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Wally Bock's Monday Memo

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The Millennial Generation

Last week, Joanna, the daughter of the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, took an afternoon of her time to help me do car shopping. After driving me around and functioning as my car buying advisor, she went off to babysitting, which is one of several jobs that she's got.

Now, if you're thinking, "Wow, what a good kid. She sure is different than most teenagers," you're right and you're wrong.

You're right if you think that Joanna is a good kid. She's also smart and pretty sure of herself. She's got some values, too. She is a good kid. But she's not that different from lots of others in her generation.

You're wrong if you think that "She sure is different than most teenagers." The generalization you're working with came from the last couple of generations. It includes things like lots of youth crime, teen pregnancies and plummeting test scores.

None of those are true for Joanna's generation. Instead teen pregnancies and crime have been falling for the last decade, the time they've been teens. Test scores are going the other way, steadily upward. It seems that this is a group that's very different from their older brothers and sisters or Baby Boomers like me.

Joanna is part of what we're calling the Millennial Generation. That's the group born from around 1977 to 1995 or so. I'm imprecise here because there's not much agreement on exact dates, but the oldest of those are just graduating from college and entering the workforce. Others are moving through the teen years.

There's very little agreement on how many there are either. The estimates range between 60 and 74 million, but whatever number you choose, there are a lot of them, more than any generation except the Baby Boom.

That means that they are and will be a huge economic and social force. They may already be the most studied generation in history. All the major polling and market research firms, including Gallup, Yankelovich and Harris have studied them, along with a bevy of "trendspotting" firms and a clutch of academics.

Like any other generation, their perceptions and attitudes grow out of their own experience. Experiences and events that matter to you may not even appear on their radar.

A few weeks back Joanna and I were talking with some other folks. I mentioned the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. She said, "What's that?" She didn't know. Why should she? It happened before she was born. For Joanna and others born around the same time, the world has different reference points than it does for older folks.

The Kennedy Tragedy for them is the plane crash, not an assassination. Someone named George Bush has been on every national ticket but one since they were born. There have always been ATM machines and round the clock coverage of news and public affairs on cable. They've never used a bottle of White Out or heard a telephone actually "ring."

Here are the events that they remember based on a survey of high school seniors in the class of 2001.

  • Colombine Shootings
  • War in Kosovo
  • Oklahoma City Bombing
  • Princess Di's Death
  • Clinton Impeachment and Scandal
  • OJ Trial
  • Fall of Berlin Wall
  • Mark McGwire/Sammy Sousa homerun contest

They've been well cared for. Children seem to be valued and cared for most in alternating generations. These folks caught a generational wave where children are highly valued and they've benefited from the longest economic boom in history. When they were kids, they got four times the number of toys that their Boomer parents got just twenty years earlier.

Today, nearly six in ten Millenials aged 6-17 have a TV of their own. There are different estimates of the teenagers personal spendable income, but the lowest is $60 per week. Twenty-two percent of the older teens have their own checking account and forty-two percent have a credit card. So, they've got high expectations.

They've got confidence that they'll achieve those expectations, too. Some of that is the natural confidence of youth. Some of it comes from growing up in good economic times. According to the Harris Poll of the class of 2001, eighty-eight percent have established specific goals for themselves for the next five years and virtually all (ninety-eight percent) are sure they'll someday get to where they want to in life.

And where is that? The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA has surveyed college freshman for 35 years. They found the class entering in September 2000 to rank "status" the lowest that it's been in 23 years. The Harris poll of this year's graduates found ninety-seven percent saying that "doing work that allows me to have an impact on the world" is important.

All in all, they seem to be an interesting mix of ambition and practicality, with a solid underpinning of values. One of their biggest worries is reducing debt. Sixty-three percent of the college graduates believe they'll have to make some sacrifices to achieve those goals they have.

This is a connected generation. Joanna is online like virtually all the college grads, seventy-five percent of those aged 12-17, and half of those aged 9-11. If computers and net technology were bolted on to the lifestyle of their parents, and mastered by their older siblings, the Millennials have always had it in their world.

The net is their primary source of news. Eighty percent use the net frequently as an information source. The next closes sources are radio (fifty-seven percent) and television (fifty-five percent). Compare that with American adults in general who prefer TV (seventy-five percent) followed by radio, newspapers, magazines, and, last in line, the net.

For them, this technology is a natural part of life. Where my daughters, who are a little older than Joanna, used to chat on the phone with friends, Joanna has added instant messaging and email to the ways she stays in touch. My kids wanted their own phone line, Joanna has her own cell phone.

Here's an important distinction. My generation and the Millennials older siblings see the net as something they connect to. But Millennials see the net as a way to connect to the world and each other.

Being connected is important. If the Baby Boomer slogan is "Be all you can be," then the Millennial slogan might be "Be all we can be." And technology is just one of the ways to make it happen. Seventy-eight percent of those college graduates feel that the net has brought them closer to other people.

Other people, including family and friends and society as a whole are important to them. Seventy-one percent of those eligible voted in the 2000 presidential election. They've vocal about issues like civil rights and the environment.

So, what we've got is a bunch of bright, concerned, connected and technologically savvy kids that work and play well with others. And they're coming soon to a classroom or workplace near you.

This feature appeared on 2 July 2001

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