Millennials: Shaping the Future

An Interview with Neil Howe

Keynote speaker for the 2007 American Camp Association National Conference Neil Howe brings his expertise as an author, economist, demographer, and media commentator on fiscal policy, retirement, and global aging to the table. In an exclusive interview with Camping Magazine, he shares his collective instinct for generational development and tells us in definitive terms what the new generation of teens is all about and how they will influence the camp community for years to come. They are the Millennials. Different from any previous generation, distinctive in thought, perceptive, and powerful . . . .

How do you define Millennials?

We define Millennials as the generation born in 1982 and later. Teenage Millennials are mostly the children of Boomers; preteen Millennials are mostly the children of Generation X. They are the grandchildren (or great-grandchildren) of the war-winning "greatest" (G.I.) Generation.

Every generation is born over a period of approximately twenty years. For example, Generation X was born between 1961-1981; Baby Boomers were born between 1943-1960. Each generation is uniquely shaped by its own location in history—formative eras shape each generation differently on a fundamental level, with a lasting effect on their collective personas.

The argumentative and values-obsessed Boomer generation (today squarely in midlife) started out as children during an era of postwar complacency, and then came of age during the Consciousness Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, an era of social turmoil and youth anger. The pragmatic and survivalist Generation X (today in their mid-20s to mid-40s) started out as children during the Consciousness Revolution, and came of age during the 1980s and 1990s, an individualistic era of market-driven free agency.

Millennials, too, have a distinctive location in history that has helped shape their collective persona. They started out as children in the 1980s, a decade that brought a new emphasis on family values, from magazine articles to books about the better treatment of children. Children were newly valued, and child protection became a social priority. "Baby on Board" stickers started appearing on minivans, the term "soccer mom" was coined, and there was a surge in home protection and security. Abortions and divorce rates receded, and new legislation was developed to protect kids. Youth behavioral trends started becoming more positive, including a dramatic decline in crime, risk taking, and teen pregnancies.

Around that time, the general image of childhood became more positive in popular culture. Cuddly baby movies (Three Men and a Baby, Raising Arizona) began replacing the evil-child movies of the 1960s and ‘70s (Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist). When Gen Xers were growing up, kids were rarely mentioned in politics—but by the 1980s, children's issues shot to the top of political agendas and have remained there since.

Are Millennial teens Generation X or Generation Y or neither?

A rule of thumb for generational change is that the new generation tries to excel in areas where their parent generations have fallen short. As a generation, Millennials share seven traits that differentiate them from Generation X and Boomers. These are introduced in the book Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation.

  • Special You would not have heard Generation X referred to as special—but older generations have inculcated in Millennials the sense that they are, collectively, vital both to the nation and to their families. Parents obsess endlessly over them, from the media glare surrounding the high school class of 2000, to the "helicopter parent" phenomenon, where children are hovered over even into college and the corporate world as they begin their careers. As Millennials absorb the message that they dominate America's agenda, they come easily to believe that their problems are the nation's problems—and unlike GenXers, they don't mind talking about themselves as a "generation."
  • Sheltered Americans have been tightening the security perimeters around Millennials ever since they first arrived, from the surge in child-safety devices to the post-Columbine lockdown of public schools, to the tight security at today's college dorms. As time passes, more protections are being added on—V-chips and "smart lockers," graduated licenses, bedroom spy cams. Parents feel that these special kids will always require special care, and Millennials have been accepting this protection with little resistance—unlike how Boomers would have reacted at the same age!
  • Confident Nine out of ten teens say they are personally happy and excited about their future, a figure that has been rising over the past fifteen years. More than four in five teens, (including 96 percent of minority teens) believe they will be financially more successful than their parents. Millennial teens are taking a longer view of the future and have faith that their generation can make the world a better place, not only for themselves, but for their children.
  • Team-Oriented Millennials are developing strong team instincts and tight peer bonds. Throughout their childhoods, there has been an upswing in community service, student juries, and collaborative sports. Kids are transforming technology itself into a group activity, powering up their IM and e-mail servers as soon as they touch a computer, and making themselves the most 24/7 peer-to-peer connected generation in history. As they get older, Millennials will continue to bring their collaborative strengths to the workplace, contradicting the Generation X stereotype of the competitive, individualistic free agent.
  • Conventional Millennials tend to be more conventional thinkers, moving towards the cultural center rather than pushing cultural boundaries. Creativity and originality are also less important to them than to prior generations—how many pop song remakes have you heard recently? Today's teenagers don't care as much who originally wrote it as whether or not they enjoy it. They tend to be comfortable with their parents' values, and they want to stay close to them. A recent Monster.com survey stated 60 percent of college seniors plan to live at home for a while after college. This shocks many of their Boomer parents, who were much more rebellious with their own G.I. Generation parents, and expected the same from their own children.
  • Pressured Many Millennials feel a "trophy kid" pressure to excel. Since the mid 1980s, "unstructured activity" has been the most rapidly declining use of time among primary-school kids, as they're pushed to take full advantage of the opportunities offered to them. This generation has become higher academic achievers but spend less time outdoors, and this has been the cause of health problems such as asthma and obesity. Even the specialization of athletics is worrisome. Left on their own, children are natural cross trainers, but pressured Millennials work hard to excel in one sport, and overuse injuries have increased. Camp can play a very positive role for Millennials in this area.
  • Achieving Higher standards have risen to the top of America's political agenda, and Millennials are taking academic achievement seriously. Most high school students today support standardized testing and higher standards, and believe that the best cure for classroom boredom is tougher curriculum. According to a recent LifeCourse/Crux survey, parents of Millennials overwhelmingly agree that kids push themselves harder than they did at that age. Millennials are showing more interest and improvement in math and science than in the arts or social sciences. At the same time, girls are taking a clear lead in academic achievement over guys—four out of seven college undergrads are now female.

What are the main issues with this generation that influence the camp environment?

There are three:

  • Helicopter parents Schools and camps have broadly been noticing the new phenomenon of "helicopter parents" who constantly hover protectively around their children. This is a very Millennial issue, and camps need to understand it and develop strategies for handling it on a day-to-day basis. When marketing programs, it's also important to target the parent and the child, as families make more and more joint decisions. Even the military recognized this. They realized you can't recruit Millennials without recruiting the parent.
  • Importance of a group When working with Millennials, it is essential to understand the importance of team thinking and team planning. This generation feels a sense of empowerment—they expect to do great things with the rest of their lives, and they expect to do them in collaboration with their peers. Camp is all about group work, learning social skills, and accomplishing tasks in a collaborative environment.
  • Over-programming (pressure) Millennials are used to structure; they have packed and programmed schedules. This is a big influence in the camp field. You may not be able to get these busy kids to attend two, full-week sessions—but you could pack quite a bit into a rapid-fire, three-day session. They are used to intense, heavily-scheduled experiences and often don't do as well if left alone to do their own thing. They are also achievers, and are more likely to want to take summer classes to get ahead academically or athletically.

What are common misconceptions about Millennials?

The biggest misconception about every new generation is that it will be an extension of the last generation. When Millennials first came along in the late 1990s, America's first assumption was that they would be like Generation X—more cynical, more individualistic, more into the edge, drugs, sex and crime, and alienation. They would be like Generation X on steroids. This is the farthest from the truth. In fact, we don't call them Generation Y; Millennials hate the name Generation Y, because it implies they will be simply an extension of Generation X.

What does diversity mean to this new generation of teens?

Millennials are a very diverse generation. They're the most numerous, affluent, and ethnically diverse generation in American history. Over 40 percent are nonwhite or Latino; at least 20 percent have one immigrant parent. For earlier generations, ethnic diversity was mainly about African American and Latino populations. In this generation, the ethnic diversity includes a mixture of people from all over the world: Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa, and so on.

One thing you will find with the Millennial Generation is that they believe they handle diversity better than the other previous generations. Racial issues are receding problems in their eyes. Their biggest concerns are issues related to class and income. These are touchy issues for Millennials. Some are hugely in debt. The divide now in incomes is more extreme than it was when the Boomers were in college.

Millennials are both campers and counselors—an important element of the camp industry—both as customers and employees. What should camp professionals know to help them work with this significant constituency?

Thinking of Millennials as employees . . . first of all, not just as customers but as employees as well, you need to market the job to Millennials and their parents. For example, Enterprise Auto now has a formal employment package that goes to the parent first. Hire the family. Everyone, then, will be on the same wave length. And, in the workplace, Millennials need structure. They are used to structure and need to know what is expected of them, when, and why. They don't handle open-ended job assignments well.

Life planning is also important. A Generation X counselor would think "this job is just for the summer." A millennial camp counselor will ask, "How does this fit into the broader architecture of my life?"

How will Millennial teens shape the future of this country?

To answer that more broadly, William Strauss and I have written Generations and The Fourth Turning. We approach this question primarily as historians. Throughout the history of the modern world, there is a tendency for types of generations to recur in a cycle. This is very marked in American society. Millennials most resemble the G.I. Generation (born 1901 to 1924). The G.I. Generation had a very special orientation to community and became a powerful, titanic political generation. G.I.s took us to the moon and led us through the cold war. We think the same thing is going on with this new generation of young people. There is a sense of optimism and civic engagement about them—with community service not only at an all-time high, but also required at many schools. As they come of age over the next two decades, they may strengthen civic institutions and social infrastructure, especially since we are approaching a moment of urgency in our country. Even today, in extreme old age, G.I.s retain some powerful connections with government and community. There is a pattern in our history of youth generations filling the social vacuum left by a generation that is passing away. What that means for camps is interesting when you think of the Millennial Generation attending camp. The G.I.s in their youth were the first Girls Scouts and Boy Scouts; in fact, they were the first great generation of organized young campers. The parallel is an interesting one.

Neil Howe is a well-known authority on generations in America, historian, economist, demographer, and co-author of Millennials Rising: The Next Generation.

Originally published in the 2007 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.