[Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from Generation Rising in the May/June 2014 issue of RELEVANT Magazine.
The controversial cover of Time magazine did not mince words. “Millennials are lazy, entitled, narcissists who still live with their parents” it declared. Though the teaser quote also included the line “Why they’ll save us all,” the article seemed more focused on the stinging name-calling than the actual ways millennials would rescue the world. Predictably, the piece was accompanied by an image of a young woman proudly taking a selfie with her smartphone. In the article, the case for calling those born between 1980-2000 the “Me Me Me” Generation is made painfully clear.
The gist of writer Joel Stein’s article is this: Born to boomers who overvalued their children’s self confidence, millennials have grown up with an insatiable sense of entitlement and a need for affirmation that has only been fueled by the social media revolution. He claims that the generation is stunted by being sheltered from hard work, are relationally awkward because they favor digital conversations over face-to-face interaction and are fame-obsessed from growing up in the reality TV era.
Though there may be some disagreement over the labels placed on the generations, many experts have agreed on a single point: Culture has created a new system of values.
The research of Dr. Jean Twenge, which is outlined in the book Generation Me (a new version is coming out this year), suggests that many factors not only left millennials in a difficult economic position, but also affected their values. Along with negative career and relationship consequences, Twenge, along with other generational researchers, began to notice another significant trend: Millennials were becoming less religious.
Research from the Barna Group confirmed what Twenge observed in Generation Me concerning millennials’ disinterest in church. According to Barna’s findings (measuring individuals born between 1984 and 2002), “nearly six in ten (59 percent) of these young people who grow up in Christian churches end up walking away from either their faith or from the institutional church at some point in their first decade of adult life.”
And beyond just inheriting a different set of culture values, millennials’ distrust in the Church may not just a case of believing differently. It may stem from having seen enough to know better than to put too much faith in systems that are prone to failure.
Millennials were, for the most part, raised in an era of unprecedented economic prosperity, without the knowledge of a major war and during a time when evangelical leaders held an important place in pop culture and politics. But in the period of a decade—in the years they were reaching adulthood—they saw four major institutions begin to show their weaknesses.
The economy, and the financial institutions that fueled it, suffered the worst recession in decades starting in the summer of 2007 during the housing market collapse. The government has become a polarizing game of politics and empty promises, evidenced by the Congressional approval hitting its lowest number in recorded history during our lifetime (it was just 10 percent in 2012, the lowest mark since Gallup began taking the approval poll). America itself, once a seemingly invincible superpower that had just navigated nearly two decades of relative peace, was now embroiled in two wars after the then unthinkable attack on 9/11. And the Church saw major leaders fall to scandal as culture wars created social divisions.
A large portion of a generation became disillusioned by the drama.
Author and speaker Shane Claiborne says the current state of the world—with many of its problems created by powerful institutions—has made millennials wary of institutions, and instead more reliant on the efforts of individuals. “We’ve seen what an individual can do on their own,” he says. “So whether it’s the Church, or the government or whatever, I think we go, ‘Man, can you imagine what would really happen if those resources were leveraged for good?’”
And though unemployment numbers are still relatively high and the pop culture message increasingly blurry, there are non-traditional indicators that suggest that the future for millennials—and the Church—is bright. Tech innovations, altruistic entrepreneurial business models like buy-one-give-one products and a renewed focus of on creating churches that give back to communities, have, in many cases, been helmed by millennials unsatisfied with the status quo.
In each of those cases, the new innovation that is ushering in major social and cultural changes were born out of the same factors that have shaped millennial values—for better or for worse. Social media (with it’s focus on creating community), altruistic innovations (with their unflinching commitment to improving the world) and new church movements (with their dissatisfaction with a self-serving infrastructure) would all be impossible without the belief that a collection of individuals are capable of great things.
Change Is Coming
Yes, the parents who raised millennials may have created some unrealistic expectations, but they also planted the seeds that made them believe that change was possible. And, because of a recession that crippled the jobs market, many millennials have turned to their own talents to create new businesses that reflect fresh values and ideas.
Even with factors like debt, negative cultural messages and a world full of dysfunctional institutions, for millennials, perseverance seems to be the primary challenge. When asked about what advice they would have for millennials striving to change the world today, the experts all answered the same: Don’t give up.
Claiborne emphasizes that part of not giving up on their own futures is not giving up on the institutions that have failed in the past.
“Part of what we cannot give up on is that the Church continues to be God’s primary instrument for changing the world,” he says. “The early Christians had an adage that, ‘If we don’t have the Church as our mother, we can’t have God as our father.’ I think being honest about our dysfunctional parents within the Church is important, but also to love her back to life and try to change what needs to be changed.”
And even though her research suggested that in some cases, the deck has been stacked against “Generation Me,” Dr. Twenge says as long as they can overcome the idea they alone are tasked with changing the world, millennials can actually make a difference.
“The first thing is just realize that when you were told, ‘Believe in yourself and anything was possible’ that you were lied to,” she says. “And if you’re angry about that, you’re not the only one. Realize that, however, believing that you can go out there, work hard and have an impact, that actually is true.
“But it’s not about self-belief. It’s about motivation. And it’s about hard work, and it’s about starting somewhere.”
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.