 21, 2019