Today’s young Americans are less environmentally conscious—and often less civic-minded overall—than previous generations.

Are today’s Millennial generation altruistic and civic-minded or materialistic and self-absorbed?  In the latest installment: a study that says the popular view of young adults as more caring, interested in social issues and concerned about the environment compared to previous generations is mostly false.

Published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the study finds Millennials (born 1982-2000) more civically and politically disengaged, more focused on materialistic values, and less concerned about helping the larger community than were GenX (born 1962-1981) and Baby Boomers (born 1946 to about 1961) at the same ages.

It does find “some good trends,” such as a rise in volunteering and a decline in prejudice based on race, gender, and sexual orientation — the result of more individualism, says Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, one of the study’s authors.

But even the good news about volunteering comes with a caveat: “it has this outside force working on it —school requirements,” says Twenge, author of the 2007 book, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before.

While “there are certainly individual exceptions” to this image of young adults, she says, “overall, the pattern is pretty clear.The trend is more of an emphasis on extrinsic values such as money, fame, and image, and less emphasis on intrinsic values such as self-acceptance, group affiliation and community.”

The study is based on an analysis of two nationally representative databases of 9 million high school seniors or entering college students that asked about life goals, concern for others and civic involvement.

The surveys were the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study of high school seniors, conducted continuously since 1975, and the American Freshman survey, conducted by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute of entering college students since 1966.

In the freshman survey, the proportion of students who said being wealthy was very important to them increased from 45% for Baby Boomers (surveyed between 1966 and 1978) to 70% for Gen X and 75% for Millennials. The percentage who said it was important to keep up to date with political affairs fell, from 50% for Boomers to 39% for Gen X and 35% for Millennials.

“Developing a meaningful philosophy of life” decreased the most, across generations, from 73% for Boomers to 45% for Millennials. “Becoming involved in programs to clean up the environment” dropped from 33% for Boomers to 21% for Millennials.

“People forget that the environment was a big issue in the ’70s and ’90s” and over time “it’s gone down in interest, says Twenge.

Political scientists Michael Hais and Morley Winograd, authors of two books on Millennials, Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America (2011) and Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube and the Future of American Politics (2008), take issue with the study’s interpretation.

“It focuses on attitudes rather than on behavior. We believe behavior is a better indicator of core beliefs,” says Hais.

Higher voting rates, increased volunteerism after high school, and the types of jobs young adults are seeking are some of the indicators of Millennial behavior focused on fixing societal problems, says Winograd.

They also question the idea that intrinsic goals are inherently good and extrinsic goals inherently bad. “Saying you want to be well off doesn’t necessarily make one a narcissist or mean that you don’t want to help others or don’t care for your community,” says Hais. “It doesn’t say that’s the only value they have.”

Twenge says her findings are not intended as criticism of Millennials: “They reflect the culture, and young people show the changes in the culture the strongest.”

Still, she says, results “need to be taken seriously in terms of their impact on having a generation less interested in helping the community.”

Photo credit:  eSchool News

Via USA Today